'China's Second Continent' tells the fascinating yet alarming story of China's economic colonization of Africa

Journalist Howard W. French travels through Africa to meet up with some of the one million Chinese migrants now living and working there.

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    China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa,
    by Howard W. French,
    Knopf Doubleday,
    304 pp.
    View Caption

In the annals of modern colonialism and hegemony, few phenomena are as intriguing as China’s aggressive movement into Africa, where, according to Howard W. French in China’s Second Continent, approximately one million Chinese have now migrated. In his important new book, French weaves a rich tapestry of anecdotes, interspersed with numerous interviews with Chinese migrants and Africans alike, offering readers an eminently fair, occasionally humorous and sympathetic, but always engaging account of this unconventional relationship.

French, who previously wrote about Africa for The New York Times and The Washington Post and who is fluent in Chinese, notes several motives for Chinese migration to Africa: wider economic opportunity, improved quality of life, and comparatively less corruption chief among them. Also encouraging this migration is China’s government under leader Xi Jinping, who understands that Africa presents a great opportunity for growth and new markets. The Chinese government is also savvy about recognizing that Africa has been largely ignored by the West and has been proactive in exploiting the void left by Europe and the United States.

Africa, in French’s view, has now attained a relative political stability, and with arguably the most arable land in the world and an extraordinary supply of natural resources – including copper, gold, diamonds and other commodities – the continent offers Chinese expatriates opportunities for entrepreneurship that wouldn’t exist in what many call their own “corrupt,” “overcrowded,” and “overly-polluted” homeland.

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Significant investment from the Chinese government has helped large, government-owned companies to gain a foothold in this new land; but French is emphatic that much of the shaping of China’s future in Africa has come from smaller actors who are, in their own way, architects of this budding intercontinental relationship.

Inevitably, there have been culture clashes, with African criticism that Chinese entities are exploiting local industries and natural resources a frequent occurrence. Language barriers and difficult negotiations with local governments have also presented significant challenges to the Asian arrivals. However, French's book is full of examples of resilient Chinese migrants who have successfully pursued opportunities in this new frontier.

One of the more lively individuals French interviews is Hao Shengli, a settler in Mozambique who has acquired a large swath of land for growing tobacco and other crops. His outsized personality is revealed through salty language peppered with obscenities and racial and sexual biases. Having experienced multiple business failures in China, Hao represents the purest essence of the “cowboy” mentality – a rugged individualist who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and who sees the indigenous population chiefly as an obstacle to be overcome – though he also reserves pointed criticism for the government of his native land, which he considers fundamentally corrupt, as well as his fellow Chinese migrants, whom he doesn’t necessarily trust.

Zambia is French’s next stop – one of the leading copper producing nations of the world. It is something of a foregone conclusion that China, which accounts for 40% of the world’s copper demand, would have a compelling interest in Zambia’s future. By French’s estimate, there are presently over 100,000 Chinese settlers in Zambia, making it one of China’s largest migrant communities in Africa. And China’s investment has helped buoy Zambia’s economy and made possible an African middle class that collectively has numbered over 300 million and is larger than that of India. Even so, Zambia has been the flashpoint for much of the continent’s political debate and labor unrest about these new Chinese arrivals.

Outside of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, French meets with Hu Renzhong, a pig and poultry producer. He owns a “mansion farmhouse” and his farm is equipped with “impressively modern” breeding pens and chicken hatcheries. He relocated from China’s Jiangxi province in the mid-1990s and made a fortune by raising chickens and buying large plots of land. Hu asserts to French, “Things had started developing really fast back home and a lot of people tried to tell me I’d made a mistake. But I’ve never really looked back.”

Yang Bohe runs a copper-processing plant in nearby Ndola. Like Hao Shengli, he had suffered the repressions of China’s Cultural Revolution and was also seeking a fresh start in a new land. Yang is a rarity among the Chinese migrants in that he speaks English, and wistfully tells how he was befriended by a teacher in Chengdu who, at considerable risk to himself, gave Yang three pages of a Bible each day to memorize before he burned them.

Yang eventually financed and built a copper smelter in Ndola, which was fantastically successful; but the air was routinely filled with particulates, and that only exacerbated a common Zambian complaint about the Chinese – they won’t hire local labor for many jobs and segregate themselves from the indigenous population. Repeating a common prejudice, Yang asserts “They are rich in land. And Zambians have good bodies. The problem is they cannot work hard.” But French is equally surprised when he asks Yang about other Chinese in Ndola. “I don’t talk to the other Chinese here," he tells French. "I mind my own business.”

Chinese industrial and community projects in Lusaka, including a 159-bed hospital and a new 45,000 seat stadium, have dulled local antagonisms, but bubbling just under the surface is heated resentment by Zambians over the low pay, 13-hour workdays, and hazardous working conditions that they believe have been responsible for the deaths of numerous laborers. The Chinese themselves practice a certain degree of workplace safety; but often, the local laborers are afforded no protection from chemicals or the toxic air a plant emits. And to add insult to injury, Chinese human rights abuses at Zambia’s Collum and Chambisi mines in the first decade of the millennium were practically ignored by Zambian President Rupiah Banda’s government, which appeared to have sold out to China’s considerable economic power. It’s a constantly recurring theme in French’s book.

In Senegal, one of Africa’s most vibrant merchant cultures, Chinese shops have become all but commonplace, which, as in Zambia, has resulted in a swift backlash from the local population that considers this a “colonization” of their retail sector. French next encounters Li Jicai, a highly successful import-export business owner in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Seeking to break into a trade that was previously populated by Lebanese, Li says he found he had to thoroughly research the region’s history. He tells French, “When I first came, I sensed that trade was very poorly developed. I sold clothes. I sold shoes. I sold merchandise. Basically, I sold whatever I could. For me, understanding Africa became a matter of understanding economics. It became my teacher.” Taking note of Li’s success, others soon after made the exodus from Henan to Dakar.

In Dakar’s avenue of La Centenaire, Chinese merchants man stalls alongside those of the wary Senegalese. French chats up one of the Henan migrants, Liu, who is quick to voice his displeasure with the locals. “How will they develop with the kind of education they have here? Look at China. We are putting people into space. We are developing our technologies. We are inventing things and competing with the rich countries. But these people, they are impossible to teach.… They just don’t learn.” But this is also a harsh economic environment for the Chinese, many of whom are forced to return home after financial failure. Liu complains of crime in Dakar, suggesting that Chinese are primary targets. Also, some vulnerable Chinese women like Chen, who migrated to Senegal largely out of desperation, have been subjected to sexual trafficking.

On a flight to Liberia, French meets a spirited young woman from Guangdong province named Jin Hui. This woman is “seized ... with her own cultural observations about [Liberia], a litany of condescending views involving sloth and filth and laziness on the part of its inhabitants.” For French, countries like Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, which were enmeshed in the so-called “dirty wars” of the 1990s and 2000s, illustrate the divergent paths Africa may follow in the future, and the significant role China could play there. African countries with stable democracies will use their relationship with China to gain investment and thrive economically on the robust Chinese demand for their exports. But on the other hand, countries with a tradition of dictatorship and internal strife are more likely to sell their mineral riches to China and fail to seize the opportunity to profit beyond the extraction of those riches. In other words, those who have diversified their economies will succeed; those who haven’t will fail.

French quotes the writer Graham Greene, whose description of Liberia’s unique brand of “seediness” has since, in French’s estimation, given way to wretchedness. Liberia was a 19th-century creation of the US, and is, in French’s mind, “the closest thing America had ever had to an African colony.” He suggests that even with the remarkable industriousness, energy, and enterprise of Chinese migrants, nothing in the way of progress for Liberia seems possible.

One of French’s contacts in Monrovia, a hotel owner named Li Jiong, picks up French in his late-model Mercedes Benz and immediately starts in on politics. “The Americans give a lot of money to this country, but it just gets wasted. It never reaches the people. China has learned from that.” He continues, “We don’t give away money. We build things. That way, the people can see impact.” Returning to Li’s hotel, French finds he doesn’t have a towel in his room. Li, after having a colleague bring him one, asserts, “We don’t usually give them out because most Chinese bring their own. They wouldn’t want to use one that a black person might have used.”

Li then waxes on about his hotel and his trade in iroko trees, as well as his nuli, or self-application, and his destiny, or yuan fen, to get rich in Africa: “I have a yuan fen because I work hard. That’s why I have a house like this and a car and other businesses. Without hard work, destiny is meaningless.” He then goes on about the Liberians, “The people in charge have no idea what they’re doing. How else could you have 80 percent unemployment? How else could they be unable to feed themselves well?” And overhearing French’s angry phone call with Kenya Airways about his lost luggage, Li opines, “Black people are not good at getting things done.… Their customs were formed back when there was no telephone and no highway. It’s very easy for them to put anything that’s not immediate out of mind.” This plays into French’s assessment of the Chinese he meets in Liberia: “There were notes of ignorance about Africans and their circumstances, and palpable naїveté. There was also a kind of optimism and self-belief that was striking, if perhaps equally naïve.”

Reinforcing some of the stereotypical assessments by the Chinese of the Liberians was Dr. Dai, who manages a Chinese health clinic outside of Monrovia. He says he doesn’t hire Liberians because they are “dirty and lazy and prone to stealing.” He adds, “The patients don’t like them. I’ve had white people – a German diplomat, for example – tell me directly: ‘I trust your work and your hygiene, but if there were blacks here I couldn’t use your clinic.’ This is not something I can do anything about. I can’t change the thinking of white people.” French thinks to himself, “This was a reasonably clever, if unconvincing, formulation, a bid to launder his image a bit by projecting his prejudices upon others.”

While visiting Conakry, Guinea, French encounters electricity problems, traffic jams and throngs of military police, and these factors, among others, cause him to compare the $5-billion contract China has offered Guinea (infrastructure improvements in exchange for China’s unfettered access to iron ore, bauxite and oil exploration rights) with the $6 billion offered for a 20-year access to Congo’s mineral reserves – both former dictatorships that represented the downward path French had previously mentioned.

Amadou Dano Barry, French’s Guinea companion and an academic at the University of Conakry, explains the dynamic of China in the country: “These things tend to work for the Chinese in Africa. That’s because Africans have not mastered management. Our leaders are lazy and their attitude is that the detailed stuff is too complicated.” Assessing the Chinese themselves, Barry adds, “The Chinese come and they want your iron, your bauxite, your petroleum. In return, they’ll deliver you turnkey projects, where they supply the materials, the technology and the labor, with salaries that are mostly not paid in the country and do not contribute to the economy.” China has long financed such projects in places like the Congo and Guinea without regard to their internal affairs, and this has earned the Chinese considerable criticism in much of the rest of the world.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, civil war decimated the country; but as soon as the Nigerians had driven rebels from the city, Chinese businessmen come into Freetown and successfully negotiated the acquisition of the Bintumani, the grand hotel that had been badly damaged and looted in the conflict. Before long, they completely restored the hotel, and this was the beginning of Freetown’s resurgence. Chinese road-building companies then came in and won contracts away from the Italian and Senegalese companies that had been doing the work before.

This activity, as French notes, presages a well-hewn Chinese strategy: “to take control of and revive a collapsed mining industry that sat on immense reserves of iron, rutile, titanium and many other industrial metals.” Chinese companies China Railways Materials and later the Shandong Iron and Steel group have lately partnered with Romanian industrialist Frank Timis, to gain 25,000 square kilometers of land that contains iron deposits estimated at one billion tons.

While in Freetown, French met with Joseph Rahall, head of an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Green Scenery, that was engaged in building Sierra Leone’s civil society. Rahall observes, “The Chinese work in a very peculiar manner. They prefer to deal directly with the president and to make a spectacular gesture, and that is that. They don’t go for any public discussion, and they won’t give importance to many international norms, or to civil society, or to principles like democracy. That is the backdrop to some of their big deals in the country – not just iron, but also for oil and timber.” He continues that where the West wags its finger at you, calling your corrupt, the Chinese are there. This was the so-called “Chinese alternative”; in Rahall’s opinion, you are “stuck between the devil [the West] and the deep blue sea.” This, together with Sierra Leone’s weakness in dealing with domestic corruption, makes for particularly attractive economic opportunities, such as the Timis deal, for China.

Chinese economic incursions into Mali and Ghana follow a similar pattern. Faliry Boly, a farmer and “precocious” political mind in Bamako, Mali, has witnessed and studied the Chinese involvement in his country since the fall of the country’s long socialist dictatorship and the establishment of one of the first democratic governments in the region. He recalls a meeting with a representative of the French Communist party in the late 1990s: “He said the Chinese are coming and they are very enterprising, so you must be careful. I [Boly] told him that the Chinese were predators in the same way that the French were. The only difference is that the Chinese theft is the theft of an office clerk. A long time will go by before you understand what has befallen you.”

And speaking to French, Boly reinforces that image of the Chinese: “China has a means of advancing which is different from that of the West. They are like a boa: it observes its prey quietly, taking its time. In the same way, the Chinese are waiting for a long-term return. They’re waiting for a maximal result.”

Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence, from Britain, in 1957. It is country rich in natural resources, including gold, cocoa and oil, and has a relatively stable political system. China proposed “in-kind” financing an overhaul of Ghana’s infrastructure for a share of their oil profits. It is the kind of deal, French asserts, that increases the likelihood of Ghana being undercompensated for their oil or other reserves over the long term due to China’s locking in discounts against price increases.

As French was meeting with Edward Brown of the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), Ghana’s president John Atta Mills returned from Beijing, having concluded “a memorandum of understanding” for a $13 billion Chinese loan package that he said would “transform our country’s economy and the lives of the people of Ghana.” China’s investment in Ghana is wide-ranging, including transmission pipelines bringing natural gas from newly exploited offshore fields in the west of the country, hydroelectric dams and water supply and rural electrification projects. There is to be an aluminum refinery capable of producing two million tons of the metal per year, and new roads would be rehabilitated and built.

But conversely, while interviewing Ghana’s King Wuo, French learns of a $622 million loan China made to Ghana to relocate three Ghanaian villages prior to the creation of the Akosombo Dam. The result, French concludes, “conformed to a general pattern in Africa where most of the money China lends ends up in the pockets of Chinese contractors and suppliers.” In short, host countries like Ghana see very little tangible benefit from such “beneficence.”

Next, French interviews Kwadwo Tutu, a senior economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Ghanaian think tank, who sums up his appraisal of outsiders’ (including China’s) involvements in Ghana: “If we continue on this way, it is only a matter of time before the new oil discoveries that people are celebrating will be finished, and our children will not have benefited.” French also observes that many Ghanaians have complained liberally that the Chinese had engaged in illegal mining, cutting down forests, and despoiling the land with mercury to produce their gold. They also complain about shoddy Chinese products, and the Chinese propensity for bribery and corruption.

China’s biggest construction project in Ghana is the Bui Dam. The Chinese company overseeing its construction, Sinohydro, follows a well-rehearsed script honed in similar, previous dealings throughout Africa, thoroughly lacking in transparency about its dealings.  Though it is presently engaged in over 70 dam projects throughout Africa, Sinohydro provides scant public information and keeps the media at arm’s length. Whereas in Africa there is a demand by opposition parties and civic groups that their governments disclose details of such projects, it is routinely not the case with Chinese initiatives.

In his travels to Tanzania, Mali, Namibia, Mozambique, wherever, French’s anecdotes seemed to follow a similar template. The players might change, but the narrative is repetitive. In his meeting with the Chinese commercial attaché in Mozambique, French is told that the country’s obstacle to feeding itself is “cultural.” The representative adds, “Chinese people can really chi ku [eat bitter].… In Chinese, we say that if you are hungry or cold you have to do something about it.… Chinese people are in a hurry to work, to earn money, to get rich. If they are farmers, they make every day count. Here, it’s not the same. Africans like to dance. That’s their specialty. They may be poor, but they are happy.” In thinking to himself how many times he has heard this tired refrain in his travels, French muses, “China had not so much broken from the paternalism of the West that it so often decried, as replaced it with one of their own.” The Chinese have not thought of the Africans as equals, but rather as their “ children, capable of only baby steps to be brought along with sugary inducements and infantilizing speech.”

In the book's epilogue, French ponders how this Chinese dynamic in Africa resembles traditional interpretations of imperialism. He determines that “China, for all its denials of any global ambition that could be likened to hegemony, is clearly competing with someone and for something – global preeminence. The outright size of many of China’s projects in Africa have served to remind the world of China’s reach, power, generosity and solicitude.” Also, as was once true of Western powers in Africa, China’s focus on infrastructure in Africa is important to each country’s development, but also makes it possible for China to more easily transport resources out of those countries. For example, French notes, “the Portuguese had understood the potential of a diaspora in a faraway land to build up favorable trading networks, to extend political influence, and even to reduce problems back home, by giving marginal elements of society a shot at wealth and redemption.”

"China’s Second Continent" is a searing, trenchant, and entertaining study of how China, in both an individual and collective sense, is shrewdly and opportunistically maximizing its relationships with African nations in an effort to extend its economic influence across the world. The infrastructure projects China underwrites in these African nations, though they may be of temporary benefit to the host countries, provide China with untold riches in the form of raw materials. They also smooth the path to a hegemony on that continent that the Chinese government – despite its denials – has embraced.   

Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.

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