Veteran journalist discusses his work in China, Africa

Rosemary Pennington – Indiana University

Copyright Indiana University
At the beginning of Thursday night’s talk about China’s growing economic influence in Africa, veteran New York Times journalist Howard French outlined what is a nightmare scenario for some.
“Fast forward 20 years,” French told an audience of about 50 people in the Ernie Pyle Auditorium. “It’s 2026 and China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.”
French was on campus for the talk as well as to participate in this weekend’s “China in Africa” conference organized by African Studies and the East Asian Studies Center, who also co-sponsored French’s talk at the School of Journalism.
His scenario featured a future where the preferred second language the world over is no longer English, but Chinese. A future where Chinese long words make their way into native tongues. A future where the global economy rises, and falls, with China.
While that has yet to be realized on a global level, a glimpse of what Chinese economic dominance would be like can be found on a smaller level in what may seem to be a surprising place: Africa.
“China is flooding Africa in a way the West has failed to do so,” French said. And by flooding, French means Chinese are pumping billions of dollars into projects in places like Nigeria and Ethiopia, Angola and Sudan. In return for their investment in African development, the Chinese gain access to the rich natural resources abundant in many of those same nations.
Freshman Hillary Combs, who is considering majoring in journalism, said she was surprised to hear how involved China is in Africa.
“It’s definitely something I’ll be following from here on,” Combs said, “but I didn’t know much about it until tonight.”
French places Combs’ lack of knowledge firmly at the feet of the news media.
“No one is really writing about this,” he said.
While Combs may pay more attention to Chinese investment in Africa, that investment could prove to be a double-edged sword, French said. Unlike the West, China typically does not attach strings to its development aid. While that means easier access to ready cash for underdeveloped African nations, it also means there’s no incentive for the less development-minded of the continent’s leaders to put that money to good use for their people.
“I hope for the best,” French said. “I really do. No one wants to see Africa, 50 years from now with 2 billion people and in a worse place than it is right now. That would just be a nightmare.”
Howard French
Photo by Shanna Rottinger
Though he has written extensively on the topic, French said the media largely have left untold the story of China’s investment in Africa.
From fiction to news to photography
French came to know Africa while in college. His family moved there while he was in school and after he graduated in the early 1980s, he moved to Ivory Coast where he taught and worked as a translator.
His dream at the time, though, was not to write about real people and problems.
“I was more interested in writing fiction in that era, right out of college, and while teaching at the University of Ivory Coast, I began doing the occasional freelance journalism piece and found that I really enjoyed it,” French said in an e-mail interview earlier this week. “Things sort of gradually gained momentum and I was able to do a few things for The Washington Post, and eventually became their stringer in the region. Sometime later, the Times hired me and I moved to New York to join the staff of the newspaper there.”
In 2004, French published A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, which chronicles his experience covering conflict, development and social issues on the continent for the Times.
It was while he was working stateside later on that he was assigned to China, eventually becoming Shanghai bureau chief. While working there, French said he found himself most often covering what in essence was the changing shape of Chinese society, the evolving Chinese consciousness.
That seeped into his photo work and led to his “Disappearing Shanghai” exhibit. French said this work is meant to give viewers a glimpse into the “relatively powerless communities in China who are being buffeted by immense change in that country.”
And graduate student Zhao Jingting knows all about that change. A native of China’s capital, Beijing, she said she thought French was spot on with his assessment of what is happening in her country.
“Over the last 10 years or so, a lot has changed in the country,” she said. “There are still a lot of problems, human rights issues, but I think things are getting better there. It’s a little more open. People can do things now they couldn’t do before, like sue the government. They may not win, but they can do it now. They couldn’t before.”
Journalism’s ‘radical reinvention’
It’s not just China, or Africa, that’s seeing major change. The world of journalism itself is currently in a state of flux. And, while it may seem all doom and gloom at the moment, French doesn’t think it has to be. It just means media outlets are going to have to pull a Madonna and reinvent themselves.
“Journalism is in a phase of radical reinvention, and this touches upon everything from the financial basis of the business to the actual workings, methods and routines of the profession,” French wrote in the earlier e-mail. “Although change on this scale is frightening, and inevitably ends up hurting a lot of people, it can also be an incredibly exciting time to be in this business, and we need sharp young minds and people filled with energy, imagination and ambition to make it to the other shore.
“One thing’s for sure: the chances of being able to make a difference are higher today than they’ve been in a good while.”
In addition to his career as a journalist, French also serves as an associate professor at Columbia University’s journalism school. When asked what advice he has to offer students who want to follow in his footsteps and become foreign correspondents, he said he’d tell them to consider freelancing.
Howard French
Photo by Shanna Rottinger
French, who also is an associate professor in Columbia University’s journalism program, took time to talk to students after his lecture.
“The industry is in terrible financial disarray right now, which may be discouraging for many, but I think we’re about to enter a new golden age for freelancing,” French said. It’s an especially attractive option because of low overhead costs, although freelancers would have to be careful to avoid being placed in niches where a limited audience would see their work.
One graduate student asked French how a young foreign correspondent could get ahead of the news.
“You can’t get in front of the news, and if you figure out how you let me know,” French quipped. But he quickly followed his joke up with a story about how, at Columbia, he’s become known for a mountainous reading list that includes a book a week as well as news articles.
“My students ask me why they have to read so much and my response is that you have to know everything,” he said. “If you’re really serious about doing this, you have to become obsessive. You have to read everything that comes down the pipe and you have to be obsessive about it. How can you report on something if you don’t understand it? If you don’t know what’s being written, what’s being said about a place?”
After the talk, French spoke with a student who was carrying a large camera and gave him the name of a photojournalist working in China.
“I’ll let him know I gave you his information,” French said. “I’m sure he’d be happy to hear from you.”
As for French, he’s off to Africa next week to cover Chinese investment in the Congo for Atlantic Monthly.
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