Copyright Indiana University
At the beginning of Thursday nightâ€šÃ„Ã´s talk about Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s growing economic influence in Africa, veteran New York Times journalist Howard French outlined what is a nightmare scenario for some.
â€šÃ„ÃºFast forward 20 years,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French told an audience of about 50 people in the Ernie Pyle Auditorium. â€šÃ„ÃºItâ€šÃ„Ã´s 2026 and China has overtaken the U.S. as the worldâ€šÃ„Ã´s largest economy.â€šÃ„Ã¹
French was on campus for the talk as well as to participate in this weekendâ€šÃ„Ã´s â€šÃ„ÃºChina in Africaâ€šÃ„Ã¹ conference organized by African Studies and the East Asian Studies Center, who also co-sponsored Frenchâ€šÃ„Ã´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.
â€šÃ„ÃºChina is flooding Africa in a way the West has failed to do so,â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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.
â€šÃ„ÃºItâ€šÃ„Ã´s definitely something Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ll be following from here on,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Combs said, â€šÃ„Ãºbut I didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t know much about it until tonight.â€šÃ„Ã¹
French places Combsâ€šÃ„Ã´ lack of knowledge firmly at the feet of the news media.
â€šÃ„ÃºNo one is really writing about this,â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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 thereâ€šÃ„Ã´s no incentive for the less development-minded of the continentâ€šÃ„Ã´s leaders to put that money to good use for their people.
â€šÃ„ÃºI hope for the best,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French said. â€šÃ„ÃºI 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.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Photo by Shanna Rottinger
Though he has written extensively on the topic, French said the media largely have left untold the story of Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´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.
â€šÃ„ÃºI 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,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French said in an e-mail interview earlier this week. â€šÃ„ÃºThings 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.â€šÃ„Ã¹
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 â€šÃ„ÃºDisappearing Shanghaiâ€šÃ„Ã¹ exhibit. French said this work is meant to give viewers a glimpse into the â€šÃ„Ãºrelatively powerless communities in China who are being buffeted by immense change in that country.â€šÃ„Ã¹
And graduate student Zhao Jingting knows all about that change. A native of Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s capital, Beijing, she said she thought French was spot on with his assessment of what is happening in her country.
â€šÃ„ÃºOver the last 10 years or so, a lot has changed in the country,â€šÃ„Ã¹ she said. â€šÃ„ÃºThere are still a lot of problems, human rights issues, but I think things are getting better there. Itâ€šÃ„Ã´s a little more open. People can do things now they couldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t do before, like sue the government. They may not win, but they can do it now. They couldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t before.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Journalismâ€šÃ„Ã´s â€šÃ„Ã²radical reinventionâ€šÃ„Ã´
Itâ€šÃ„Ã´s not just China, or Africa, thatâ€šÃ„Ã´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 doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t think it has to be. It just means media outlets are going to have to pull a Madonna and reinvent themselves.
â€šÃ„ÃºJournalism 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,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French wrote in the earlier e-mail. â€šÃ„ÃºAlthough 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.
â€šÃ„ÃºOne thingâ€šÃ„Ã´s for sure: the chances of being able to make a difference are higher today than theyâ€šÃ„Ã´ve been in a good while.â€šÃ„Ã¹
In addition to his career as a journalist, French also serves as an associate professor at Columbia Universityâ€šÃ„Ã´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 heâ€šÃ„Ã´d tell them to consider freelancing.
Photo by Shanna Rottinger
French, who also is an associate professor in Columbia Universityâ€šÃ„Ã´s journalism program, took time to talk to students after his lecture.
â€šÃ„ÃºThe industry is in terrible financial disarray right now, which may be discouraging for many, but I think weâ€šÃ„Ã´re about to enter a new golden age for freelancing,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French said. Itâ€šÃ„Ã´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.
â€šÃ„ÃºYou canâ€šÃ„Ã´t get in front of the news, and if you figure out how you let me know,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French quipped. But he quickly followed his joke up with a story about how, at Columbia, heâ€šÃ„Ã´s become known for a mountainous reading list that includes a book a week as well as news articles.
â€šÃ„ÃºMy students ask me why they have to read so much and my response is that you have to know everything,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said. â€šÃ„ÃºIf youâ€šÃ„Ã´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 donâ€šÃ„Ã´t understand it? If you donâ€šÃ„Ã´t know whatâ€šÃ„Ã´s being written, whatâ€šÃ„Ã´s being said about a place?â€šÃ„Ã¹
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.
â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´ll let him know I gave you his information,â€šÃ„Ã¹ French said. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m sure heâ€šÃ„Ã´d be happy to hear from you.â€šÃ„Ã¹
As for French, heâ€šÃ„Ã´s off to Africa next week to cover Chinese investment in the Congo for Atlantic Monthly.
Click to read more
Rosemary Pennington – Indiana University
Copyright Indiana University