Featured Blog Posts


March 25, 2015

How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes.


December 24, 2014

A year on the road, briefly recounted


December 22, 2014

Libraries and piles of books, a 2014 reading list

Other recent posts


November 24, 2014

Public lecture – Duke University

I gave a lecture on China’s relations with Africa on Nov. 20, 2014 at Duke University. Listen here.


November 24, 2014

Public Lecture – Indiana University of Pennsylvania

I gave a university-wide lecture on China’s relations with Africa on Nov. 5, 2014 at IUP.


September 7, 2014

China Invades Africa

Copyright The New York Review of Books

Trying to figure out China’s true intentions in Africa has resulted in a cottage industry of analysts, writers, and bloggers investigating just how much aid China provides (foreign aid is a state secret in China), as well as whether the pledges, memoranda of understanding, and so on really are panning out, or are just empty announcements designed to give meaning to the barrage of summits and visits between Chinese and African heads of state. Their conclusions can be confusingly different, with some arguing that China is a new imperialist power and others seeing a more benevolent approach that, at worst, is no different from Western policies.

Howard French’s new book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, takes a different tack, giving us a bottom-up look at China in Africa. A former New York Times Africa and China correspondent, he is fluent in Chinese, French, and Spanish, enabling him to speak directly to many of the people involved. He doesn’t bypass the pundits and analysts, but tries as much as possible to let the Africans and Chinese speak for themselves as he travels through fifteen countries. The result is a rich, complex, and satisfyingly contradictory look at this strange marriage.

French sets his story in broad terms, helping to convey its relevance to general readers. He points out that when China began its ascent in the 1970s, it was during an earlier phase of globalization that primarily involved Western countries developing export industries in poorer countries, mostly in Asia, but also in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In other words, it was globalization carried out on the West’s terms.

Now we are in an era when rising powers like China, and to a lesser degree India and Brazil, are investing heavily in one another—and other countries down the food chain. China, writes French, is “rapidly emerging as the most important agent of economic change in broad swaths of the world.” China uses Africa as a proving ground for its companies, most of which are not quite ready to take on their Western competitors on their home turf, but which can provide Africans with robust, low-cost alternatives.

Although China’s foray into Africa has been a staple of media reports for the past decade, it’s worth pausing to consider just how dramatic this change is. When China first entered Africa in the 1960s, it was something of a curiosity, positioning itself as a fellow victim of imperialism, a socialist brother, or a provider of modest, low-end technology. Generally, though, it did little more than build the odd showpiece factory or railway line—good deeds to complement a kind of missionary Maoism not unlike the religious and ideological opportunism that drew Europeans to Africa in earlier eras. When China launched its economic reforms in the late 1970s, it was more concerned with its own development, and although engagement with Africa didn’t disappear, it was minimal.

That began to change in the 1990s, as China increased its aid to Africa, culminating in the triennial 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. Delegates from forty-eight countries attended, and the Chinese capital was lined with billboards hailing “Amazing Africa.” China pledged to double aid within three years and suddenly the world woke up to the fact that Africa had a new suitor besides the two chief colonial masters, Britain and France, and the winner of the cold war, the United States. China’s export-import bank estimated that it would provide $20 billion in loans during the three years after the forum, while the World Bank planned $17 billion.2

But it’s another statistic that underpins French’s reportage: one million. This is the number of Chinese that French reckons are active in Africa today, not only as guest workers building the continent’s telecommunications or transport infrastructure, but also including thousands of ordinary people who see Africa as a land of opportunity. For Westerners, Africa is mostly a series of kleptocracies, natural disasters, violent conflicts, and public health crises like the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. But for many Chinese, Africa is an underpopulated region of forests, plains, and seemingly fallow lands, a vast continent (three times larger than China) of just one billion people that, in some places, is starting to grow quickly. As French sees it, we are in the midst of a “historic movement of Chinese to Africa.”

One of French’s most colorful chapters is set in Mozambique, where he finds a Chinese pioneer farmer named Hao who is determined not only to build a homestead, but to start a clan that will be part of the country’s economic takeoff. He has brought over two sons whom he wants to set up with local women. Hao hopes they will marry, procreate, and establish a clan of economic titans with vast holdings of land that can only be dreamed of in overcrowded, highly regulated China. It seems delusional, but is it more so than the white homesteaders of earlier eras?

French is extremely open-minded. He tells us that he’s here to challenge the stereotype of Chinese being insular and clannish, and to show how many are excited about Africa. Examples like Hao help make this point about how outgoing and entrepreneurial Chinese can be, although French’s reporting is good enough to let us make up our own minds. Personally, I saw Hao as almost a caricature of a Han chauvinist, spewing racial stereotypes about the locals and treating the women like walking receptacles for his sons’ semen. Not surprisingly, the local women seemed to hate him, and I wondered how long he could last out there on the range, with so little empathy or understanding for local people. French isn’t as judgmental, and as readers we are probably better for it.

Time and again, French introduces us to risk-taking Chinese. We meet the manager of a copper smelter in Zambia, small shop owners in Mali, and a suave businessman in Guinea whose fluent French puts American diplomats to shame. French takes us on epic road trips through the bush and sprawling cities, and along the way we encounter boosters and critics of China’s growing engagement. He doesn’t come down as hard on the Chinese as some Western critics do, but he talks to enough African skeptics and boorish Chinese that some readers can find plenty of evidence for why China is probably likely to be held at arm’s length in Africa, just as Western powers are.

To read the entire article, please follow this link.