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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.
November 5, 2013
Money, Power, Sex
I was a speaker at this conference, in Cape Town (May 22-24, 2012), where I discussed China’s relationship with Africa.
November 4, 2013
Reading List 2013 (definitive)
I’m going to start building out my annual reading list a bit early this year, which serves two purposes. Firstly, I don’t have to remember all of the titles all of the sudden that way, as I would if I waited until late December. Secondly, I want to break out a sublist of books that I am reading for my own current and ongoing book project. This is as good a place as any to keep a running bibliography for that purpose. That list will keep growing beyond 12/31, and I’ll need to refer to it as I get deeper into my project, and specifically as I start writing. I start with the General List. Please scroll down for the “Project List.”
Any book listed as “Reviewed” can be searched for on this site to find my review.
Africa Emerges, by Robert I. Rotberg
Bright Continent, Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade
The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, by Eric Hobsbawm
Palestinian Identity, by Rashid Khalidi
The Enigma of China, by Qiu Xiaolong
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (reviewed), by Nina Munk
Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II – 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter (reviewed)
Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future, by Timothy Beardson (reviewed)
Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by Stanley Crouch
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, by Anatole Broyard
Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook, by Jonathan Solomon
For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, by Liao Yiwu (reviewed)
The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, by Simon Leys
The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, by Michael Deibert
States and Power in Africa, by Jeffrey Herbst
India in Africa: Changing Geographies of Power, edited by Emma Mawdsley and Gerard McCann
Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990-1992, by Charles Tilly
The Hero and the Blues, by Albert Murray
Runaway Horses: The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima
Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
Year Zero: The History of 1945, by Ian Buruma
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, by Eri Hotta
Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by John Szarkowsi
Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders
China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History, by Tom Miller
The Enigma of Arrival, by V.S. Naipaul
China Airborne, by James Fallows
My Education, by Susan Choi
Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, by James C. Scott
The Shanghai Factor (fiction), by Charles McCarry
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel, by Anthony Marra
Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen
A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires – 1400-1900, by Laura A. Benton
The Contest of the Century The New Era of Competition with China — and How American Can Win, by Geoff Dyer
A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
Sea of Poppies: A Novel, by Amitav Ghosh
Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs
China Goes Global: The Partial Power, by David Shambaugh
The Rise of China versus The Logic of Strategy, by Edward N. Luttwak
That Smell, and Notes from Prison, by Sonallah Ibrahim
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001, by Steve Coll
The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China’s Leadership, by John Garnaut
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China, by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott
Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, by Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Hunters, by James Salter
The Unwinding, by George Packer
China and the International System, Edited by Xiaoming Huang and Robert G. Patman
Negotiating Asymmetry: China’s Place in Asia, edited by Anthony Reid and Zhen Yangwen
The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, by Christopher A. Ford
Borders of Chinese Civilization, by D.R. Howland
Articulating the Sinosphere, by Joshua Fogel
The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, by Daniel H. Nexon
The Chinese World Order, by John King Fairbank
Asia’s Middle Powers: The Identity and Regional Policy of South Korea and Vietnam, edited by Joon-Woo Park, Gi-Wook Shin and Donald W. Keyser
Brother Enemy, The War After the War: A History of Indochina Since the Fall of Saigon, by Nayan Chanda
Okinawa: The History of an Island People, by George H. Kerr
The Inner Frontiers of Asia, by Owen Lattimore
Japan-China Joint History Research Project, Vol. 1
Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, by Azar Gat
Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order, by G. John Ikenberry
The Walled Kingdom, by Witold Rodzinski
Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, by Alastair Iain Johnston
The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security, by Andrew Nathan
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, by Mark Edward Lewis
Wealth and Power: China’s Long March into the 21st Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury
Cherishing Men From Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy, by James L. Hevia
The Birth of Vietnam, by Keith Weller Taylor
State and Society in the Philippines, by Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso
Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, by Alfred W. Mc.Coy.
The Influence of Sea Power on History – 1660-1783, by A.T. Mahan
In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow
Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power, by David G. Marr
Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the 20th Century, by Rebecca E. Karl
The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States & the Philippines, by Paul A. Kramer
The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, by O.T. Wolters
Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & The War With Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (reading now).
Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, by Janet L. Abu-Lughod (just started. h/t Jeff Wasserstrom)
Other recent posts
This is the title of a talk I gave at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club about my forthcoming book.
April 26, 2012
More on covering Africa…
A colleague objected that I had been singled out in Laura Seay’s fine piece about woeful coverage of Africa just published in Foreign Policy, and I completely agree.
To reduce a matter like this is to one of persons or personalities is to squander an opportunity to pursue a truly important and long overdue discussion.
For decades there have clearly been foreign correspondents from a range of news organizations who have worked hard at understanding Africa and conveying its complexity, just as one would or should try to do with any other part of the world.
I wrote a blog post that relates to this a few months back. It mourns the demise of the Washington Post’s Africa coverage, and I paid due homage then to a long list of correspondents who worked hard to bring richness and balance to their Africa stories. http://www.howardwfrench.com/2011/12/american-journalism-is-failing-africa/
It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West’s African coverage in general is broken and failing badly. This is true in terms of quantity, quality and especially variety, and I think that is Laura’s main point.
Demonstrating this last criterion is a simple matter. What news organizations have business correspondents or for that matter any business coverage to speak of in Africa? The fact that such coverage doesn’t exist, or quite nearly, means that we have created a special category of beings for whom this important aspect of human life simply doesn’t apply. This has many consequences, only two of which I’ll touch upon here.
It reinforces the strong, preexisting tendency in many publications to write stories that almost exclusively emphasize foreign agency, whether of the U.N, or of NGOs or of the individual Western do-gooder, and by the same token, it reinforces a habit of thinking of Africans either as passive beings, or as those other perennial favorite archetypes: warlords, corrupt officials, rapists and Big Men.
The other effect I’d point out here quickly is that by ignoring this humungous category called business (or, if you will, the economy), the Western press is doing a disservice to its readership by furthering the conditioning of news consumers to not think of Africa as a place worthy of business or investment. It is all the more galling that this is happening at a time when economic growth is booming around the continent and opportunities abound. As someone who is writing on this now, I’d add: Just ask the Chinese.
We need for those who cover Africa to break out of their old, narrow molds and start seeing Africans and Africa in its fullness and complexity. We need more real African characters in our reporting and writing. And we need to have the whole range of human activity reflected in our work.
We need to see an Africa that is written about as a place where ideas matter, and not just our ideas.
We need for people to write about Africa understanding that it has history that goes far beyond index card depth.
April 12, 2012
My photographs were selected for use in the cover illustration of this exciting new book from UC Press and edited, in part, by my friend Jeffrey Wasserstrom. For a view of the pix and more information about the book, please follow this link.
- What does it mean to be fluent?
January 14, 2012
- The Perils of American Exceptionalism
January 11, 2012
- UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES
January 4, 2012
- Things I liked (to read)
January 1, 2012
- New Years
December 31, 2011
- China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011
December 21, 2011