Two hundred billion dollars. That was the estimated value of China’s trade with Africa in 2012—more than 20 times the amount at the start of the century. Such is the continent’s importance to China these days that the Chinese construction industry is reckoned to get nearly a third of its total revenues from contracts there.

But the China-Africa relationship is not just about construction and commodity deals, many of them barter operations whereby an African country gets a road or a sports stadium in return for signing away mineral exports for a given numbers of years. Perhaps a million Chinese have settled in Africa. Many are company workers who stay on after their contracts lapse, others are independent arrivals seeking their fortunes as farmers, miners, retail traders and even prostitutes. That is a big change from just 20 years ago, when a mere handful of Africa’s more than 50 countries had a Chinese diaspora population.

Dug In A supervisor for a Chinese engineering company instructs Zambian workers. Getty Images


China’s Second Continent

By Howard W. French
Knopf, 285 pages, $27.95


No one is better qualified to write on this subject than Howard W. French. A journalist who has been criss-crossing Africa for nearly 40 years, he learned Mandarin while working in China as chief of the New York Times’s Shanghai bureau. This double expertise enables him to place the Chinese settlers he meets in both an Asian and an African context. His method is the reporter’s classic technique of using in-depth interviews with select individuals—from entrepreneurs to diplomats—to make points about what the Chinese are doing in Africa and how their presence is changing the continent fundamentally.

Portraits of entrepreneurs form the heart of “China’s Second Continent.” The chapters are arranged by country, from Mozambique in the east to Senegal in the west with seven countries in between. While Chinese are in Africa to make money, the ways they do this run the gamut from petty trade in Senegal to industrial copper mining in Zambia.

Africa seems to have acquired an El Dorado status in China. “We discovered the country online,” a Chinese storekeeper, bored by small-town life in Mozambique, says. When Mr. French asks her why she left China she responds bluntly: “I had to make a living.” Mr. French observes that “many Chinese have grumbled to me about the unbearable stresses and the tensions of daily life back home, about the lack of rights, the deficiencies in the rule of law, and injustices of every kind.” Still, quite a few settlers reveal a streak of racism as they complain that Africans are lazy or incompetent. Many boast of their own ability to “eat bitter” by enduring hardship, as a fair number of older settlers did during the traumatic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

China’s rise as a power in Africa dates from the ruling Communist party’s 1978 decision to allow individual landholding, enabling peasants to sell most of their produce. This was followed by a liberalization of markets, the growth of export industries and a reorientation of foreign policy to secure markets and sources of supply. By coincidence, Africa was also undergoing great waves of reform during the final years of the 20th century. The first major reforms were economic, urged on African countries by the World Bank and Western donors. Most African countries were obliged to float their currencies, abolish subsidies, open up markets and privatize state companies.

This was accompanied by a second wave of reforms in the 1990s, when states were exhorted to adopt multi-party democracy. At just this moment China was getting serious about scouting Africa for commodities and commercial opportunities, a shift known as the “go out” policy. “This was the blunt watchword that Beijing gave to Chinese state-owned corporations, and the provincial governments that often controlled them, to begin scouring the globe in search of business opportunities,” Mr. French writes. Because Africa was mostly overlooked by the West, “the pickings were plentiful and often seemed easy.”

Large-scale migration of private entrepreneurs from China to Africa followed. In Zambia, Mr. French meets a 62-year-old Chinese settler who has made a fortune from copper mining in 10 years. In Senegal, we are introduced to another settler who had the good fortune to arrive at an early date and to make money in the import-export business. More recent arrivals are stuck in petty trade along the main streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city.

The next three or four decades will reveal the consequences of Chinese engagement. Some African countries, like Angola and Nigeria, are among the world’s fastest growing economies, and some African governments, including these same two, plus Ghana, Zambia and Rwanda, are now offering dollar- or Euro-denominated bonds on financial markets. Western financiers like what they see in places like these. The big question is whether an improved financial outlook can help create jobs for the ever-greater number of Africans who are graduating from high school each year.

In the last 70 or 80 years, Africa has had the most rapid population growth of any multi-state region in the history of the world, and if present trends continue, most African countries will double their present population in the next 40 years. Take Uganda: It had 6.8 million people in 1960 and 35 million a couple of years ago. By 2060, the U.N. projects it will be almost 113 million.

Such growth is why Wal-Mart WMT -0.14% and other major chains are setting up shop in Africa. Wal-Mart, via its majority stake in Massmart Holdings Ltd.MSM.JO -0.40% , operates more than 350 stores in 12 countries south of the Sahara. The French retailer Carrefour is on course to have shops in eight African countries by 2015. Simply put, the money Africa is making from exporting commodities to China is being used by an ever-growing number of people to buy imported consumer goods. But—and here’s the rub—by midcentury, many African countries will have largely depleted their reserves of iron ore, bauxite, copper, cobalt and so on.

The big question is whether at least some countries will use high commodity prices and booming demand to develop the means to employ and feed all those people. It’s a fair bet that some will do quite well, while others will not, leaving them prey to conditions that are not pleasant to think about. But whether the outcome is good or bad, China’s role will be crucial—and the Chinese government is certainly contemplating that future. In his chapter on Mali, a generally dry country that nevertheless contains three million acres of sparsely populated, fertile farmland watered by the Niger River, Mr. French tells us that the Chinese government, accustomed to thinking big, has its eye on growing food there for its own population in years to come. In Zambia, China is set for the long haul. In other words: as long as there is copper to be mined.

“For all of China’s denials that its overseas ambitions could be compared to those of Europeans or Americans,” Mr. French writes, “. . . what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire.” Certainly some of the Chinese officials Mr. French meets feel this way: “I haven’t seen any roads being built,” a Chinese ambassador mockingly remarks about lack of American influence.

Chinese settlers will surely play a key role in the evolving Sino-African relationship. Even in the heyday of the European empires, not many people left the colonial metropoles to settle in Africa. The main exceptions were Algeria and southern Africa. Nearly all of Algeria’s million European settlers moved back to Europe at the time of independence in 1962. South Africa is a more complex case, as a fair proportion of its white population of 4.5 million—these days, distinctly nervous about their future—is descended from migrants who came as long as three and a half centuries ago, while the country is also home to a large community of Asian origin. Looking at the political use that can be made of the presence of just a few thousand white farmers in Zimbabwe, whose government finds it useful to represent them as so many agents of Western imperialism, it becomes clear just how explosive the settler issue can be. And let us not forget the summary expulsion of Asians by Uganda’s Idi Amin in 1972, or the many examples of migrants from one African country to another who have suffered in various pogroms.

The greater the Chinese settler population, and the more it is entrenched, the greater the risk of a political backlash. We read in these pages of a 2006 incident in Zambia when miners were shot by a Chinese manager, and demonstrations in Senegal two years earlier. If times get bad, Chinese settlers in Africa will be looking to their government for help. Mr. French concludes that “there are growing signs that for some the honeymoon” is already over.

All great powers have interests they wish to defend, and China is no different. The judgment that China is creating a new empire in Africa is fair if we bear in mind the great variety of forms an empire can take. Indeed, the migration of Chinese people to Africa, as Mr. French notes, “provides the most striking parallels with imperial patterns of the past.” But the Chinese government will doubtless discover, if they don’t know it already, that African politicians are particularly adept at leveraging great-power influence for their own purposes.

—Mr. Ellis is a historian at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the author of “Season of Rains: Africa in the World.”