China’s Second Continent: How a million migrants are building a new empire in Africa

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Review: China's Second Continent: How a million migrants are building a new empire in Africa. By Howard French. Vintage; Reprint edition (February 3, 2015). 304 pages. U$ 16.50 (Kindle, amazon.com)  

China's growing influence in Africa is, without a doubt, the most important event in African history since the end of the Cold War. Given the rapidity of events, our understanding of this complex phenomenon is still limited, and basic questions remain unanswered: What is Beijing's strategy and motivation on the continent? Do Africans benefit from Chinese investments? Will China spur economic development or deindustrialization? Will China integrate into today's aid regime, or will it disregard established structures such as the DAC, the Paris Declaration and the Working Party of Aid Effectiveness? What does this mean for the future of aid? Will China's activity in Africa undermine Western efforts to promote human rights, good governance and democracy? Given how tricky it is to obtain data and China's limited interest in being transparent about its activities and intentions in Africa, the discussion is often based on anecdotes, rough estimates and rumors. For example, there exists a general confusion about what constitutes Chinese aid, loans and investments, and these figures are often thrown together, creating an uninformed debate.

Several books over the past years have analyzed some of the questions above. Deborah Brautigam's The Dragon's Gift: The Read Story of China in Africa (reviewed here) provides an excellent analysis that demystifies a lot of the common narratives about China's role in Africa. Elizabeth Economy's By All Necessary Means is another highly readable, more recent contribution. In this context, Howard French, a former journalist for the New York Times, has written a very engaging account of China's growing role in Africa. His book is a mixture of essay and travelogue, and unlike Brautigam, which discusses nitty-gritty details about Chinese aid programs and loans, French looks at the China's role from a different angle: he traveled through a dozen Sub-Saharan countries and listened to the many Chinese people who have come to live in Africa, and Africans who shared their opinions about the Chinese. French possesses ideal credentials for such an enterprise: He has wide-ranging experience in Africa and speaks Chinese fluently, thus providing the reader with insights non-Chinese speakers would struggle to obtain. 

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It is French's capacity to tell the reader about his encounters, rather than the book's grander narrative, that makes China's Second Continent so interesting. We learn about countless Chinese who emigrated to countries all over Africa -- like Namibia, Ghana and Mozambique -- and their ambitions, difficulties and their daily lives. What emerges is a complex picture and a sense that seeking to identify a narrative about China's role in Africa inevitably misses a much more nuanced picture. While debates at think tanks and universities often implicitly assume that Beijing articulates and executes a highly centralized Africa policy according to a grand master plan, French's book offers a powerful antidote in showing that thousands of Chinese come to Africa without any preparation at all, just trying their luck in an uncoordinated fashion. In Namibia, French speaks to a Chinese immigrant who entered Namibia twice, only to be deported each time, before entering a third time, finally amassing a modest fortune. The Chinese government's strategy, of course, is not entirely hands-off: evidence suggests that policy makers in Beijing exert pressure on African governments to allow more Chinese to settle on the continent, and to not prosecute and expel Chinese companies operating illegally in Africa — such as logging in environmentally protected forests or overfishing. 

Most of the book's chapters bring together discussions with local chieftains, diplomats, engineers and people French meets in the streets -- followed by a short and usually balanced debate about China's role on the African continent. French comes across as a connoisseur of both African and Chinese society, and his analysis does not suggest Beijing's influence on Africa is overall negative. Chinese diplomats are depicted as polished and dishonest, but French also gives voice to plenty of Africans who argue that it African elites, not the Chinese, who are to blame for the problems the continent faces. 

French points to the often shocking tensions between Chinese rhetoric of win-win cooperation (and the implication that the Chinese are better partners for Africa than Western those from Western countries) and the often blatant racism the Chinese migrants show when speaking about the locals. Very few are genuinely interested in integrating in local societies, although a few lean local languages. As a consequence, while Africa may benefit tremendously from an economic point of view from China's presence, the more than one million Chinese living in Africa today have done preciously little to promote Chinese culture.

Read also:

Book review: “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa” by Deborah Brautigam

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Photo credit : Christopher Herwi / REUTERS