Author Howard French´ latest book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africais getting raving reviews. Here a few remark by Kerry Brown, Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney for Caixin.
The great contribution that French makes is to give a human face and narrative to a story that has until now been largely abstract. There have been good and detailed studies of China’s emerging economic and geopolitical role in Africa over the last decade, but it has been hard to hear the voices of the individuals involved.
French excellent journalist training is much in evidence. He gives this story voices, conveyed directly, as he also makes clear his own position as he listens to them.
The Chinese he engages with across the countries he travels through often betray condescension towards locals. One businessman from southern China, despite relocating over a decade before, complains about how Africans only like dancing and don’t know how to work hard. Others defend the high use of Chinese imported labor because of the unreliability of African workers.
Not that the Chinese attitudes towards their homeland are any easier on life there. Many explain their coming to a harsh, new and challenging environment as worthwhile because of the escape route it gives from a country ruled by bullying and predatory local officials. At least in Africa, their money gives them clout and influence. One migrant puts it pithily: you can own land in Africa. In China, it always belongs to the government, and they can take it away from you and reduce you to poverty at will.
French raises a number of interesting angles. Resources matter in the Chinese adventure in Africa, but in the longer term it will probably be the emerging market for Chinese manufactured goods that will be more important—that, and the abundance of unexploited arable land which is of such interest to a China that has largely despoiled or built on its own farmland.
Nor is there much credibility in the idea of some grand state strategy run from Beijing. The evidence French finds is of a continent being economically conquered by hundreds of thousands of Chinese coming for different reasons, chasing different dreams, and with very little relationship with the government and ruling party of the land they have left. Many complain that the Chinese state, far from helping in their business conquest of Africa, acts as a break and impediment, taking steps they believe far too modest and cautious in a place where opportunity is everywhere.