Eating Bitter in Africa

There is likely no one more qualified to have written China’s Second Continent than Howard W. French.  A veteran foreign affairs correspondent for the New York Times, French is well-versed in Chinese politics and was raised in Africa by American parents.  Almost a decade ago, he left the paper to pursue one of the most fascinating and yet under-reported developments in modern history:  the mass migration of Chinese citizens to Africa, and their subsequent domination of almost every sector of the continent’s economy, from natural resources to massive construction and infrastructure projects to the most petty street-level retail commerce.

China’s Second Continent purports to examine the issue of whether or not China is engaged in a project of latter-day economic colonialism on the African continent.  But it’s not a dry compendium of facts and figures — and that’s not always to its benefit.  French prefers a hands-on storyteller’s approach, peppering his movements across the vastness of Africa with surprising statistics but preferring to focus on the often disarming conversations he has with Chinese migrants and African natives alike.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t try to give us the story in pure numbers:  there’s a lot of surprising stuff here, from the way Chinese investment in Africa has increased almost 25 times in the last decade to how Namibian workers are paid by their Chinese bosses a fourth of what is required by law.  It’s just that a lot of the numbers are awfully hard to come by, and that’s by design; the Chinese companies, and the corrupt governments with whom they work, do their best to make sure everything is as murky as possible.  Even the book’s subtitle — How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa — is suspect; French admits that the figure of 1,000,000 Chinese in Africa is commonly bandied around to discuss the Asian giant’s presence on the continent, but no one seems to know for sure whether or not it’s really accurate.  The number could be a lot smaller, or, more likely, vastly larger.

This leaves him with stories, and he’s got plenty of them.  The picture they form of an Africa increasingly in thrall to Chinese economic scheming isn’t a very pretty one; presenting a hands-off attitude, Beijing actually allows government corruption, nearly omnipresent at home, to proliferate abroad.  Almost all of the big Chinese companies doing business in Africa are owned by the state, meaning they can outbid virtually all local industries, with disastrous results.  In America, we’re used to all of our manufactured goods being imported from the East, but it’s a shock to learn that it’s happening in Africa as well, where even the dirt-cheap local labor is being undercut by Beijing’s massive purchasing power.  Knockoff iPhones retail for $5, and the Chinese are even making cheap copies of local goods like kente cloth.  What’s even more ominous is the long game being played by China:  buying their way into local governments through ‘gifts’ of massive, showy palaces, stadiums, and shopping malls, they purchase all the land they can get, sealing up mineral rights and productive farmland and then stocking them with their own workers.  This leaves the Africans with no training, no knowledge, and no skills that will let them shore up their economies when the resources inevitably run out, something that’s going to happen sooner than later.

It is the Chinese emigrants outside the system, though, the ones themselves attempting to flee the iron grip of the state and pursue riches unfettered by bribery and corruption (or, at least, corruption not of their own choosing) that are the most vivid here.  Although French never makes the comparison explicit, they remind the reader less of the old colonial grandees of Europe than their do the Americans who settled the wild Western frontier:  ruthlessly capitalistic, often dressed crudely and with shabby manners, socially low, relentlessly materialistic, convinced of their own specialness and contemptuous of the natives.  (The Chinese community does not shine in China’s Second Continent in terms of racial enlightenment.  The degree to which they stereotype and disdain the black Africans is almost shocking.  There’s also lots of sexism, and hints of human trafficking for sex workers as well as a gross sort of sexual  colonialism.)  Like the cowboy capitalists of yore, they seek protection and favorable treatment from the very government they claim made their lives back home so miserable; so, too, do they value a sort of illusory self-reliance and individualistic character, expressed most thoroughly in the notion of “eating bitter”, or suffering hardship and difficulty in order to build the skills that will lead to your reward.

Unfortunately, as bad as the Chinese often come across in China’s Second Continent, the Americans don’t fare much better.  The old superpowers often come across as clueless, dismissive, paternal towards the Africans, and convinced of their own moral superiority.  Americans and Europeans don’t appear often in the book, but when they do, they seem trapped in outdated perceptions of Africa, based either on colonial or Cold War paradigms that no longer apply.  The Africa we see through French’s eyes is radically different from the abject poverty and violent anarchy we’re used to seeing in the U.S. media; we are shown a vibrant and diverse place with modern conveniences, technology, and a consumer market that the Chinese are far more capable of understanding than we are.  We hear much in the business press about the burgeoning middle classes of China and India, but Africa’s, over a billion strong, is just behind them and gaining fast. If China has learned how to take advantage of Africa, it is only because we have so thoroughly abandoned it.

There are some major flaws in French’s approach.  His style favors personal narrative over academic documentation or even a standard journalistic approach, and that leaves a lot of things unsaid.  He still retains the standoffish, judgement-free ‘objectivity’ of the Times, and often riffs on his own disingenuous assumptions rather than call things by their true names.  He’s writing largely from a pro-business perspective; this is not a Marxist text, socialism only appears as a remnant of the crooked dictatorial past, and for all his talk about how the Chinese are indifferent to the wishes of the African people (I’ve never read a book with so many uses of the word ‘exploit’), he focuses almost entirely on market solutions.  Unions are mostly an afterthought (though it’s chilling to realize that allegedly communist China has become the most thoroughgoing capitalist state ever to exist, a place where unionism — the very backbone of socialism — effectively does not exist), and if he thinks the fate of Africa should be decided by the people of Africa, he doesn’t care to argue the point very strongly.  And he ignores the most basic objection to the notion that China is engaging in colonialism — that such empire-building is always done using military might as a first option — until the very last chapter.  The writing will not win awards, and it often misjudges itself.

But as a reminder of what Africa truly is and what it has lost — and a sense of what is is becoming, and why that matters — China’s Second Continent is a powerful wake-up call, and a glimpse at what a post-colonial future is going to look like.

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