It has in recent years occurred to the U.S. government that China has “stolen the march” on us when it comes to interacting with and profiting from African governments. At the end of the Cold War, the United States began slowly withdrawing economic and political support from a range of dictators and strong-men on the continent, no longer needing their services as violent, right-wing bulwarks against the exaggerated threat of a “communist take-over”.
|Some countries, like Zambia, have historic relations with China.|
While the War of Terror has generated a sad return to the toleration of state violence and misdirection of resources, in the interim the Chinese government has made considerable inroads in its interactions with many African governments. Until recently, aid or cooperation from the United States generally came with strings attached…the watchwords were “good governance”, “transparency”, and “democracy”. China has attached no such strings, and its “aid” comes not in the form of money that is often poorly distributed, but in the construction of buildings, transportation infrastructure, and even sporting venues.
In his book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), Howard W. French argues that the efforts of the Chinese government in Africa are driven both by a quest for natural resources not available at home, and for new or replacement markets for its products.
But French, a journalist who has spent time in both China and several African countries, cautions that as important as the official presence of the Chinese government is that of individual Chinese citizens who are inserting themselves into a range of markets across the continent.
To these Chinese citizens—some of whom arrived to work on government-sponsored projects and then stayed, others who came independently—Africa represents something that should resonate with an American audience reared on stories of Ellis Island and streams of migrants entering our own country. Whether bitter and cynical about the policies of their own one-party state or party faithful who see in their hard-bitten experience in Africa a character-building exercise akin to the Cultural Revolution, the “million migrants” who French seeks to understand see in Africa unparalleled opportunity. It is a Terra Nullis of sorts, populated by barely-human people who are reduced to any number of stereotypes that were similarly applied by Europeans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they pillaged the continent.
Many African citizens—and I’ve heard these views expressed in many places, particularly Tanzania and Zambia—resent that they are seeing none of the benefits of Chinese investment, not even the creation of jobs, which are instead filled by the “million migrants” themselves. This has led to tensions, violence, and racism, and has pitted African governments—whose ministers do benefit from China’s largesse—against their citizens.
Whether genuinely, or from convenience, many of the “million migrants” with whom French speaks see themselves as the continent’s “saviours”.
In some respects, the Chinese “saviours” who French profiles—whether they are serving the Chinese government or their own entrepreneurial aims—are very like the missionaries and NGOs from the West that preceded them. Those whose ambitions stretch beyond simply making piles of money operate with an incredible self-confidence in their ability to generate wholesale economic and social transformation.
Theirs is a transformation which will be wrought with raw economic might rather than the force of ideology, Christianity, or aid. But the new Saviours, like their Western counterparts, arrive in many cases with a blissful, almost charming ignorance. Many of them know little to nothing of the history of the countries in which they operate, and some can’t even locate them on a map.
They adopt the view of technocrats. That is, they believe that a knowledge of history, culture, and society are unnecessary, and that the application of their expertise in technical areas—whether the economy, agriculture, industry, commerce, or health—will be sufficient to extract the outcomes they desire. But of course they are attempting to extract those outcomes from places with complex internal politics; from places with a long history of interacting with outside countries and forces; and from places where there is some expectation where the governments that give the “saviours” the green light often lack real legitimacy.
At one point, while conversing with the staff of a Chinese agricultural project, French observes that “there would be twice as many Africans by mid-century as there were today. With two billion Africans, including vastly more people who will have attained middle-class status or better, and over a billion Chinese, whose lives will be much more affluent, much more globalized and deeply involved in every corner of the world, it was possible to imagine the unfolding relationship between China and Africa as one of the most important in the world.
“How Africa develops, how it harnesses its resource wealth, who helps shepherd it through its many crises and challenges, from war and poverty to institution building and security, will all depend to a much bigger extent than appears to be the case today on China, a still somewhat reticent global actor” (114).
I have a few pages remaining French’s book. Its nature is anecdotal, with the limitations associated with such a narrative. French interviews members of the diverse and scattered Chinese communities in Mozambique, Zambia, Liberia, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Mali, Ghana, and Senegal. His narrative offers a compelling and well-written snapshot of a critical relationship, but its scattershot nature makes it difficult to evaluate, if no the accuracy of French’s portrayal, then perhaps its representativeness. But it is a book worth picking up.