/ 9 October 2014

The Chinese in Africa: Empire builders or new pioneers?

On the ground: Chinese specialise in delivering roads
On the ground: Chinese specialise in delivering roads

The influx of investment and people from China has become one of the defining narratives of Africa over the past two decades.

China, by all accounts, has identified Africa as the source of much-needed raw materials for its phenomenal growth, and Chinese business entrepreneurs see its sparsely populated interiors as a potential new frontier for manufactured goods.

This story of China in Africa has, however, largely been couched in government rhetoric and clouded by stereotypes.

Former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French attempts to lift the veil of secrecy that clouds many of the Chinese business dealings and give readers a glimpse of who the Chinese living and working in Africa really are.

His book, China’s Second Continent – How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, is a road trip of sorts to a select number of African countries that gives fascinating insight into the lives of Chinese workers, businesspeople and officials in Africa.

Through his conversations and descriptions of Chinese in far-flung-places like northern Namibia, Zambia’s copper belt, the Niger River irrigation scheme in Mali or in poverty-stricken Guinea, French debunks many of the myths surrounding the China-Africa relationship.

It remains debatable, however, whether China is indeed building an empire in Africa, similar to the colonial expansion of previous centuries. French’s evidence for this assertion is largely anecdotal.

French’s journey starts off with a trip to Mozambique where he meets entrepreneur Hao Shengli, who takes him to Massinga where the “new frontiersman” has a small farm.

Hao, like most of the Chinese whom French meets, works hard. Chinese in Africa pride themselves on the notion of chi ku (“eating bitter”) while working for a better life for themselves, says French.

Like ambitious immigrants around the world, they allow themselves few luxuries and never take holidays. After work they surf the internet or chat with friends back home on instant messaging platforms.

State channels, entrepreneurial spirit
While it is clear that the main thrust of Chinese expansion in Africa is through official channels, many of French’s interlocutors are on their own and, like Hao, operate largely under the radar.

In fact, some even criticise the Chinese government for meddling in their affairs.

This dispels the widely held notion that Chinese expansion in Africa is a well-organised state-led project and that most Chinese are in one way or another connected to government intervention. It becomes clear through the interviews that big government deals do open doors for the Chinese in African countries, but many Chinese are driven by a entrepreneurial spirit and the dream of a better life.

The main strength of China’s Second Continent is the fact that French has intimate knowledge of China, having lived and worked in the country. He also has experience of Africa where he reported on West and Central Africa for the New York Times. His insights into the lives of the Chinese in Africa are presented through the prism of their own history.

French communicates with the Chinese in Africa in Mandarin and hears things they would never expect him to understand. Time and again people are surprised when he greets them with a polite “ni hau”. They then open up to him.

Africa’s attraction for China is obvious. It has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, huge mineral resources and, according to the Chinese quoted in the book, a corruptible governing class ready to let Chinese come into the country and do as they please in return for a bribe.

French compares the attitude of the Chinese towards Africa with that of the United States, which sees Africa as a burden, rather than an opportunity.

While the US and Europe focus on issues like democracy and “capacity building” in Africa – so-called soft power – China is delivering the hardware: roads, bridges, and government buildings. China, for example, claims to have built 42 stadiums and 54 hospitals in Africa in the past few years.

These are all concrete symbols of China’s presence and many Africans see it as an example of China’s generosity. While US aid workers might think it is great to finance healthcare, the Chinese-built bridge is a more visible way to ingratiate oneself with the local population.

If the Chinese government is trying to impress locals in Africa, the attitude of many Chinese towards Africans, however, might be driving them away.

One of the disturbing, and even shocking, aspects of French’s account is the overtly racist attitude of the Chinese he encounters in Africa.

The Chinese quoted in the book seem to believe Africans (or “blacks” as French quotes them saying) are inferior and could never develop their countries on their own. The issue comes up time and again and is largely without any comment from the writer.

In Liberia for example, the hotel owner where French stays, explains that his Chinese clients bring their own towels because “they wouldn’t want to use one that a black person might have used”.

In a restaurant in Guinea, French overhears a client turning down a traditional dish because he didn’t want “black people’s food”.

And in Liberia a doctor refuses to hire locals because they are “dirty and lazy” – and patients would refuse to come to his clinic if he had Guinean staff.

A Chinese businessman in Namibia tells French: “Ninety percent of Africans are thieves” – another statement put out there unchallenged.

A result of this disregard for Africans is the near-absence of partnerships between Chinese and local businesses.

Whenever a new project is launched, fellow Chinese are recruited as engineers, technicians and workers.

“Under circumstances like these, it was difficult to imagine how any robust transfer of knowledge or expertise could arise that might directly benefit Africans,” observes French.

Here and there an attempt is made to gauge the attitude of Africans to this Chinese invasion.

Mostly they blame their own governments for entering into corrupt relationships with Chinese companies.

During French’s visit to Mali, his driver Coulibaly, for example, repeats one of the stock phrases heard from Africans throughout the continent: “We don’t like the Chinese. We are Malians. We’ve already been forced to learn French. We don’t want to be speaking Chinese someday.”

Coulibaly, however, is clearly impressed by the fee-free Chinese hospital in Bamako.

Empire building
Despite the fact that there is no avowed Chinese neocolonial project in Africa, French believes the sheer numbers of Chinese moving to Africa to look for job opportunities or simply because things have become “too crowded” at home, constitutes the beginning of empire building.

According to French, there could be about a million Chinese in Africa. This, however, is probably a conservative figure, given that he says there are at least 100?000 Chinese in a middle-sized country like Mozambique.

There would be many more Chinese in the countries most known for Chinese mega projects, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Regional heavyweights South Africa, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya were not included in French’s road trip.

Some would argue, however, that empire building is a political notion and, for now, China has not been involved in local politics.

What is clear is that African governments will sooner or later have to make difficult decisions about how to manage this growing relationships with China, the new pioneers.