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Is 'China in Africa' something to fear?

- July 3, 2015

South African President Jacob Zuma (R) receives Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pretoria, South Africa, on March 26, 2013. (EPA/GCIS)
Should the West fear China’s growing influence on the African continent? While there is no question that China and Chinese companies are changing the way African politicians seek aid and investment, the relationship between the two sides is far more complicated than simple narratives about “democracy or dictatorship” or “trade not aid” suggest. Veteran journalist Howard W. French explores this complexity in his book, “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.” He graciously took the time to answer my questions about the book and China’s role in Africa.
LS: Much of the discourse in American politics is that the U.S. should be afraid of China’s role in Africa because China is undemocratic or “trying to take over.” Is this a fair approach? Why or why not?
HF: I’m afraid the American discourse on China and Africa is very confused and generally not very insightful. Part of that is driven by the recent, still startled realization in this society of just how serious a competitor China is becoming, and part of that reflects the baggage of very old and nearly immutable American attitudes toward Africa, which are bound up in paternalism and in using Africa as a kind of vanity mirror to help us brighten our own self-image and feel better about ourselves.
Make no mistake, China is competing with the United States, and an important element of that is going where its major rival, namely us, is thinly represented on the ground, lightly engaged in terms of political, economic and policymaking resources — in other words, places where the United States has been coasting or has simply not brought its “A Game.” This background has a lot to do with why China has made such a big and concerted push into Africa in the last 10 to 15 years, and why, not coincidentally, the United States didn’t really sit up and pay attention until fairly recently. Even with that, we are stuck with old policy paradigms in Africa that hark back to the Clinton administration, of favoring selected autocrats who can keep order locally in their regions, cooperate with the United States in its extra-African policy priorities, especially those related to radical Islam and the “war on terror,” and we do so, furthermore, in the naive conviction that the autocrats also offer a better chance at generating and sustaining economic growth. This is how, for example, Barack Obama came to announce Ethiopia as the political highlight of his coming, near-end-of-presidency visit to the continent, and adding a visit by the leader of democratic Nigeria, an immensely important country, only as an apparent afterthought and in response to a certain outcry.
In the final analysis, though, the reason to pay attention to Africa is not China. We need to get over the idea that one needs an excuse to pay attention to Africa. That, too, is a holdover from the Clinton era, when they came up with out-migration and the threat of epidemic diseases as an excuse to have a look in on the continent, perhaps as a response to Robert Kaplan. The best reasons to pay attention to Africa are inherent to Africa itself. They go to extraordinary demographics, with an upside at least as full of opportunity as the downside is full of risk. They go to the immense opportunity for both Africans and Americans represented by economic growth on the continent, which needs to be enhanced and broadened. They go to urbanization. And, finally, they go to matters of universal interest related to the environment, in other words, helping ensure that Africa, which is a late-starter in many economic processes, can both maximize its potential and get things right environmentally. As long as we cast our interest in Africa in negative frames, of security, or rivalry with China, we’ll continue to miss this hugely important big picture. Similarly, as long as we continue to play small ball, politically, calling an Africa policy the occasional gathering of “young entrepreneurs,” hosting four or five African leaders together at once for a photo op at the White House, and making a mere one or two visits to the continent at the presidential level per term, we’ll be failing to engage the continent’s potential and simply missing out.
LS: Most of what we are used to seeing in reporting on China’s involvement on the African continent focuses on Chinese state-owned enterprises and large corporations engaged in massive infrastructure projects. You cover these, but the picture you paint in “China’s Second Continent” is far more nuanced than the usual narrative, with much of the discussion focused on individual Chinese who moved to the continent to farm or engage in petty trading in places like Mozambique or Senegal. Other than a shared nationality, it’s not clear that the ordinary Chinese who are permanently migrating to Africa have a lot in common with the multinational corporation executives working there. Does it make sense to focus on “China in Africa” as a theme, or should social scientists be analyzing it as many phenomena?
HF: There is no question that one must try to disaggregate more when dealing with this topic. One of my starting goals in undertaking this project was simply trying to unravel the mystery of how so many Chinese ended up in Africa in such a relatively short period of time. I learned very quickly that almost none of this could be explained in authoritarian, command economy terms, where the state, at some central level, drew up a master plan that said “By year X, we need to have a million Chinese in Africa,” and set about rounding them up for resettlement here and there. The working title I proposed for my book, in fact, was “Haphazard Empire,” and that is because I quickly learned that for all of the planning and ambition of the Chinese state, lots of things quickly began to unfold in these relationships that had little or nothing to do with any set scheme or blueprint. Personally, one of the richest veins in my reporting was to discover how vigorously Chinese from different parts of that country compete with each other and regard each other with suspicion, stereotypes and resentment, and beyond that I was surprised to learn just how common it is for Chinese on the ground in Africa to look askance at their own state.
LS: You discuss many of the complaints I’ve also heard from African friends about China’s activities in their countries, issues like low wages, environmental devastation and supporting corrupt leaders, as well as overt racism. Should ordinary Africans be concerned about China’s growing influence in their countries?
HF: There are several cases of small or low-density countries, where the numbers of Chinese have ballooned suddenly, where Chinese influence on the ground has grown very quickly, and where it is not too soon to begin thinking about the risk of state capture. Namibia, which I explore in the book, comes to mind. In general, though, I feel a fair amount of optimism on this topic. What I learned is that African civil societies are pretty robust and sophisticated, and they are not about to roll over for anyone. This has presented the Chinese newcomers with a steep learning curve in many places, because they disembark with certain feelings of superiority, whether economic or cultural, and discover that in many ways, the Africans are more politically sophisticated than they are.
LS: Is China’s influence bad for Africans who want their countries to be more democratic? Is the “China is propping up dictators” narrative we often see in the Western media fair?
HF: China, unsurprisingly, is looking out for China, seeking opportunity wherever it can find it. That said, Beijing is wary about a risk to its image of getting too comfortably and blatantly in bed with the most egregious despots on the continent. I think that Guinea under Dadis Camara was a big lesson for China, which was sorely tempted to float his regime as a way of wedging itself into the game for its immense natural resources, only to see him ejected from power. It has also been interesting to watch the growing caution China has shown with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. At a certain point, making friends with leaders means making enemies of the people, and China has gradually become a more astute reader of that balance. Of course, it is on Africans to get their houses in order, politically, and to send the right kinds of signals to outsiders, from whatever quarter, about the kinds of relationships that can be tolerated.
LS: “China’s Second Continent” is a very personal, reflective work framed by your many years working as a journalist in China and all over the African continent. Did you draw on any academic research when researching and writing the book? Who’s getting it mostly right in terms of analysis, and which approaches are misguided?
HF: I have a great deal of respect for academics. This stems, in part, from a transformative discovery I made as an Africa correspondent early in the Internet age, when I stumbled upon discussion groups like H(umanities)-Africa, which I began to follow avidly and learn so much from. I continued this practice as I moved from one region of the world to another, to the point where I now follow academic discussions pretty much every day on three or four different parts of the world. It takes a lot of time and can leave your head swimming, but this has come to constitute a really important part of how I engage with the world intellectually.
For this book, of course I read the literature. However, this project could be said to be a response at some level to what I found most lacking in the academic takes on the subject. When I set out, far too much of the literature was written at the 30,000-foot level, with big-picture analyses and lots of abstraction. For my taste, far too many people were setting out from a seemingly pre-fixed perspective ideologically, often poorly acknowledged, of whether China was good or bad for Africa, which struck me as sterile and unsatisfying. To begin with, the world doesn’t usually work in such stark binaries as this. My biggest dissatisfaction, though, was that there were so few voices of what we call “real people” in my business. Shockingly few Africans of any description could be heard from discussing how they lived and experienced this new reality, of a burgeoning Chinese presence and engagement with the continent. Chinese voices were scarce, too, except for officials and people from semiofficial think tanks and universities in China, who tended to speak in stilted, predictable ways that didn’t seem to me to cast a lot of light on things. These observations slowly came together to guide my sense of what I should do: wander the terrain and encounter people; take the time to really hear them out; eschew theory and dwell in the moment; try to convey as true a picture of the world I encountered as I could. No discipline offers fully satisfactory answers to any important question, but journalists needn’t be shy about what we can do with our methods, even as we are conscious of their limitations.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught both journalism and photography since 2008. He is a veteran foreign correspondent who worked in over 100 countries on five continents as a senior writer for the New York Times for nearly 23 years. He is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and the New York Review of Books.