An adventurous stranger arrives with his life savings in a poor African country. He appeases the right officials and buys 5,000 acres for a pittance, displacing some villagers with ancestral claims to the land. Next he hires workers to grow crops, paying as little as possible, and arranges for an impoverished local girl to serve his son’s sexual and domestic demands.
This might sound like a familiar tale from Africa’s colonial past, but the story is contemporary and the stranger is Chinese, not European. By some estimates, roughly a million Chinese have migrated to Africa over the past decade. And while the Chinese have not used military force to topple governments or enslave local populations, many aspects of their presence in Africa are disturbingly reminiscent of European colonialism.
In “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa,’’ veteran foreign correspondent Howard W. French chronicles the complex and volatile relationships between China, Chinese emigrants, and the residents of a number of African nations.
French was a New York Times bureau chief in Shanghai and in west and central Africa, and his fluency in Mandarin and familiarity with many African cultures allows him to engage with an array of individuals and communities. The book’s organization mirrors the trajectory of his travels; each of the 10 chapters recounts his reporting in a different country.
Each Chinese emigrant’s tale in the various countries has its particularities, but a certain pattern emerges: Harboring frustrated ambitions in a culture growing more competitive, a Chinese worker hears that Africa is a land of abundant natural resources and cheap labor — a perfect place to get rich. He or she saves enough money to start a factory or business, flourishes, and tells friends back home about the success, thereby enhancing Africa’s reputation as a promised land.
These efforts are often aided and abetted by Chinese companies and the government itself, which sees in these fellow emerging nations rich natural resources and new markets for goods.
The perspective of Africans, however, reveals a different reality. Many of those who make up the relatively cheap local labor force complain about mistreatment, racism, dangerous conditions, and unfair compensation. Chinese companies often negotiate infrastructure-for-resources deals with African governments; China boasts that it has built dozens of stadiums and hospitals throughout Africa. But by importing Chinese workers to perform the majority of skilled jobs, these companies typically fail to enrich locals, who are left with the least lucrative and most dangerous jobs.
From timber in Mozambique to gold in Ghana, natural resources are being extracted at ruinous rates with inadequate environmental safeguards. Corrupt government officials and tribal leaders tend to profit from various concessions, while regular citizens make little and are left with the denuded and sometimes poisoned landscapes left behind.
Many of the Africans French interviews are receptive to Chinese investment in their economies. What they want, however, is a mutually beneficial relationship in which African workers receive the training necessary for lucrative jobs and a larger share of profits reinvested into local communities.
French often includes irrelevant details and too much information about himself (it’s not particularly interesting what he had for lunch), but he has a knack for eliciting quotes that speak volumes. When he asks a man in Namibia why he came so far from China, the man replies with stark candor. “In China, I was a nobody, but now I am rich. . . . Do you think if I were in China I could have cars like these?”
This man may also have new highways on which to drive his cars. By offering highly competitive bids, Chinese construction companies have won many contracts to build highways throughout Africa. As French notes, the roads are often built so rapidly and with such cheap materials that they quickly start disintegrating. It’s a good ride for the companies and the local officials who work with them, but a bumpy one for everyone else.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.