CDT Bookshelf: Howard French on China in Africa

The story of China in Africa is not just one of lumbering and faceless state-owned enterprises mechanically dispensing stadiums according to blueprints wired from Beijing. In China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, Howard French describes his travels through fifteen countries to find China’s human presence. Most of the Chinese he meets are not officials or contract workers, but individuals who, for their own reasons, have sought opportunity where the West sees little. Still, their endeavors remain tangled with those of their government. French also talks with representatives of the African governments and publics which, he stresses, will play active and decisive roles in shaping the outcomes of engagement with China. He writes:

Africa, I believe, is embarking upon an era of sharp divergences in which China will play a huge role in specific national outcomes—for better and for worse, perhaps even dramatically, depending on the country. Places endowed with stable governments, with elites that are accountable and responsive to the needs of their fellow citizens, and with relatively healthy institutions, will put themselves in a position to thrive on the strength of robust Chinese demand for their exports and fast-growing investment from China and from a range of other emerging economic powers, including Brazil, Turkey, India, and Vietnam. Inevitably, most of these African countries will be democracies. Other nations, whether venal dictatorships, states rendered dysfunctional by war, and even some fragile democracies—places where institutions remain too weak or corrupted—will sell off their mineral resources to China and other bidders, and squander what is in effect a one-time chance to convert underground riches into aboveground wealth by investing in their own citizens and creating new kinds of economic activity beyond today’s simple extraction.

The book fizzes with relevance beyond its direct subject matter, offering insight into China’s other foreign ventures and unfamiliar perspectives on its domestic politics and society.

Now an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, French covered both China and Africa as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His previous books are A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa and Disappearing Shanghai, a collection of his documentary photography, presented alongside poetry by Qiu Xiaolong. He kindly agreed to discuss China’s Second Continent with CDT by email.

China Digital Times: What are the most common or serious pitfalls in thinking about Africa and China’s presence there, for those of us without a strong focus on or familiarity with the former?

Howard French: I would emphasize two things. The first [misconception] is that everything, or even most of what is happening in Africa with regard to China is directly driven in some centrally planned way by the Chinese state. Beijing has clearly made a priority of extending its influence on the continent, but a major theme of my book is that the large-scale migration of private Chinese citizens has become an important wild card in relations between China and Africa, one that defies real control or planning. For that reason, the tentative working title of the book was originally “Haphazard Empire.”

The other thing I would say is that the common notions of Chinese competition with the United States or with the West “for Africa” involve gross oversimplification. It is widely thought that China’s big successes in commerce and construction have come at the expense of Western interests, but because of the way the global economy is segmented and increasingly specialized, that is largely untrue. The goods that China is selling are generally not mainstays of Western commerce anymore. I would also say that China has large, inherent competitive advantages in infrastructure and public works, because of the scale of infrastructure building in China, and because of the low cost of capital there, and that much of the business it is winning in Africa in this sector isn’t so much being taken away from anyone as it is being allocated rationally.

CDT: This business may not be taken away from the West, but Samuel Inokye of the Association of Ghana Industries complained in the book that “our indigenous road builders, just like our textile manufacturers, cannot win contracts against the Chinese, who win everything, but who give us quality that is very low.” Similar complaints arise elsewhere. How serious is this erosion of opportunity for African businesses?

HF: The erosion of opportunity for African entrepreneurs is a very big issue across Africa. There is little good technical reason that African countries should be relying on international contractors to build road systems. In fact, road building should ordinarily serve as a rung on the ladder toward higher industrialization, an activity whose entry costs and technical barriers should be relatively manageable for developing countries. I said that China had big competitive advantages over Western companies in infrastructure development, including road building, and that is true, but according to what several Chinese contractors themselves told me in my book, China also engages in anti-competitive practices in this sector, including below cost bidding to build market share and sustain high employment rates, and this makes it nearly impossible for indigenous public works companies to establish themselves in the market.

CDT: You note a number of signs of American “soft power” and cultural influence across the continent, from Snoop Dogg to beauty pageants, but there are few, among Africans, of China’s. Is China making a cultural impression? Are Chinese New Year celebrations widespread, for example? Is its presence being reflected in African literature or cinema?

HF: Soft power remains a huge weak spot for China in Africa. It is something that the country has simply not figured out, and it is an area where I believe it will suffer a long-term disadvantage. There are a few clear reasons for this. China is perceived (wrongly) as a homogenous society, rather than a multicultural one, and this deprives it of many of the natural hooks that connect American culture, and even Western European culture to Africa. Secondly, pluralism has fairly deep roots in many African societies, and the Chinese state’s desire to tightly control information, to tailor and dominate the narrative in terms of politics and history, and to hew to stodgy propaganda hinders Chinese influence.

China has invested hugely in propagating its state media in Africa, most notably this means CCTV and an African edition of China Daily. Neither of these strikes me as remotely sophisticated enough to achieve much of a purchase on African audiences, who are used to intense, contradictory news coverage, both national and international. The Chinese products come across as baldly propagandistic, full of euphemism and China boosting.

One hears the odd African leader speaking about emulating the Chinese model in one way or another, but I have seen very few signs of any resonance of such notions at the popular level. For all of the West’s inconsistency and even hypocrisy, it must be said that the notions of universal values that it promotes have a strong and broad appeal. To answer your question more specifically, my sense is that China is not making a big impression culturally, either – certainly not anywhere near in proportion to the economic inroads it has made in Africa.

CDT: One striking culture clash in the book is Chinese bewilderment at African religiosity: “How is it that in a country full of poor people, everything is closed on Sundays? In China people are trying to make money on Sunday, too. Here, everyone goes to church!” “Malians are always making excuses, and the biggest trump card of all is God. Invoke God, and you are without blame.” (The latter seems to echo the frustration of Teju Cole’s American narrator in Every Day Is For The Thief at the Nigerian slogan, “Relax! God is in control.”)

HF: This relates back to your soft power question. The Chinese come across very often, and yes to their disadvantage quite often here, as having reduced life to one dimension, the economic dimension: getting rich and if possible getting rich quickly.

CDT: On Twitter, [former Mexican ambassador to China] Jorge Guajardo suggested ‘A Cautionary Tale for Latin America’ as an alternative subtitle for the book. There might equally be lessons in it for central Asian partners along China’s “New Silk Road,” and for countries anywhere, like the U.S. or particularly Canada and Australia, with growing Chinese investment and resource deals. How broadly do you feel the experiences in the book apply beyond Africa? Are there parallels elsewhere that you find particularly compelling?

HF: I am a great admirer of the writing of a China scholar of a very different generation, Owen Lattimore. One of his big ideas concerned how China has controlled its destiny and its place in the world by creating “near abroads,” meaning buffer zones, essentially in Central Asia, where Chinese settlers played an important role in establishing Chinese influence and neutralizing enemies and rivals. I feel that in some ways Chinese “near abroad” has simply moved further afield, to Africa and to Latin America, at least embryonically. The presence of large migrant communities helps develop strong trade networks, which have the potential of transmitting other kinds of influence over time, but they also play a geopolitical role that perhaps harkens back to Lattimore. By building a position in Latin America, China, in theory anyway, may eventually be able to distract and preoccupy the Americans in their own back yard, the better to prevent the Americans from thoroughly distracting and preoccupying Beijing in China’s back yard, as is the case at present.

CDT: On the other hand, there are similarities, such as imported labor and general monopolization of the fruits of development, between some Chinese ventures in Africa and development projects in Tibet and Xinjiang. Is this a useful parallel? If African countries’ experiences can serve as cautionary tales elsewhere, can Africa take lessons from China’s west?

HF: Yes, and the large-scale importation of labor, whether in Muslim or Tibetan areas of western China or in Africa, predictably raises hackles, and undermines the much ballyhooed notion of win-win.

CDT: It’s common today to be pessimistic about democracy’s global prospects. Francis Fukuyama’s recent look back at 25 years since “The End of History” in The Wall Street Journal was distinctly defensive in tone. But the importance of democracy, especially when it extends beyond the mechanics of elections into deep civil society, is a central theme of the book. Moreover, you suggest that reactions to China have actually strengthened democracy and civil society in some cases.

HF: I’m not at all pessimistic about democracy’s prospects in Africa. Trouble dominates the news in most places, and coverage of Africa, historically, has been notoriously nearly one-dimensional in this regard. The effect is that people continue to think of the continent as a basket case, even as its prospects, overall, have steadily improved. Africa is more democratic than it has ever been, and this trend continues to develop. Africa is growing faster than any other continent, and although inequality is becoming a big problem, as elsewhere, this growth and the accompanying emergence of big middle classes, would seem to strongly favor the deepening of democracy. China has inadvertently played a role in stimulating democracy in that civil societies and opposition parties have responded to a decade of robber-barron deals between Chinese parties and African leaders – uncompetitive and deeply un-transparent deals – and insisted on more openness and accountability.

CDT: On the other hand, you talk about projects stalling as governments change, and infrastructure decaying due to lack of consistent attention. Many African countries would also have good reason to share China’s fear of social chaos. Has China’s development and stability over the past thirty years increased the appeal to Africans of one-party rule along Chinese lines?

HF: No.

CDT: Are there plans for a mainland Chinese edition?

HF: I would be delighted to see a Chinese edition, but I haven’t had any attention from publishers there so far. A Taiwan edition is in the works and I was in Taiwan in May to promote it.

CDT: Could the core of your story survive the inevitable pruning (to borrow terms from Evan Osnos’ reflection on his own decision not to publish in China)?

HF: I reserve judgment on this. I recently shared my book with a friend from Beijing who began reading it, saying that it seemed too critical of China to pass muster with the censors. A few more chapters into the book, though, she told me that it seemed like I had interviewed all kinds of characters, “good” and “bad,” and had let them tell their stories. From this point on, she said she could find no fault with my fairness, and she went on to note her surprise at an abundance of criticism of American and other Western policies toward Africa.

I didn’t just aim to be objective, but to achieve a reasonable degree of representativity in the choice of characters I included in the manuscript. I would hope that if Chinese publishers took interest in my book, that they could themselves recognize this, and eventually China’s censors, as well. What I could not consent to is the publication of a Chinese edition of my book that skewed my story to fit a political purpose, or to ostensibly shield Chinese sensibilities from unaccustomed thoughts or observations.

CDT: You’ve talked elsewhere [12:20] about how your work on Disappearing Shanghai fed into China’s Second Continent. Did you contemplate a photographic component to the book? Will we see a photographic side to the project in future?

HF: Not really. I believe in total commitment to reporting and to photography, which pretty much means I can only feel like I am doing the work justice when I limit myself to one of these forms at a time. I took photos during my year on the road for this book, but with nothing like the application that would have been required for something I’d like to publish.

CDT: Besides your own, what books and other sources would you recommend for building a clearer understanding of Africa in general, and China’s relations with it in particular?

HF: Over the last couple of years I’ve done a lot of reading in political theory, and this has helped me understand Africa and the problems of the nation state, including China, much better. A few items I’d highlight taken from a class I taught last fall:

A good general introduction to Africa is Biography of a Continent, by John Reader.

In fiction, I have been a huge admirer since my youth of Chinua Achebe. This means Things Fall Apart, of course, but also of his less well known books: No Longer at Ease and The Arrow of God. It is impossible to do justice to the topic in a short list like this, but I would also highlight Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Petals of Blood; The Wizard of the Crow; Dreams in a Time of War.

CDT: Musical selections are a frequent highlight of your Twitter feed. Can we have one now?

HF: I was in a supermarket-department store in Kampala, Uganda a few weeks ago, and they were playing non-stop Franco, a deceased giant of Congolese Rhumba. I was so bowled over by its beauty that I nearly started dancing in the aisles; actually I began to sway a little bit. Anyone who doesn’t know Franco’s music owes themselves the favor.

Let me say another, final word about African music. It is of course extremely diverse and hard to usefully characterize in any general way. At its best, though, it reflects the extraordinary vitality and vibrancy of African civil society. This was the case with Franco, whose song about SIDA (AIDS) is one of the most potent public health messages I’ve ever heard. It is the case with Fela, the Nigerian musical giant who I often tweet about and whose large catalog nearly all consists of protest of one kind or another. The Chinese, and indeed anyone, would do well to study African civil society, which has developed and persevered under some of the most difficult conditions anywhere, producing works of high genius and renewing societies and changing them for the better.