Highlights: China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, by Howard W. French
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China’s Export-Import Bank and other big, state-controlled “policy bank” counterparts have teamed up to offer attractive project financing that is usually tied to the use of Chinese companies, Chinese materials, and Chinese workers.
leaders have called “servicing the relationship”—combined with Beijing’s official largesse, is paying off handsomely. China’s trade with Africa zoomed to an estimated $200 billion in 2012, a more than twenty-fold increase since the turn of the century, placing it well ahead of the United States or any European country. For a key Chinese industry like construction, meanwhile, African contracts by some estimates now account for nearly a third of its total revenues abroad.
States are in the business of making plans, and it is no different with China in Africa. Official lending from Beijing and big projects completed by big, government-owned companies dominate the headlines about the advancing Chinese agenda in Africa. But history teaches us that very often reality is more meaningfully shaped by the deeds of countless smaller actors, most of them for all intents and purposes anonymous. In this vein, each of China’s new immigrants to Africa is an architect helping to shape this momentous new relationship. They accomplish this, in part, by helping build networks that loop back to the home country, channeling goods and products and capital via informal circuits that
The historic movement of Chinese to Africa is itself largely driven by word of mouth, by news passed back and forth about a continent that many ordinary Chinese people, even those who reside deep in the hinterland of their country, nowadays speak of in near awe as a place of almost unlimited opportunity. Each newcomer to Africa thus has the potential to become a powerful link in a phenomenon of chain migration that draws relatives, acquaintances, girlfriends, and spouses in their wake. In time, the behavior of these newcomers, the relationships they form with Africans, the way they conduct their business, their respect or lack thereof for the law, for local customs, for the environment, and, above all, for people, will do more to determine China’s image, and perhaps even China’s broad relationship to the continent, than any carefully planned actions by the Beijing government to build state power and reinforce national prestige.
In their new lands of adoption, Chinese people frequently spoke to me with unaccustomed openness about their hopes for their country and about its problems and failings. I was struck by how Africa, to so many of them, by contrast, seemed remarkably free, and brimming with opportunity unlike home, which they often described as cramped, grudging, and hypercompetitive. For many of them, Africa also seemed relatively lacking in corruption.
Thus, for some of Africa, the continent’s “rediscovery” by China will mirror the lucky timing of China itself a generation ago, when it began its historic opening. Strong new demand and plentiful investment from this big and hungry new partner will fuel growth and dramatically expand opportunities. For the less fortunate, though, China and its voracious appetites will merely hasten an already foreseeable demise.
This last item had been a big part of the attraction that Mozambique exerted on Hao, and therefore my interest in Hao. The least-explored story of China’s newcomers to Africa involved farmers who were buying up land, and Mozambique, a country nearly twice the size of California, with some of the continent’s most fertile soils, was wide open to this kind of business.
I already knew that dreams like these were built upon a dangerous illusion. Africa was said to possess as much as 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, which helped account for why the countryside looked so empty and so unworked in so many parts of the continent. But there were a dozen reasons why this was misleading, ranging from traditional farming methods in widespread use across the continent that leave large swaths of land fallow (so as to allow them to recover their fertility), and tenure patterns in which land is owned collectively and control is vested in local chiefs or kings, which until recently had kept land usage under tight rein.
Africa’s future. Whatever land was not claimed or routinely worked now was likely to begin coming under heavy demand in the space of a generation, as the continent’s population skyrockets.
Hao was the first person I had met, however, who had chosen his destination in Africa because he believed there would be few Chinese there. He was a new kind of frontiersman, and I would meet many others like him. Collectively they challenged another common image about the Chinese, who were held to be a reflexively insular people who constitute self-enclosed communities wherever they go.
Chinese diplomats, trade officials, and business executives all confirmed that, as did ordinary migrants who had pulled up stakes in places like Chengdu and Guangzhou to move to this continent. They were betting their personal savings that they could make a better living hitching a ride on Africa’s future than they could back home, despite the torrid pace of China’s own economic growth. Was this irrational exuberance on the part of these restless Chinese, or had they grasped a trend pointing to momentous change in a faraway part of the world long before the West had caught on?
Like Hao Shengli in Mozambique, the sixty-two-year-old Yang’s formative years had come during the Cultural Revolution. However numerous they were, the idea of going off to remake one’s life in Africa struck me as an offbeat or counterintuitive choice for people in the newly affluent younger generation that followed them, especially to those who lived in the rich cities of the east coast. But for members of China’s Lost Generation like this, it beckoned as a rare chance to make up for missed time.
Hiring patterns like this have contributed to the birth of a persistent urban legend. It holds that Chinese companies are using prison labor to carry out their projects around Africa. This legend helped Africans make sense of why workers like the two bricklayers I’d encountered looked so rough-hewn. It explained to them why Chinese laborers lived such regimented lives, traveling in their own groups to and from work sites, and residing in confinement barracks. And it helped explain how Chinese companies could seemingly always come in with the lowest bid on a project. How, after all, could anyone compete against construction companies using prison labor?
was prepared for him to tell me, as so many other Chinese businesspeople in Africa had told me over the years, that he was being unfairly singled out, harassed and extorted. Instead, he clearly averred that there was far too much shadiness among his compatriots, and that it sometimes brought about guilt by association.
“The copper will be gone, but they have land. They are rich in land, and Zambians have good bodies. The problem is they cannot work hard.” It was the commonest of prejudices, and its delivery, as a simple fact, seemed to answer my earlier question about why he brought semiskilled workers all the way from China.
In families one can’t choose one’s siblings. Within regions one doesn’t choose one’s neighbors. And if you are one of the world’s leading producers of a critical industrial resource like copper, in the end you can’t really choose your customers. China and Zambia will just have to get along.
Senegal, like Zambia, occupies a particular place in the unfolding story of Chinese migration to Africa. If Zambia had been way ahead of the curve in terms of Chinese emigrating to seek their fortunes in mining and in agriculture, Senegal, in West Africa, had been a pioneering destination in petty trading and commerce, a sector that would prove immensely popular among Chinese newcomers, indeed the most popular of
The presence of petty traders from China had already begun to be keenly felt here by the late 1990s, years ahead of most other big African cities. And just as in Zambia, the sharp and sudden rise in the numbers of these newcomers
In Lusaka, similar scenes spoke to me of African promise. Here, though, the knowledge that by century’s end there could be nearly as many Africans as Chinese and Indians combined felt almost paralyzing. How will these new multitudes be educated? How will they be housed? Who will provide their health care? How will they be fed? And if the center cannot hold in a place like Dakar, what will become of Africa’s countless even-less-well-organized cities?
The phenomenon of laborers staying on at the end of their contracts with big public works companies is likely the biggest single source of Chinese migration to Africa.
The phenomenon of laborers staying on at the end of their contracts with big public works companies is likely the biggest single source of Chinese migration to Africa. Workers would arrive from a given locality in China and discover there was good money to be made in some corner of an Africa they had never before imagined viable. Soon, they were sending word back home about the fortunes to be made there, or the hospitality of the locals, or the wonders of the environment, or the joys of a free and relatively pressureless life. In short order, others would follow.
An unskilled class of petty traders from a fast developing and much more powerful country like China steadily filtering into a society like Senegal, which had its own deep commercial culture and was suffering through a phase of stalled economic development, was bound to cause problems. This is not to excuse any individual act of crime or violence, but rather to suggest a useful pause for reflection among both the Chinese and the many African governments that have adopted a laissez-faire approach to this kind of migration, with neither side having bothered to think much about possibly combustible outcomes.
spoke of the spread, via emigration, of Chinese organized crime, particularly in smuggling and human trafficking. For the most part, however, it seemed that American diplomats were still in search of the right voice, the right message. All too often, Washington struck a paternalistic tone that came across as: Listen up children, you must be careful about these tricky Chinese. Carson’s message wasn’t far from this. “It is important
spoke of the spread, via emigration, of Chinese organized crime, particularly in smuggling and human trafficking. For the most part, however, it seemed that American diplomats were still in search of the right voice, the right message. All too often, Washington struck a paternalistic tone that came across as: Listen up children, you must be careful about these tricky Chinese. Carson’s message wasn’t far from this. “It is important to African governments that they hold Chinese companies to higher standards than they hold American and European companies,” he said. “American and Canadian companies will hire most of the local people and train them and not bring along their own people.”
Dakar has grown tremendously since she first arrived, and the city was pricing itself out of a lot of port business; companies carrying cargo for inland destinations preferred cheaper cities along the coast. “Blacks don’t understand doing things little by little. They don’t know how to do business. If you don’t want a lot of ships to come, then you don’t want to make a lot of money, am I right?”
Like so many of the stories of Chinese success I’d heard in Africa, Zhang’s path revealed a combination of keen intelligence, opportunism, and sheer chance that put people in the right place at the right time and primed them to take advantage of their circumstances. There were also ties of solidarity that often favored trust and mutual aid between Chinese in a faraway and unfamiliar land. It was through just such trust that Zhang had gotten his start in trade. In lieu of lending money, other Chinese had extended their goods to him via a system of informal credit.
Bosses like him, and I’d met plenty of them, relied on Chinese engineers and technicians, and they recruited fellow Chinese investors from afar, often after a single meeting, or sometimes with no prior meeting at all. Such as they existed, partnerships with locals rarely went beyond influence trafficking by well-connected local elites. Under circumstances like these, it was difficult to imagine how any robust transfer of knowledge or expertise could arise that might directly benefit Africans now, or even at any point in the near future. Zhang and others like him inhabited a new Chinese world under construction. Africa was just one backdrop among many, where new opportunities lay and where lots of money could be made.
By virtue of these sorts of experiences, Zhang felt Africans were increasingly well positioned to compete with the low-level Chinese traders, most of whom he said didn’t have any idea what was about to hit them. The men working the stalls at Le Centenaire had contemptuously described the locals as scarcely capable of learning and self-improvement,
There is no way to validate Zhang’s prognostications. The class of Chinese traders he spoke of was hardly limited to Le Centenaire, or even to Senegal. I have seen their lot in urban commercial scrums in some of the most desolate and unpromising places on the continent, sweating it out in tiny cagelike shops in Harar, with its Death Valley–like weather, near Ethiopia’s border with Somalia. I have seen them in downtown Lubumbashi, in southern Congo, where Chinese salesmen walk around with vest pockets full of $5 and $10 mobile phones of the poorest imaginable quality. And I have even seen them selling individual cigarettes at street intersections in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Senegal has long had one of the freest media climates in Africa, along with one of the best-developed civil societies on the continent, and as the brouhaha about the site in Rebeuss became the talk of the town, it quickly became evident that there was a lot of suspicion of the mysterious Chinese businessman, along with a fair number of hints of ambient anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. People complained that the project was a kind of Trojan horse, a beachhead for a second wave of Chinese who would soon be coming as the country’s new conquerors, armed not with guns but with plentiful cheap finance and powerful commercial networks linking them back to China. Few Senegalese would be able to afford luxury apartment housing of this type, the critics said.
Gently, I tried to explain that spiritual practices were an important part of life pretty much all over Africa. She wasn’t buying it. “In China there are people who worship, too, but you have to have your priorities right. If there’s no food at home for your children, how can you justify going to church?”
I was traveling to revisit a three-country subregion that had been as ravaged by violence and misrule as any part of the continent. To think of these countries as a unit was no act of abstraction. The fates of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea had been tightly linked since the Atlantic slave trade, and black returnees from nineteenth-century America and Britain founded the first two of them. Most recently, they had been bound together by the wars that had devastated Liberia and Sierra Leone, and in which Guinea had been both an important player and recipient of collateral damage throughout.
revisit a three-country subregion that had been as ravaged by violence and misrule as any part of the continent. To
Even by the standards of a continent full of economies driven by natural resources, each of these three societies was unusually rich in mineral wealth, albeit still largely untapped. Now that they were recovering, and drawing intense interest from foreign investors, not least from China, how would they manage things? How would the Chinese newcomers who were flooding in, people like Jin, operate in these largely unstructured environments? To what extent would the poor citizens of the subregion benefit from all of the new wealth to be extracted? These were the questions that brought me here.
In other parts of the world, petty commerce and small business were usually regarded as essential lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. They were one of the first and best options for upward mobility for the poor and scarcely educated. But in Africa, in a great many countries this sector had been taken over by migrants from afar who had the benefit of capital and developed trading networks and often more schooling. Still, it was hard to imagine that Chinese of this class, even with all of their famous energy and enterprise, their connection to what was set to become the world’s largest economy, would bring anything different.
“No, it is still the case,” he said. “There are Americans in every section of government here. At least one. You could say that Liberians are your cousins,” he said between laughs. “The Americans give a lot of money to this country, but it just gets wasted. It never reaches the people. China has learned from that. We don’t give away money. We build things. That way, the people can see some impact. This government is very close to the Americans, but the people don’t like your country very much. They feel that in all of these years you have never achieved much of anything here.”
I asked him where the fault lay, expecting him to invoke “laziness,” as I’d heard from countless others, but he never mentioned the word, sounding instead a bit like a Reagan-era Republican baiting an audience with talk about welfare queens.
It also seemed not to have occurred to him that Liberia had already been down the road of leasing out large tracts of land to foreigners. The terms were usually exceedingly generous, but this had never led to the development of anything more than little enclave economies and miniature company towns. The Firestone Rubber Company, which for decades had controlled vast stretches of the Liberian countryside, was the best example. Li had built up a head of steam, though, and I didn’t want to dissipate it with my objections.
Li had given in to the age-old expat’s game of armchair diagnostician of whatever ails Africa. To change the subject, I asked him what he thought of the country’s rival communities of Lebanese and Indians. Were they as hardworking as Chinese? Would they lose their grip to the newcomers?
Then he said something that surprised me, and took some of the edge off his earlier race talk. “I don’t believe in the idea that some nationalities automatically work harder than others. It’s all about making money work for you, and everyone is different. What I can say is that if you pay them well, even blacks can eat bitter just as much as any Chinese. If you don’t give a Chinese enough food to eat and you give him no incentive, there’s no way he’ll work hard. That’s what makes any country develop.”
“What the hell do you want to visit those people in Gbarnga for?” he asked. “You realize they’re different from people like us, don’t you? They are government people. They haven’t come here on their own. The reason they are willing to meet you and show you around their school is to make propaganda. That’s one of our government’s bad points, you know, propaganda; it’s always trying to put a good face on everything.”
Slighted, Li spun on his heels and walked away, not saying a word. I tried to imagine the loss of face suffered by this self-described former peasant, a man who could now afford to drive around in a late-model Mercedes he’d paid for with cash. Before I could even inquire, Dai launched into a quick explanation. “Chinese here have made a bad reputation for themselves by selling crappy goods,” he said, clearly associating Li with the trade in junk. “You can get away with that once or twice, but afterward, people understand what is going on and then your reputation is finished. Our reputation is finished.” In the space of a few minutes, the two had denounced each other on the basis of pure prejudice, and there was a remarkable symmetry to their charges, of seeking one’s fortune amid poverty, and of peddling shoddy goods and services.
Both Dai and Li had expressed scorn for their countrymen’s obsession in Africa with making money, and yet each of them had so clearly come with that purpose in mind themselves. This was reflected most clearly in Dai’s choice of a location for his clinic, the Mamba Point neighborhood, which is tucked away on a tiny spit of seaward-projecting land, and separated from the rest of the oppressive downtown by Monrovia’s tallest hill. Foreign embassies, the United Nations, aid agencies, and yes, NGOs, had long kept their offices or housed their staffs here, giving the area the feel of a foreign enclave.
Dai told me that he had been drawn to Liberia initially by an older sister, who was doing business here years earlier. He came from Shijia-zhuang, a medium-sized city not far to the south of Beijing, where he said he had been a senior supervising internist at a large hospital. The further along he got into his story, though, the more I had the impression he had been driven to Africa by a midlife crisis. Dai had abandoned a solid career and left a wife behind to start a clinic in a poor and all but unknown place like this on what must have seemed for him like the very edge of the global frontier. And he did so in collaboration with an attractive, albeit strikingly austere female doctor who was young enough to have once been his student.
The further along he got into his story, though, the more I had the impression he had been driven to Africa by a midlife crisis. Dai had abandoned a solid career and left a wife behind to start a clinic in a poor and all but unknown place like this on what must have seemed for him like the very edge of the global frontier. And he did so in collaboration with an attractive, albeit strikingly austere female doctor who was young enough to have once been his student.
Li revisited the theme of Liberian religiosity, exhibiting the same incredulity I had heard from the young Chinese woman I’d met on my flight into Monrovia. “No Chinese person would worry about God if he didn’t have food first. I’ve visited a church in the United States and I’ve seen churches here, and they are not at all the same! Here, they are simply dancing, two by two. They are crying and throwing themselves onto the ground and fainting the whole time. I couldn’t believe it!”
own problems. They wouldn’t be waiting on the state.” I didn’t want to argue with my hosts. I wanted them to talk. But I felt like reminding Li that perhaps forty million Chinese people had died of starvation a half century earlier because they followed their government’s orders. It was the largest famine in history. A snapshot taken then would have given a very different picture of the supposedly essential character of Chinese people, and it would have entirely missed the point. Governments matter. Markets matter. History matters. International circumstances matter. “This
That night, as I pulled the mosquito net down around my stiff dormitory bed, the dinner conversation played over and over in my head. There were notes of ignorance about Africans and their circumstances, and palpable naïveté. There was also a kind of optimism and self-belief that was striking, if perhaps equally naive. Here they were discovering Africa and setting goals with the idea of having a quick impact while giving no hint that they were aware of how thoroughly trodden the ground they were walking upon was.
“The Chinese didn’t want to put themselves out there directly,” Barry said. “That’s why this thing was structured a ‘private’ investment. Things might not have worked out this time, but these things tend to work for the Chinese in Africa. That’s because Africans have not mastered management. Our leaders are lazy, and their attitude is that the detailed stuff is too complicated. Their priority is to be able to say to the population: See what I’ve managed to get done? This allows the Chinese to win on every front, and they will implant themselves because they understand that Africans aren’t up to doing certain things.
“On the African side, no one verifies anything. No one knows the real costs. What we’re talking about is, in effect, barter, and the reality is that you’ll get your infrastructure, but after five years, if you’re lucky, it will be in a deteriorated state. You won’t bother to maintain it, and you won’t care, because it is like something that fell out of the sky and into your lap.”
“The Chinese were very quick to establish ties, and right away they offered to build us the Palais du Peuple [National Assembly building]. Ever since then, practically every African leader, whatever his ideological orientation, has gotten a palace of some sort from the Chinese. The problem is, they never taught us how to maintain it. Even now, when the lightbulbs are burned out, we have to call the Chinese to change them.”
Rarely, if ever, had I met anyone who could be fairly described as plainly “anti-Chinese.” In fact, in countries where China’s engagement had deep roots, it was common for people of all descriptions, including well-educated members of the elite and the most ordinary of folks, to recite a history of Chinese aid and solidarity. But as China ramps up on the continent today, as a voracious and increasingly rich and strong market-driving power, the optics surrounding its presence are changing, leaving a common set of adverse images in the minds of people all across Africa. There was mounting resentment over the way China was seen to be exporting its labor, dumping cheap goods, despoiling the environment, dispossessing powerless landholders or flouting local laws, fueling corruption, and most of all, empowering awful governments.
Diop’s admonition to China, however, amounted to a warning that in an Africa where governments often sit on narrow ethnic or regional bases, and where presidential clans, either literal or figurative, loot and despoil their countries with impunity, China’s conception of foreign affairs as an exclusively state-to-state matter would ultimately place its own interests at risk.
said. The end of the war was still months away, but as soon as the Nigerians had pushed the rebels out of the capital, a group of previously unknown Chinese businessmen arrived in Freetown and successfully negotiated the takeover of the Bintumani at a fire-sale price from a cash-strapped government that had barely escaped being overthrown. “Nobody had ever seen Chinese businesspeople like this in Freetown before, but as soon as they got their concession they went to work on the place, and before anyone knew it, they had it fixed up, and once the war was over, they were sitting pretty. They had finished their renovations, and they had the only international hotel that was functioning in Freetown.” This, in Kelvin’s mind, was the moment
scramble for Sierra Leone. In the modern history of this country, anywhere profits were being made one was likely to find Lebanese, who began arriving here in the 1890s. They dominated the retail scene buzzing below us on the shabby downtown streets. They controlled the lucrative government procurement business. They’d cornered the markets for textbooks used in the country’s schools and the cloth used for mandatory student uniforms. To change money, one had to go through them; to buy food from a supermarket, ditto. And nowhere was this truer than for the biggest and dirtiest business of all in Sierra Leone, the diamond
“Seven years,” he answered in a choked voice. His Mandarin was not filtered through some regional dialect, just very rough; a familiar kind of Lost Generation diction, the speech of a person of a certain age from the inland provinces whose schooling
Despite these misgivings, Rahall said that the arrival of Chinese money had given countries like his new options, and hence more breathing space, meaning unaccustomed freedom for once from the West. “People have welcomed the Chinese because they were an alternative, because there are times when you can find yourself with no investors, and the West just wags its finger at you and calls you corrupt. When our countries weren’t able to get money from the World Bank, or from their traditional donors because of the EITI [Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative] process rules, or environmental concerns, or because of financial transparency issues, the Chinese were there, and many people welcomed this, and not only the folks in government. The promising idea of this Chinese alternative has begun to show its real face, though. Nowadays, it feels more like being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
We are accustomed to thinking of democracy, which has become the norm in thirty or so African countries, as an unalloyed good, but Rahall had put his finger on an inherent problem. In the continent’s early phase of ongoing democratization, electoral politics often had little to do with nation building. Instead, the four or eight or ten years in power allotted to many leaders were devoted to feeding at the trough, or in the colorful political idiom of Nigeria, enjoying one’s “turn to chop.” In country after country, this problem came on top of an older, even more fundamental obstacle to the pursuit of any effective national development strategy: the sheer scarcity of experienced and competent people to fill out the civil service.
His style contrasted sharply with the legions of American diplomats I’d encountered over the years, with their overweening preoccupation with rules of attribution followed by endless boilerplate. Here was a diplomat who spoke his mind and didn’t bother with minute rituals over the rules. They never even came up.
I thought about our encounter for days afterward—Liu’s brittleness and self-indulgence, the apparent absence of critical self-examination, the flattering view he held of his own country and its history—and the more I did so, the more it reminded me of what I had learned about American arrogance, vintage, say, late 1950s or early 1960s. This was a time when the United States was becoming a big mover in broad new swaths of the Third World, including Africa. Its men, too, had arrived with their own shallow certainties and with a highly flattering view of themselves. I was put in mind of a story I’d read about Richard Nixon’s visit to Ghana as vice president to represent the United States at that country’s independence ceremonies in 1957. In his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, Martin Meredith describes Nixon as “the most enthusiastic” of the visiting dignitaries: “From the moment he touched down in Accra, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount chiefs, fondling black babies and posing for photographs. It was not always to good effect. Surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. ‘I wouldn’t know, sir,’ replied the man. ‘I’m from Alabama.’ ” At the end of our discussion, Liu was gracious enough to escort me downstairs and out to the parking lot. I wasn’t sure how to decipher the little wincing expression he made when he got a glimpse of my taxi, a badly beaten-up pink Mercedes 190, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t admiration. I asked him if he used the swimming pool much, and he grunted no. He got most of his exercise on the tennis court, which he said was on the other side of the building.
Anderson listened intently, though, as I recounted the story of Hao Shengli, how he had set off alone for Mozambique, having no prior knowledge of the country, and then, later, after acquiring land, sent for his young sons to establish a brood in his new home. This was a more colorful case than most, I explained, but I had met many Chinese people who broadly resembled Hao. They had ventured forth to build new lives in Africa without the least hand of their government. Indeed that seemed to be the general pattern. I also acknowledged that I had met others who, in ways small and large, had received help or encouragement from their government, which in its own well-known general manner was keen to see Chinese go forth and settle in or do business in every corner of the globe. I don’t think Anderson disagreed, which I interpreted as progress on the part of American diplomats.
He had been right, of course, on the last point, although not necessarily in the meaning he intended. Already, that far back, across Africa, there was a widespread and growing sense that China, at least in economic terms, was on its way to becoming the indispensable partner, the country that mattered. It was seen in the eyes of so many already as an expeditious new power that could change the direction of nations or even whole regions of the continent in ways that the West with its countless rules and procedural demands, its frequent if inconsistent insistence on good form in areas like democracy and human rights and corruption, had promised but never seemed to get around to.
Americans made beautiful, principled speeches and imposed countless conditions on all manner of things. But in the end, in Africa they seemed to move the ball very slowly. They regarded Africa not as a terrain of opportunity, or even as a morally compelling challenge to humanity, but as a burden, and largely as one to be evaded as much as possible. Since the Battle of Mogadishu and the ensuing Black Hawk Down debacle in Somalia in 1993, and the genocide in Rwanda the following year, Washington’s abiding concern in Africa was avoiding being left holding the bag. Outside of energy markets, even business in Africa usually left the country cold. America managed to convey the smug message that it would always have far bigger fish to fry.
The darling of Anderson’s aid mission was a program in the Delta meant to help small-scale farmers obtain titles for land they had long worked under traditional tenure arrangements. The initiative seemed to embody many of America’s most cherished ideals: notions like private property, the rule of law, and the entrepreneurial potential that ownership unlocks for the individual. In its spirit, it was similar to many other American initiatives on this poorest of continents. In the lingo of the Beltway aid establishment, it was called “capacity building,” and it was looked upon fondly, so much so that it had taken on the weight of ideology, becoming an article of faith. Time and again, during our conversation, Anderson spoke of creating the right “software” for Africa, which for him represented the opposite of China’s “hardware” approach. The
Anderson said American builders routinely showed no interest in work like this in Africa. They feared high operating costs and complicated bureaucratic regulations, and they were unfamiliar with the African terrain. Africa occupied a relatively blank space in the minds of most Americans, and when they stopped to think about it, aided by old and deeply ingrained habits of press coverage, all they could imagine was violence, corruption, disease, and horror.
When the call concluded, Shuai laughed out loud. Then he turned to me, deadly serious. “The first thing you need to know here is that Malians are always making excuses, and the biggest trump card of all is God. Invoke God, and you are without blame.”
“Chinese people are just about everywhere,” he said, again erupting with manic laughter. “You should never go anywhere where there are no Chinese.” “Is that because such places are too dangerous?” I asked. “Wrong. It’s because those are places where it is impossible to make money.”
This was an utterly Chinese viewpoint. Social engineering on a vast scale—whether moving millions of people to build the Three Gorges Dam, or implementing the One Child Policy, or bulldozing old neighborhoods in Shanghai to make way for skyscrapers—was expected of government. Even those who resisted it doubted that Beijing would ever abandon this top-down approach.
There was little to dispute about this sentiment, even if it seemed only tenuously related to the maritime dispute we had been discussing. Liu’s comment reminded me of what the diplomats had said at the American embassy about countries like Mali becoming indebted to China, not just financially, but morally as well, and how at least a few Malians worried about loss of sovereignty, or at a minimum, loss of maneuvering room.
“China has too many problems,” Liu said, shaking his head, pausing a beat before explaining that the Cultural Revolution of his youth had “exploded the ethical and moral basis of our civilization. Foreigners come to study the genius of our culture, but we ourselves have lost sight of it. Deference, honesty, hard work, sacrifice, they have all suffered. The young people today, they’re pretty useless. You can’t even talk to them about these things. They don’t understand. On top of that, we’ve got 800 million peasants who are culturally handicapped.” For this, he used the words wen mang, which meant illiterate, but in his usage had the ring of uncouth.
From my earliest days on the continent, my fascination with Africa was bound up with maps, and none more so than the red-covered foldable ones produced by Michelin. The story they told, via a sparse assortment of colored or dotted lines representing Africa’s transportation infrastructure, was not just how to get from one place to another, but how the continent was tied together—or not. The scarcity of the lines, sketched against a backdrop of immense yellow deserts, vast, green bands of forest that extended north from the coast in West Africa, or in the case of the region I was driving through, the endless, dry scrublands of the Sahel—color-coded in white—spoke of much more than the mere hugeness of the terrain.
The countryside itself was a kind of corrugated bleakness, marked by cultivated areas that hugged to the road, and huge expanses of open land under a big, punishing sky. It was
No sooner had we left the main road than Coulibaly turned to me with an unhappy look playing on his face. “We don’t like the Chinese,” he said flatly, presuming to speak for Malians in general. “That man is lucky the police didn’t come, because they would have ruled it was the Chinese man’s fault. We are Malians. We’ve already been forced to learn French. We don’t want to be speaking Chinese someday.”
China’s big push into Africa was a textbook case of the first type of expansion. Western interest in Africa waned after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western Europe was drawn instead toward its immediate backyard to the east. These were countries with which it had deep historic and cultural ties, whose populations were literate and easy to train but starved for capital. The United States, meanwhile, tied itself up in a series of wars in the Middle East and South Asia. By the turn of the millennium, China, which was fast growing and increasingly ambitious, had surveyed the global scene and grasped that little attention was being paid to Africa. The continent offered minerals and other natural resources, fast-growing markets already primed for patient, deep-pocketed investors, and land to help secure China’s food supply needs well into the future.
since, companies like Gao’s had been pouring into the continent and winning market share from the complacent European contractors who had long dominated road building and other public works on the basis of political backing from their governments and corruption. The Chinese newcomers were able to capture market share easily from the established players via an unbeatable triple play: cheaper financing from Chinese state banks, cheaper Chinese materials, and cheaper Chinese labor. In stark contrast to their Western counterparts, even the Chinese managers on big projects tended to live modestly, often in the same compound with their staff. And if need be, they were even willing to take losses on projects to break into new markets and to keep the country’s colossal, state-owned construction sector at full employment.
“You can never beat China; you can only turn yourselves into the IBM of construction,” a Chinese executive lectured his French hosts. By that he meant that the French couldn’t compete against Chinese companies in building railways and power grids. IBM doesn’t make hardware anymore. The French have 80 years of experience in West Africa, but the Chinese have just arrived. He admitted that the Chinese don’t understand the local society, the politics and the environment. “Why don’t you provide a consulting report about the political, social, and environmental impact of the project?” he suggested. The Chinese side would pay the French a consulting fee.
Chinese workers on big construction projects were coming to Africa by the tens of thousands and many found to their surprise that they liked it. They discovered that Africa was a continent of wide-open opportunity, and in many countries they felt welcome enough to want to take their chances and stay on. These pioneering new settlers were the founders of burgeoning new communities here and there, growing Chinese foodstuffs, selling Chinese necessities to one another, opening Chinese clinics and schools and restaurants, and even brothels.
In 2011, tens of thousands of Chinese were evacuated from Libya by their government amid the conflict that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. One day, perhaps soon, China would no longer be content to send ships to mount emergency evacuations like this. In places where its interests had taken root deeply, it would impose its demands on the local government for the respect of its citizens, and of their property and investments. And perhaps not too much further down the road, it would find itself in the position of wanting or needing to actually intervene.
of China’s denials that its overseas ambitions could be compared to those of Europeans or Americans, for all of its insistence that its actions are driven by fraternal solidarity with Africans, its fellow victims of colonization, its fellow travelers on the path to development, what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire, a haphazard empire perhaps, but an empire nonetheless.
Africa has a population of more than one billion and huge market potential. Africa’s latent demand in terms of population size and room for expansion is much higher than in Southeast Asia or Latin America. When you start from a lower starting point, there is more room to move up. In Latin America, per capita GDP has reached $6,000 to $7,000. It’s even higher in Southeast Asia. This is a lot different than the room for growth in per capita GDP in Africa, which is between $300 and $3,000. This is the significance of Africa.
We drove on for some time through an unchanging environment, making our way through the staggering vastness of the Office. To carve out this domain, France had dismembered its neighboring colony, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), lopping off 23,000 square miles, and had organized the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of peasants to work the clay-heavy soils of the Delta, planting it with long-staple cotton, which for all their pains would eventually prove to be a poorly adapted crop. The African mortality rates, meanwhile, were staggering.
Chinese political discussions encouraged one to do so. In 2011, for example, delegates to the annual session of China’s parliament debated a proposal to seek employment for as many as 100 million Chinese on the African continent. One champion of this idea, Zhao Zhihai, a delegate and researcher at the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hebei province, said: “In the current economic climate, with so many of our people unemployed, China can benefit from finding jobs for them and Africa can benefit from our expertise in developing any type of land and crop.”
These were the kind of Chinese Gao had spoken of who were doing work that the French, and in this case Americans, were unwilling to do. There were nine of them here altogether, and the brunt of their work seemed to consist of overseeing seventy Malians with whom they had no common medium of communication, except through a lone translator.
Boly said he had become accustomed to people asking him to proclaim himself pro- or anti-Chinese. “I don’t like them or dislike them, save for one thing, which I really admire: they know how to remain themselves, which is a dream that any African can understand and respect.”
He also gave the Chinese credit for patience. China was playing for the long term, and not always for a quick score or for short-term profits, and he cited old Chinese investments in Mali in textiles, sugar, and tobacco, most of which hadn’t panned out terribly well, or had even lost money outright. “China has a means of advancing which is different from that of the West. They are like a boa: it observes its prey quietly, taking its time. In the same way, the Chinese are waiting for a long-term return.
“I have a hard time imagining a Chinese leader deciding to invest in grain production here in Mali for sale in China,” Boly said. “We are a thousand kilometers from the nearest port, and with the transportation costs to get rice to China, it wouldn’t make sense. But I can easily imagine them producing rice to sell to us here in this region, which frees up grain from elsewhere for their consumption. And if they become really big players here, that gives China a lot of influence over our [African] governments.” With that, Boly related a recent conversation he had with a senior government official.
“The places around the world where there is gravity-fed irrigation of arable land on a large scale are very few,” the official had told him. “We are sitting on top of a jewel; something comparable to the Nile River Valley.”
“No way,” said Jia. “Here the cost of electricity is more than twice as high as it is in China. The labor costs are about the same. The cost of cotton is determined internationally, so they don’t have an advantage with the raw materials. So, as you can see, it is the power that makes them uncompetitive. They don’t have coal in Mali, and they must draw their electricity from Côte d’Ivoire and from Ghana.”
In many places, Africans complained that Chinese occupied construction, industrial management, even general maintenance of projects, and precious few of those skills were passed along to locals. With scant transfer of knowledge and technology, there was little chance of creating a new, native Malian industrial culture. What one was left with instead, critics feared, was a culture of dependency. A dead end like this did not require organized evil conspiracies or even ill will. It represented opportunities seized. Nonetheless, it was a problem as old as colonialism itself, and one in which China, convinced of its own “win-win” rhetoric, had demonstrated little new thinking.
Shuai was curious to know what I made of the show. I said it seemed pretty generic; I’d seen lots of these during my time in China. “I don’t pay attention to them myself,” he announced. “From start to end, it’s all euphemism, and that’s the problem with the state. It’s full of bullshit. Everyone knows that if there had been none of this revolutionary nonsense, if the Nationalists had won the war, China would have been rich at least thirty years earlier. Instead, we got leaders who were obsessed with revolution. Human beings want to make money. Men want to enjoy beautiful women, all the time. The perpetual revolution crap we had to endure was anti-social, un-human. You look at countries like France and the United States, their leaders are ordinary people, not supposed heroes. They don’t behave like Chinese leaders, each of whom feels he needs to invent his own school of thought. Utter nonsense.”
Liu, had offered of his government. It’s common for grand assumptions to be made about Beijing’s hand in anything Chinese one finds in Africa. Beijing is generally thought to be actively supporting the entire gamut of Chinese companies as they set up overseas. Many believe that Beijing is minutely organizing the migration of its citizens to the continent. Liu had a revealingly different view of the role of his government. For him and his company, it was an impediment. He wasn’t more involved in road construction in Mali because “it’s Beijing that decides what we can do, what we can bid on,” he said. “We could be doing a lot more construction work but they want us to stick to environmental work. They won’t let us bid on the big road projects.”
Ghana is a medium-sized country in West Africa, but it has always cut an outsized figure in both continental history and politics. In 1957, under Kwame Nkrumah, it became the first sub-Saharan country to win independence, from Britain. Restlessly ambitious, Nkrumah ruled as a left-leaning nationalist and pioneered Pan-Africanism, a political creed premised on breaking down colonial boundaries and forging a unified government for the continent.
Brown made a claim about Ghana I had heard often in several variations. He said that of all the countries in Africa, Ghana was among the best positioned to take advantage of its booming natural resource wealth, and of the eagerness of its new Chinese partners to drive a sound development policy. This was because of Ghana’s increasingly robust democracy, its relative openness and transparency, and the existence of a substantial and fast-growing middle class, including swelling ranks of technocrats and highly educated professionals. And yet for all of these advantages, Brown did not sound especially hopeful or optimistic about the impact that engagement with China would have on his country. This was despite the fact that at the time we spoke, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, had only recently returned from Beijing, where he had concluded a memorandum of understanding for a $13 billion Chinese loan package that he said would “transform our country’s economy and the lives of the people of Ghana.”
Many of the other observations I heard about the growing presence of Chinese and of Chinese money were familiar. Ghanaians complained that Chinese investors and migrants came to the country with one declared purpose, but quickly involved themselves in other pursuits, legal or not so legal. Ghana is Africa’s second largest gold producer, after South Africa, and the stories about illegal mining by Chinese, who cut down forests and despoiled the land with mercury to produce their gold, were legion.
Twum had said nothing explicit about a bright future for Ghana, but it was clear in listening to his story of activism that people like him were making a positive difference. Civil society works, in part, by demanding more from those who govern: better performance, more accountability and openness, and more fairness. In this way, and not just through the regular exercise of elections, habits of democracy are formed, and this seemed like a vital piece of the puzzle—part of the answer to the question haunting the young reporter Moses Dzawu about how Ghana could eventually assure itself a supply of good leaders.
witnessed democracy making a difference in Senegal, where shadowy dealings for some of the most valuable real estate in the country were blocked. I had seen it in Zambia, where the presence of large numbers of Chinese immigrants, and the terms granted to foreign-owned extractive industries, including big Chinese newcomers, had become a major electoral campaign issue, and had led to better pay for miners. Even in a village on the outskirts of Bamako where people had been cheated, I had heard its ex-mayor say he had had enough experience of democracy to believe that justice would prevail in the end. This fed his stubbornness and persistence, giving him the will to petition higher jurisdictions and demand that the authorities look into the matter; demanding, in effect, that they do their job.
fine print of the huge deals it was concluding was known at all it was a by-product of African democracy: of parliaments, of opposition parties, and of civic groups that had demanded their governments disclose details the Chinese typically would not.
The signs symbolized an undeclared global contest under way over soft power. The Americans were constantly hectoring Africans about their behavior and values—protecting oneself against AIDS, limiting family size, sleeping under mosquito nets. Chinese messaging, as I said earlier, focused on big, tangible things that fairly shouted: This stadium, this hospital, this railroad, this airport, has been built by a people eager to walk hand in hand with you toward economic development. But of course development required more than pouring concrete and building things, just as it demanded more than constant reminding of supposed best practices.
Whether it involved land deals with foreigners or negotiations with governments, traditional rulers in Africa have often played a part in shortchanging the rights of peasants. They typically lacked extensive formal schooling, and were often easily manipulated with money or gifts that reinforced their own privilege and prestige but did little for their constituents. Wuo, though, was clearly cut from a different cloth. He was a graduate of the University of Cape Coast, and he spent most of the week at a job in a city called Nsuta, a couple of hours away, working as a senior district education official. When Richard Twum came knocking, though, to talk about the stakes involved for local communities—farmers of cashews, cassava, and yams—in the building of a dam here, in King Wuo he found a canny and receptive audience.
later wondered if a vast build-out of roads and other infrastructure by the Chinese could not only get people and goods moving much faster and more cheaply, but might also lead to a change of culture, and of attitudes toward time. Might it at last create an expectation of expedience in African transactions? Ed Brown, the ex–World Bank official, had spoken of the continent’s appalling infrastructure as an “element of inertia,” as something that until fixed would irrevocably hold Africa back. King Wuo had spoken about it, too, noting that Ghana had had good roads and rails when he was young. I came to learn that where Ghana’s roads were concerned, the Chinese had also been part of the problem.
Zou said that Chinese workers had revered Western investors in China and painstakingly studied their ways (many would go a good deal further and say that Chinese companies often stole and copied intellectual property and industrial secrets outright), but Ghanaians showed little interest in learning from Chinese employers.
you have your equipment and your people in place and there is no business, that is very bad. If you bid low, though, even if you have a tiny margin, you are better off. That’s the reason Chinese companies bid low. It’s not because we want more market share. The number of companies and people working in this sector [in China] is very large. We need more and more markets to keep people employed. Most of the companies like mine are state-owned, and if you start laying off workers, it will create huge problems for the country.” He acknowledged that “some projects are not done well. If the Chinese government gives a grant to an African country and a Chinese company gets the work, they will often do the project very quickly in order to save money, and this leads to the quality not being good. That is true.
country.” He acknowledged that “some projects are not done well. If the Chinese government gives a grant to an African country and a Chinese company gets the work, they will often do the project very quickly in order to save money, and this leads to the quality not being good. That is true.
“We are trying to get the government to sit up and take notice, because we are simply stumbling through this relationship with China,” Bentil told me. “If you look at the elite, they think that China is the key to the future—a country that will provide lots of money without asking a lot of questions. In fact, we are the ones who are not asking questions. I am not pro- or anti-Chinese, but I want us to get a good deal out of this relationship, and you won’t get that by accident. China has a strategy, and we don’t, and they will take advantage of us, not because they are bad people, but because we haven’t been smart.” As an example, he mentioned the Bui Dam. “In the 1960s, we built Akosombo ourselves. Why should we be having the Chinese build Bui for us?” (In fact, an American company, Kaiser Engineers and Construction, had been the main contractor for the dam project, but the level of Ghanaian participation was high.)
“The fear that China is going to come here and rape us of our resources is nonsense,” he said. “The Chinese need our resources and the key questions are what price we get for them and how much transformation is done locally. All the rest is meaningless.”
Albert said, African countries had to stop dealing with China single-handedly. “With fifty-four countries in Africa, there’s not much leverage that any single one of us can have. But if we work to cut deals together we can get much better terms. We can also enlist China to help us build an infrastructure that lets us trade much more with each other.” Leverage was the key concept, he said, and it worked in other ways, as well. “China’s involvement should help us change the terms of engagement with the West, in order to gain greater equity, more parity. If the West is jealous of China, we should say to them, Train our people and give them a bigger role in your companies. Don’t complain about the Chinese. Help us move up the value chain. Do this, and we will love you.”
I’d traveled overland to Zambia on the TAZARA Railway, which China built under Mao in the 1970s, as both a show of solidarity with the continent and a bid for influence. With that single, dramatic stroke, China successfully insinuated itself into a game that had previously been dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Chinese presence in Dar had grown enormously.
Salehe had an answer for his own question, one that echoed an explanation I had heard from the former Zambian finance minister, who had told me that officials in Beijing had urged his government to tread lightly on enforcing immigration laws with Chinese nationals, as a matter of “friendship.” “This is happening because the Chinese government is helping this government with loans, with construction, and with assistance of various kinds,” said Salehe, “and the Chinese use this as camouflage for immigration. It is true that we get aid from the Chinese, but if you turn the coin over, you will see that they are benefiting at our expense. The Chinese will take over all the business in Tanzania. In ten years, if nothing changes, there will be nothing
I asked him why Chinese should be regarded any differently from Indians, who had dominated the retail sector and much else in Tanzania for decades. He ignored my question and repeated some of the standard complaints about the Chinese newcomers.
Most strikingly, the boom here was also attracting large numbers of Portuguese, Mozambique’s onetime colonial masters who were now residents of one of Europe’s poorest countries and among the hardest hit by financial crisis. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of Portuguese officially registered with their embassy increased by over 20 percent, with 23,000 of them thought to be living in Mozambique’s two biggest cities, Maputo and Beira. The Portuguese were every bit as clannish as the Chinese, keeping their own company in favorite home-style restaurants in Maputo, or gathering around tables in private homes. Together, they ritually bemoaned the stagnation of the old country while plotting moves forward. Portugal and China shared a history of sending emigrants around the world to establish new communities. One had done so because it was a perennially poor land at the margins of Europe, and the other because it was a poor and overcrowded land in the heart of
An element in my decision to return to Mozambique was a desire to visit the far north. It was easily the poorest part of the country, and yet as is common in conflict-prone African societies, it was also the most richly endowed with almost all of the country’s main resources. The north had been the stronghold of the RENAMO rebels during the long civil war, which ended in 1992. Ever since, it had been largely frozen out in terms of politics and patronage, compounding its poverty. Not incidentally,
was a desire to visit the far north. It was easily the poorest part of the country, and yet as is common in conflict-prone African societies, it was also the most richly endowed with almost all of the country’s main resources. The north had been the stronghold of the RENAMO rebels during the long civil war, which ended in 1992. Ever since, it had been largely frozen out in terms of politics and patronage, compounding its poverty. Not incidentally, the north also seemed to be favored by many Chinese migrants, who carved out big chunks of the forest for logging, and who worked the country’s waters for prized, industrial catches of shark, shrimp, and squid.
Norfolk’s story was an illustration of the classic presidential clan rentier capitalism that has ravaged any number of African countries, and the Wild West atmosphere surrounding the country’s forests was being replicated along the coast with the country’s sea resources. This rentier system also governs Mozambique’s management of its immense, newfound reserves of coal and natural gas. The state clings to the practice of contract secrecy, which allows it to hide the terms of foreign investment, along with any revenues, from its own citizens. This helps explain an apparent paradox widely observed in Africa: poverty is declining much faster in countries without mineral wealth than in those that are richly endowed in natural resources. For years, Western countries have provided huge amounts of budgetary support to Mozambique, and by not demanding an end to this practice they have arguably served as accomplices.
If the Chinese had lost out in Nacala, Pereira said, they were doing whatever they could to make up for it. Doors to other opportunities were steadily being opened for them through their work in the road-building sector. The government was allowing Chinese road builders to bring in as many workers as they liked, Pereira said. Some of the Chinese workers went into business for themselves and sank roots in the country, while others saw Mozambique as a relatively easy back door into the promised land of prosperous South Africa, next door.
How many times had I heard these very words, or variants thereof? As we’ve seen, in Africa, China has rolled out a special vocabulary of friendly partnership, of marching together fraternally along the path of development, and, above all, of “win-win,” the anesthetizing catchphrase that is attached to nearly everything it does. In Liu’s remarks, echoed in a thousand other similar conversations I’d been a part of, though, one glimpsed a darker truth. China had not so much broken with the paternalism of the West that it so often decried, as replaced it with a new one of its own. Africans were not really brothers. Not at all. Behind the fraternal masks, Chinese officials thought of them as children, capable only of baby steps, to be brought along with sugary inducements and infantilizing speech.
waxed-in-place style favored by many of China’s top leaders. We sat stiffly, side by side, in cushioned chairs with straight but low backs, with a side table between us, as if I was a visiting foreign dignitary. I was confronted with an aspect of the country’s soft power that had always impressed me. Every bit of decoration in the room spoke to the longevity and wealth of Chinese civilization and to the seemingly unfathomable depths of its culture.
That afternoon, I had an appointment with Chen Jun, the head of the association of Chinese residents of Nampula. We met at the Pensão Parque, a cheap pension hotel and restaurant that stood at the lower end of the grubby, main downtown drag. Going by the name and the cafélike terrace-style layout, I’d assumed it was owned by a Portuguese holdover from colonial days. I was quickly disabused. There was a Chinese short order cook on duty and the friendly waiters told me the owner was Chinese, too. In fact, the man I was meeting owned the place.
There was a familiar story about the pull factor of a successful acquaintance, one of those three original pioneers, now long gone, who had urged him to come join him in Africa. Chen “wanted to go to the U.S. to study, but said you can make money in this place, even if it is really poor. At first I was selling TVs, and because this is the economic center of the north, you could get by okay as a trader. When I got here I couldn’t believe it. The black people were so primitive, you know, the way they work. Not like us Chinese. We’re in a hurry.”
As a percentage of the indigenous population, ten thousand Chinese residents, which many Namibians say errs on the low side (common estimates ran as high as forty thousand), arguably represents China’s largest footprint in Africa. For that reason, Namibia may in some sense be a bellwether of China’s ongoing migratory push into Africa.
Wealth hadn’t come easily for Hou here, though. On the first trip to Namibia, his money ran out around the same time as his visa, and the immigration police soon came knocking. He had neither the means to bribe them, as some friends advised, nor to hire a lawyer, as others suggested. So he went back to China dejected but not defeated, and immediately began saving money in order to return to a life of petty commerce in Namibia that he believed would lead to bigger things.
“I’m Chinese,” he answered, “and we have an expression that says you leap forward if there’s an empty space. Empty spaces are there to be filled.” Hou saved up again and returned the following year.
“That’s when the really big trouble began,” he said. “My in-laws began threatening me, saying that they would go to the immigration people and tell them that I had arranged a marriage just in order to get a residence permit.” To buy them off, he gave his Namibian wife their new home and a lump sum payment whose amount he didn’t disclose. “My experience is like a TV movie,” he said.
Xie, the withdrawn, slightly shabbily dressed man who had ridden quietly with us from the outset, spoke up for the first time. “These vegetables are really good quality, and that’s why he’s doing such a good business in them,” he said. “Even the whites have started buying them. Vegetables protect your body against harmful substances. They’re good for your health and they help keep you going. I don’t know why the blacks don’t eat them. They just don’t get it. All they are interested in is meat.”
asked him why he was so determined to live outside China. “You know, in my circle of friends back home, very few people were able to even afford a car. None of them became bosses. I had to leave China in order to achieve this.”
Their talk was full of complaints about workers—about hei ren, a phrase they used incessantly, meaning black people. There was no great sting to this, in part because I was so accustomed to hearing it from Chinese, but also because it didn’t carry the same history with it, the way, say, nigger might in the United States. Still, there was no escaping the fact that this was race language, too. Nobody said the Africans, or the Namibians, or even the locals. Among Chinese, it was ever and always hei ren.
asked him how long he thought he would remain overseas. “I’m not going back to China,” he announced flatly. “Why should I?” A string of laments about the pressures and hardships people had to put up with back home ensued. “It’s not a pretty picture,” he said, before complaining about soaring real estate prices, the seizure of land, arbitrary acts by local governments, and the corruption of officials, which he said fueled all of these phenomena. “What’s a peasant if he doesn’t have land? That’s what you call a poor person. He has no more life.”
“Yeah, I give some gifts to people here. That’s the way things work. But it’s nowhere near as heavy-handed or unpleasant. In China, you have the Party controlling you all the time.” He reached his hand out as he said this, in a grabbing gesture. “They’re always squeezing you for more and more money.” As
Everyone knows the stock story of China’s breathtakingly fast growth and of the country’s seemingly irresistible rise. It was this less familiar underside of the country’s recent experience, though, that was helping drive migration. Encounters like this one were reminders that huge numbers of Chinese had not boarded the up escalator, or at least they did not feel they had. To the contrary, they felt crushed.
There were world-class beaches in Namibia, but Hou had never been. Some of the world’s best game parks were here, too, but he’d never seen those, either. For all of his cars and the money, this was a curious form of success.
On December 30, my brother, Jamie, flew in from Johannesburg, where he lives, to join me. We planned to drive 450 miles north to the border with Angola. There was an important Chinese community in Oshikango, a little frontier town right on the border, and they were said to be doing a huge business servicing the southern part of oil-rich and spectacularly corrupt Angola, in everything from heavy machinery and trucks to household appliances and dry goods.
He said that most of the Chinese companies of any size were government-owned, and their access to the resources of the Chinese state allowed them to dominate competition all over Africa. “Even the companies that are not state-owned seem to have the backing of the state—especially if they are exporters.” He described a phenomenon of ultra-competitive bidding aimed at winning contracts at any cost; people had spoken of the same thing on previous stops. “We can’t build infrastructure for ourselves, because if we bid 200 million, they will offer to build for 100 million. Yes, the state saves money, but the negative consequence is that the private sector here is killed off.” A solution, he said, would be to require Chinese companies to form joint ventures with local partners. “They should bring Namibians aboard, so that we can build up our society and benefit from its wealth. Otherwise in ten years we will see that only the Chinese have benefited and Africans remain poor. Unfortunately our leaders in Africa don’t have a very good understanding of this.”
Public opinion nearly reached the boiling point when Chinese obtained investor visas for opening up beauty salons. The labor minister had to plead with the public not to attack Chinese people in the country. I told him I would be
“When I first got here, there were only five hundred people in this town; I mean Africans,” Chen said emphatically. “Back then, I lived in a little tiny place, almost like a tent, and when it rained heavily, even cows and goats would wander in. It didn’t matter to me, though, because I had customers all the time from Angola. Angola was still emerging from war, and there was still shooting all the time. But because of the war there, I knew there were opportunities, and I didn’t mind taking on debt because I knew how to do business. And after a single year here, I was rich.”
Chen, who was from Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, had worked for twenty years as a manager for a manufacturing company there before setting out for Africa. “I never had enough money to buy a house. I had to hand over our profits constantly to the Communist Party. In China, the system is built for the Party and not for the businessman, and whatever else happens, it is always the Party that gets rich.”
The problem was not the numbers of Chinese, Chen said, but the behavior. Newcomers tended to be lower-class, with big ambitions but little finesse or manners. “They make no effort to speak the language. They begin bossing people around. And they behave very arrogantly.” By way of illustration, he said that if he caught a thief among his Namibian workers, he wouldn’t make a big deal of it. “But some of these newcomers might go so far as to beat the person. They feel that they have saved their money and come all this way to invest, and it makes them angry and entitled to take matters into their own hands.”
“Ninety percent of Africans are thieves,” he said. As Chen accompanied us to the driveway where I had parked I asked him whether the Chinese government was helping businesses like his in this frontier export zone. He laughed, saying that Chinese state banks constantly offered easy money to finance trade. “The credit requirements are ridiculously easy. You hardly have to document anything,” he said. “China has too much money, with all those American dollars we are holding. There’s so much money that they don’t know what to do with it.”
comptoirs or trading stations and depots that European powers had established up and down the West African coast centuries earlier. They had been important forerunners of colonialism, introducing Africans as much to the unfamiliar ways as to the shiny new wares of the grabbing outsiders. They created appetites, and with them markets. And in time they extended credit and contracted debt. The moves toward full-fledged colonialism would await the ideological softening up of the indigenous peoples through religion, along with a change in the balance of forces, created by the growth in the number of Europeans on the ground, and especially by a stepped-up security presence, whether through the fort or the Gatling gun. By the time the Africans realized what was happening to them, in most places the game was already up. This was the process that famously lay at the heart of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart.
Here and there, just off the side of the road, lay some of the world’s biggest open uranium mines—one of Namibia’s principal sources of income—including one that had just been acquired by Chinese interests.
Lastly came the twenty-mile descent to the coast and more precisely to Swakopmund, a prosperous resort city of 42,000 founded by Germans a little over a century ago. Throughout this last leg, all the traffic was headed in the opposite direction on the immaculate two-lane highway. The cars were full of whites headed back to Windhoek after sun and sand holidays, playing on the gorgeous beaches here and in the area’s towering dunes. Namibia no longer had apartheid, to be sure, but the stark separation of races that still prevailed could be seen in the two very different vacation scenes we had witnessed: all black in the north and all white here.
He cited a famous story in the country based on WikiLeaks documents that Chinese officials had negotiated the writing off of an unspecified amount of Namibian debt in exchange for five thousand passports and immigration permits for Chinese nationals.
“Have you heard about the provision of scholarships given to the children of senior politicians?” he asked me. “This includes the daughter of the president. They are sent to China for schooling. These are just some of the political favors that are given in order to influence our leaders. I think that any normal country would respond strongly to something like this. Can you imagine something like this coming out in America? Here, when it surfaced, though, there was nothing.” For Nishikaku, the scandal over scholarships was merely one of myriad ways in which new Chinese interests in the country had bought influence in Namibia. “They say
“If the practices of the Chinese firms had been engaged in by other companies there would have been a severe crackdown. What is most interesting is the Chinese don’t deny that they aren’t paying minimum wages here and yet the government is still willingly issuing them tenders. This is just unacceptable.”
Nuctech was a Chinese company that sold airport scanners, and there had recently been a scandal in Namibia over bribes it reportedly paid in order to win a major contract. “Nuctech sold scanners to the Namibian government at inflated prices, and there were kickbacks involved,” he said. “The machines were billed at $55 million, but the correct cost was really $40 million, so that’s quite a big difference.” This story was of more than passing interest because the son of Chinese president Hu Jintao was the CEO of Nuctech, and very embarrassingly the son had been invited for questioning by Namibian investigators over the affair. For a time in China, in order to quash discussion of the matter, censors had gone so far as to block all Internet searches involving the word Namibia.
At the end of that first conversation with her, she spoke in terms of profound powerlessness and discouragement, and asked me to help find a spot for her at an American university, ready to become another casualty of the continent’s brain drain. Soon afterward, the country’s president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, had said publicly that his countrymen were too busy complaining about the Chinese, forgetting how they had helped Namibia obtain independence. The president ended his aside by telling his countrymen to get over their disgruntlement, because the Chinese weren’t going anywhere.
A consistent feature of imperialism, especially in its later manifestations, is the linkage between political and economic competition among contending powers. And China, for all its denials of any global ambition that could be likened to hegemony, is clearly competing with someone and for something—global preeminence.
The signs of this are omnipresent in Africa, where Beijing has exhibited a preference for giant projects that serve as constant, highly visible reminders of China’s reach, its power, and of its supposed generosity and solicitude. China claims, for example, to have built forty-two stadiums and fifty-four hospitals on the continent. A June 2013 tweet from China Daily, an official, English-language newspaper, captured the spirit behind this succinctly: “In the last decade, China’s investment in Africa has grown to $2.9b from $75m, and China’s influence can be seen everywhere.”
“You employ local people and place them as observers at each and every polling station,” Zhou said with a little mocking laugh. “What else? I haven’t seen any roads being built by [the Americans], any schools, any hospitals that really touch people, that can last, that can serve society for long. Maybe training election people is your biggest contribution.”
China’s competitiveness and search for national influence can also be seen in the way it is investing massively in African media. The state broadcaster, CCTV, is building what it hopes will become a continent-wide television powerhouse in Nairobi. The official Xinhua news agency has teamed with African mobile phone companies to supply news via cell phone. And China Daily has launched a supplement, Africa Weekly, for wide distribution on the continent. At the same time, Beijing is funding Confucius Institutes, a very rough equivalent to the Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Instituts, all over the continent. Nominally this is in order to train Chinese speakers, which African countries can certainly use and benefit from, but one would be naive to ignore Beijing’s other clear and very old-fashioned purpose: expanding its influence.
The new manufacturing centers of the West were only able to sustain growth of this magnitude by continually opening up new markets and inundating them with their goods. To do so required new infrastructure, and today one easily forgets that ports, railways, roads, and the administrative districts that became the downtowns of capitals around the world were built on an extraordinary scale all over the world by Westerners in the driven pursuit of their own interests. As manufacturing powers, they needed their goods to circulate, and they needed the raw materials from far-flung places in order to make them. Seen in this light, it scarcely seems coincidental that China, a country that has surged from near autarky to becoming the so-called factory of the world in the space of a mere generation, has quickly become the most ambitious builder of infrastructure in Africa, the world’s fastest-growing region, both demographically and economically, and the source of a disproportionate share of the globe’s natural resources.
In my belief, however, it is the human activity, migration, that provides the most striking parallels with imperial patterns of the past.
Long before they had contemplated anything resembling modern colonial rule, the Portuguese had understood the potential of a diaspora in a faraway land to build up favorable trading networks, to extend political influence, and even to reduce problems back home, by giving marginal elements of the society a shot at wealth and redemption.
In some ways for me the Japanese experience is most compelling of all, and this is not at all intended as a provocation. Imperial Tokyo and the Japanese emigrants to northeastern China mythologized Manchurian land as fertile and almost endlessly abundant, and more important still as all but empty and begging for cultivation by their modernizing hand.
I met was the almost haphazard quality to the life stories that had landed them in places like Mozambique, Senegal, Namibia, and elsewhere. There was little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme, but in the end, that’s not so important. As the outraged Ghanaians who seem to have awoken one recent day to the discovery that thousands of Chinese newcomers were scrambling illegally to take control of their country’s lucrative gold mining sector, digging up the countryside, despoiling the land, and bribing local chiefs and police officials in the process, might say, it is outcomes that count.
I met was the almost haphazard quality to the life stories that had landed them in places like Mozambique, Senegal, Namibia, and elsewhere. There was little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme, but
I overcame an initial inhibition to take on the fieldwork that went into this book alone and unassisted on the ground, only by virtue of work on my previous book of documentary photography, Disappearing Shanghai, and by studying with Wang Zhao over a long, hot summer in that city. In its final phase, just before beginning work on this book, the aforementioned photography project required me to negotiate my way into the homes of working-class Chinese people and persuade them to allow me to photograph their lives. Almost every day for an entire summer, I knocked on the doors of strangers in this pursuit, and little by little gained enhanced confidence in my ability to have lengthy, unscripted conversations in Chinese, like the ones that fill this book.