Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1759 words

China’s continental dreams

18 September 2015

Books | Graeme Smith compares Howard French’s vivid account of China in Africa with his own research among Chinese migrants in the Pacific


Parallel developments: Dr Chine-Tao’s consulting room in the Ivory Coast. jbdodane/Flickr

Parallel developments: Dr Chine-Tao’s consulting room in the Ivory Coast. jbdodane/Flickr

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
By Howard W. French | Deckle Edge | $34.99

During my research trips I occasionally buttonhole Chinese workers at the Ramu Nickel mine in northern Papua New Guinea and ask them how much they knew about the country before they arrived. “We thought it was in Africa,” a mining engineer from Panzhihua in Sichuan province volunteered. “We’d all heard of Guinea, so it made sense that New Guinea must be nearby.” Odder still was the response of older workers with experience of working in China’s hinterland: “It’s just like Tibet.”

Once I started reading China’s Second Continent I realised that the miners who mentioned Africa weren’t too wide of the mark. PNG isn’t in Africa, of course, and homesick mineworkers don’t need to stay up late to talk to relatives back home by phone or, these days, on WeChat. Yet the four-bed dormitories in which they eke out an existence, bored near-senseless by the isolation and the monotony of their work, would be familiar to Chinese mineworkers in the Zambian copperbelt.

The heroes (and anti-heroes) of Howard French’s book are Chinese migrants like my friends in PNG. Not all of them are charming, but French brings them, and their new African home, to life in prose that brims with affection for the continent and its controversialnew arrivals. Using the craft he has refined during forty years as a journalist, including periods reporting from Africa and, more recently, as the head of the New York Times bureau in Beijing, French fashions a compelling narrative from in-depth interviews with Chinese entrepreneurs in nine countries, from Namibia to Sierra Leone.

Among the memorable Chinese is Hao Shengli, who arrived in Mozambique straight from Henan province. In Hao, French believes he has found the successor of the Ugly American, although for me he seems more reminiscent of a budding Colonel Kurtz. In his late fifties, a member of the Cultural Revolution’s “lost generation,” all Hao brought with him was his young sons and a single-minded determination to establish a dynasty. Although he lacked any language skills, by the time we meet him he has managed to acquirea 5000-acre plantation and is embarking on a project to get his sons coupled up with local women. “We’ll have people who can serve in each and every occupation that we need, you know?” he explains. “Successors… Drivers, salespeople, foreign trade agents. No matter what we need, we’ll have it. There will be nothing we can’t do.”

Hao might be an extreme case, but similar characters can be found in frontier towns like Daru and Vanimo in PNG, or on remote islands in Tonga, where one in every twenty-five people are new arrivals from China.

Aside from the casual racism and staggering ignorance that permeates the comments of many of the Chinese entrepreneurs he interviews, French draws out insights into the structural reasons behind China’s expansion into Africa. He asks a manager in Ghana why Chinese construction companies often lowball their bids to price out local firms and win contracts, and is told:

If 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… The number of companies 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.

Construction companies in the Pacific, who are squeezing out their Australian and local competitors, face similar pressures to keep their bulldozers busy and their workers on the books. The handful of Australian construction companies who take an interest in the Pacific struggle to compete with their Chinese counterparts, finding themselves beaten on price, speed and willingness to lobby local politicians and landowners.

Shining through French’s account is the resilience and wry humour of Africans, most of whom are painfully aware that many problems stem not from the new arrivals, but from their own leaders. In Namibia, where a corruption scandal involving the son of former Chinese president Hu Jintao briefly made the country a banned search term in China, 500 local construction workers with a big Chinese contractor walked off the job complaining that they were receiving half the pay they were entitled to. They marched through the streets of the capital wearing t-shirts bearing their president’s likeness, along with his response to Namibians’ concerns about the Chinese presence: “too busy complaining.” The dispute was soon settled.

If the book has a shortcoming, it is that a few of French’s most intriguing assertions aren’t borne out by existing research, much of it coming out of Stellenbosch University’s excellent Centre for Chinese Studies. French speculates, for instance, that “the biggest single source of Chinese migration to Africa” is made up of labourers staying on after their contracts finish with big public works companies. “Workers would arrive from a given locality in China and discover there was good money to be made in some corner of Africa they had never before imagined viable,” he writes. “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.” What comes out of the data, though, is the striking fact that most Chinese migration to Africa, and indeed to the Pacific, has occurred in parallel with state-run construction projects, and has involved almost entirely different groups of migrants drawn by opportunities in the retail and resource sectors.

Another quibble is French’s description of China’s presence as a “new empire.” While his publishers may have pushed the word on him (at least he escaped “dragon” or “panda”; why is it never “phoenix”?), he attempts to justify the use of the term in the epilogue, getting drawn into awkward comparisons with Japanese migration into Manchuria in the 1930s, which will surely guarantee that his book is never published in China.

Yet the enduring impression from French’s work is how distant the Chinese state is from the lives of these Chinese migrants and the extent to which their activities frequently fail to align with Chinese foreign policy, such as it is. Can you have an empire without intent or direction? Similarly, in the Pacific, China’s diplomatic presence is striking for its thinness, ineffectuality and disconnect from Chinese business migrants, who are regarded by consular officials as a nuisance at best, and a threat to China’s global image at worst. The chief concern of Chinese diplomats is pleasing their bosses in Beijing, where no news is good news.

French’s thoughtful narrative is strong when he holds up Western donors’ reservations about China’s presence for gentle mockery. Here is his meeting with the head of America’s aid mission to Mali:

A sprinkling of foreigners were seated at the Café de Fleuve when I arrived, but it wasn’t hard to recognise Jon Anderson. Wearing a sport coat, he was dressed more formally than anyone else. He was seated toward the rear, amid large potted plants, with his back to the wall… While the Americans fought bureaucratic battles to advance their agenda of granting deeds to peasants on about five thousand hectares of land, China’s Sinohydro was busy building a $230 million waterworks that would connect the farmland to the region’s huge irrigation grid. It was the same company that was building the big airport expansion in the capital, and here again it was the Americans that were paying. Anderson said that American builders routinely showed no interest in work like this in Africa… 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.

Sadly, similar views about the Pacific exist in Australia, where cabinet ministers feel comfortable joking about the imminent immersion of our nearest neighbours. I met Jon Anderson’s Pacific equivalent in a sleepy Pacific capital. Bedecked in a fading Hawaiian shirt, he was unimpressed by the host government’s reluctance to seek an audience. “I think it would serve their purposes to reach out to me. It’s classic donor/host behaviour. I don’t mean it as a criticism.” He went on to compare the country, oddly, with Zimbabwe.

Security protocols were so tight it was possible the locals had tried and failed to reach this diplomat’s oversized desk, but the cold reality was that for all the flags and fanfare, the host government saw America’s re-engagement with the Pacific as small beer. While the United States talked about refurbishing a hospital wing, China built a new national hospital. The US attaché went on to declare that direct budgetary support from donors – which was regaining currency in better-governed Pacific states – is “illegal under US law.” Unable to pin down exactly which law, he averred, “We don’t write cheques to government. It’s ineffective. We prefer to work with NGOs.” Later in our conversation, he was appalled to learn that funding for NGOs also went through a government body.

The final word, which encapsulates the affectionately observed nature of the book, is this anecdote recounted to French by a Ghanaian businessman:

One day it was raining heavily [in Accra] and people began crowding into a bus stop for shelter. A Chinese couple approached and began to nudge their way into the crowd seeking cover. The Ghanaians began to grumble among themselves. “Who are these people? Why are they bothering us?” they said. At that point, the Chinese man spoke up in Twi [Ghana’s near universal lingua franca]. “Ade?” [Why?] “Aren’t we people too?”

China’s Second Continent provides the answer in spades. •

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Critical mass: Syrian refugees in Vienna earlier this week. Josh Zakary/Flickr

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