China in Africa: A Critique of Howard French’s “Empire” Article

china_africa1China is walking down the same path towards empire in Africa as the once former European powers did a century ago writes former New York Times Shanghai and Africa correspondent Howard French in a new article for the U.S. magazine “The Atlantic.”  While his conclusion is questionable on several fronts, French’s article is far and away the best among a recent series of “China in Africa” articles that have emerged over the past year.  In particular, French does an excellent job of highlighting the failure of the West’s engagement with the continent over the past century, noting that billions of dollars in aid and development programs have done nothing to stem rising poverty levels.   Separately, French also delves into one of the less understood, yet critically important facets of the Sino-African relationship: food production.  With China’s arable land supply falling rapidly to environmental degradation and industrialization, Beijing is recognizing that it will soon have no choice but to go abroad for its food supply.  Africa, with its vast supply of arable land and limited capital, offers an ideal solution.  Yet, French appropriately warns that China must proceed cautiously on this front as foreign land-use in any country, especially in parts of Africa, is an extremely volatile issue.

In the end, French reaches the same, stereotypical conclusion that most Western writers come to with their China in Africastories, that Beijing is merely following the same path of colonial exploitation as Europeans and Americans did duringatlantic_logo_M_1col#6CE497_smtheir imperial adventures.  In fact, French’s last paragraph of the article concludes that the relationship between Africa and China will mirror Africa’s previous ties to other empires through the extraction of raw materials and the re-importation to Africa of finished products.  This is where French is either mis-informed or doesn’t fully understand the scope of China’s engagement in the region.

So while you read the article yourself, I propose the following additional points to consider:

  • The Chinese engagement with Africa cannot simply be defined on an economic level, the arrival of hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of poor Chinese immigrants who are moving in to neighborhoods across the continent will have a profound impact.  In less than five years, there are now more Chinese immigrants in Africa than France had at the height of its colonial power on the continent.  These immigrants are not just the workers who labor on the infrastructure and mining projects, but also economic migrants who are establishing small businesses and contributing to an emerging civil society in ways that billions of dollars of wasted Western economic development assistance could never achieve.
  • At one point in the article, French mentions “when the Chinese leave” which is another key difference between the Chinese presence in Africa and former Western colonial powers.  Simply put, the Chinese are NOT leaving.  This is not like the French, Germans or British who left when it was no longer economically viable to sustain their expensive colonies.  Just as there are now a million ethnic Chinese living in Southern California who have no intention of returning to Asia, the Chinese emigres are building a permanent presence in Africa.
  • French, like the overwhelming majority of his journalistic colleagues, concludes skeptically that China will ultimately fail to build any sustainable economic engagement with Africa.  In the end, they contend, it comes down to merely pulling out as much oil, gold, bauxite and other natural resources from the earth.  The reason I challenge French on this point is that he goes to the same guy that every other journalist contacts to get “the other side of the story.”  Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata is the most outspoken critic of the Chinese in Africa, particularly in his own country.  The fact that almost every article on the subject features a quote from Sata is either evidence of journalistic laziness (a real possibility) or the fact that it may be difficult to find articulate critics of the Chinese.  It’s disappointing that French and other writers do not venture off the main roads, past the big construction sites and away from the academic and political elites to get the layman’s perspective on the Chinese in their countries.  When I did this during my time in Kinshasa, I found far more nuanced and textured answers than what was provided to me by so-called “experts.”  French fails to deliver that important perspective strongly enough.
  • French offers a cynical view on the value of low-cost Chinese imports to Africa.  Just as Wal-Mart did in the United States where it recognized there was a viable market among the working poor that most other companies ignored, China is opening new markets for its products at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in developing countries across South Asia, South America and Africa.  Liberal elites in the coastal U.S. cities turn their noses up at Wal Mart with the same dismissive attitude they display for China’s arrival in the Southern Hemisphere.  The fact remains in places like the DRC where people have extremely limited disposal income, the ability to purchase headphones, toys, food products and electronics is nothing short of revolutionary.  These are all products we take for granted in developed societies and things that critics hope developing societies will avoid so as to prevent the corruption their “traditional” cultures.  The overwhelming cultural arrogance of that perspective is a separate issue, while the Chinese offering this critical service deserve praise.  The Chinese are operating in markets with such limited margins where Western and Japanese companies simply cannot compete with their significantly higher cost structures.  Contrary to popular journalistic perception, the Chinese behavior in these markets is nothing like their colonial predecessors and deserve separate analysis.

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One Response to “China in Africa: A Critique of Howard French’s “Empire” Article”

  1. Eric Olander says:

    Hi Eric,

    Just read your piece re. the French article (which I have to read still).

    I had a few thoughts on what you wrote:

    1. I think you might be a bit guilty of simplifying the European colonial involvement in Africa

    a. European influence in Africa wasn’t simply a get-in, get-out affair. A large number of people of British extraction remain in South Africa, for instance, and lesser numbers in Zimbabwe (some of whom are firmly embedded, despite the odds against them these part 10 years) and Kenya.

    b. Portugal imported many people into Mozambique and Angola, in a similar fashion to the way the Chinese are doing now–these people were typically low on the economic scale, who set up businesses, and integrated a fair bit with local people.

    c. Bottom-line: There are perhaps more parallels to be drawn between China’s current rush into Africa and the earlier European scramble for Africa then your piece might suggest.

    2. “…the Chinese are NOT leaving.” Depends on what you mean by leaving. It is entirely possible that official Chinese government involvement might “leave” at some point in the future, particularly if/as a backlash winds up. But your larger point, that there will be many Chinese people who have moved and set up shop in Africa who will not leave, is probably accurate. But, see my first set of points–by that metric, the Europeans haven’t really left yet either. Many of them have, but there is still a fair number of white Africans, and numerous long-term expats to be found (and plenty of businesses).

    The number of Chinese migrants will of course be far larger, but all populations are larger now then they were 100-200 years ago.




    Dear Mazibuko,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful feedback. While it is absolutely possible that I may be oversimplifying the European involvement, there are a couple of fundamental differences between the Chinese and the European adventures in Africa that are worthy of note.

    First and foremost, it’s a question of scale. When the Europeans came to Africa they were incapable of the logistics that the Chinese have undertaken. The speed with which the Chinese have moved in thousands and thousands of tons of industrial equipment to countries across Africa is absolutely mind blowing. They have imported cranes, trucks, raw materials and essentially everything they need to build out the infrastructure projects they’re working on in dozens of countries. It is truly mind blowing to see in a single construction site dozens of Chinese constructions trucks lined up still with their regional license plates from back home in China on them. The speed, scale and depth of their logistics operation to get all of that material over there is incomparable to what the Europeans could have ever dreamed of during the their colonial efforts.

    As a follow up to that logistics effort, the fact that the Chinese have brought in so much industrial equipment and are working at a speed and scale that is essentially unprecedented is also what makes their move across Africa that terrifying. They are extracting resources from the continent at a speed which the Europeans could only have dreamed of. The reports of industrial scale clear cutting of protected rain forests in the DRC, Congo and Zimbabwe is nothing short of frightening. The Chinese largely have no regard for environmental protection or labor rights so they are moving at a speed which we have just never seen before. Again, the Europeans were limited by their crude technological and logistical operations that the Chinese are largely unencumbered by.

    Finally, when it comes to the question of people, there is also a fundamental difference that is worthy of note. While the Portugese and Dutch brought over farmers and other working class migrants from their home countries, once again we are dealing with a scale and speed of migration that was just not possible in that era. The fact that it took centuries for the French, for example, to build up their population to somewhere around a million expats and the Chinese have reached that number in just a couple of decades illustrates the point. Another point of distinction is that the Europeans settled in their own immigrant clusters (be it the farms in Zimbabwe or the Afrikaner communities in SA) whereas the Chinese differ again in that they are settling directly into African communities rather than setting up so-called “Chinatowns.” I believe this is like injecting a drug directly in the blood stream where the impact is far more immediate — so by setting up small businesses and communities in neighborhoods across the continent, the Chinese will have a far more dramatic impact, more quickly than the Europeans who often segregated themselves from Africans.

    I love these kinds of exchanges so I’d be very interested to hear what you think? Also, if it’s OK with you (and I can delete your name) would it be OK if I copied and pasted our discussion here onto the China Talking Points website?

    Thanks again for reading my post. It’s great fun!



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