This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
China has developed close ties with nations across the African continent through investment in infrastructure projects, purchase of mineral rights, and growing trade. Perhaps the biggest influence, though, will come from the million-plus Chinese migrants seeking their fortune on the continent. We consider the global dynamics at play between China and Africa.
- Howard French author, "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa"; faculty, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; former writer, The Washington Post and The New York Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOver the course of a decade, China has funded 1700 projects across Africa to the tune of $75 billion. The endeavors ranging from lucrative mining projects to health initiatives, investments that have had a big effect on nations ranging from Liberia to Zimbabwe and paid dividends in what some are calling China's charm offensive on the continent, which is prime for massive growth in coming years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe real story though may be lurking just beneath the surface, told through the lives of millions of Chinese migrants who have made their way to various African nations to pursue new livelihoods in unfamiliar cultures. Here to share the view from the ground, so to speak, is Howard French. He's covered both Africa and Shanghai for the Washington Post and New York Times. He's currently on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His latest book is titled "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." Howard French joins us from studios at Columbia University in New York. Howard, how are you doing?
MR. HOWARD FRENCHVery well. Good to be back with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd good to talk to you again. Howard, just as China was at a critical juncture in its history in the '70s, Africa as a continent is at one now. How high are the stakes for Africa and how high is the influence of China shaping this situation?
FRENCHThe stakes for Africa are extremely high. Africa has just emerged from a period of over two decades immediately following the Cold War in which essentially its economy was more or less fallow. There was very little interest from the outside world. And suddenly in the last ten years or so China has come on as a very big player with very deep pockets prepared to do very big things in pursuit obviously of its own interests. But this presents great opportunities and great risks for the African continent.
NNAMDIOne accusation often levied against China is that leaders are attempting to bring to bear a new kind of colonialism. Some would say neocolonialism on African nations. The Chinese prime minister went so far as to openly refute the idea earlier this month. What did you hear about this notion in your recent travels across Africa?
FRENCHSo, you know, I don't use the word colonialism myself. Empire or imperialism I think are more to the point. But the fact that the Chinese prime minister needed to say that I think is a kind of belated recognition on his part and on the part of the Chinese state. But people all over Africa are concerned now that the risks of these relationships that China is striking across the continent are indeed very high along with the opportunities which we've mentioned already.
NNAMDIOur guest is Howard French. He's covered both Africa and Shanghai for the Washington Post and the New York Times. We're discussing his latest book. It's titled "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think the number of Chinese migrants moving to the continent of Africa means for both powers? What do you think the influence of China means in Africa today, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIHoward, why did you choose the method in approaching this book of going to several of these countries and talking to the Chinese people on the ground, so to speak, the migrants? Not necessarily big individual power players but people seeking to make a new life on a new continent?
FRENCHI've been struck by a couple of things as I followed this topic over the last ten years or so. One of them is that, you know, in so far as this had been written about in the west, there has been very little space given to the voices of the Chinese actors on the ground and of Africans themselves. You know, there's a lot of preoccupation with who's winning or, you know, whether or not China is taking over. And often writers in the west will sort of try to tell people what they should make of all of this.
FRENCHBut there's been relatively little, or maybe even very little engagement with ordinary people, if you will, who I contend are actually going to shape this future more, in fact, than the policymakers, whether they're in Beijing or in Washington or in European capitals. You have huge movements of people like this and I think history teaches us that when you have gigantic diasporas in formation, they create dynamics of their own, which escape the explicit policy formation of the governments of the places that they come from.
FRENCHAnd I think that that's going to be the case here between China and Africa. I've used the number 1 million but I think actually maybe as many as 2 million people have come from China to Africa in the last 10 to 15 years. And so this is going to have a huge impact going forward that's sort of alongside of and parallel with but not under the control of policymakers per say.
NNAMDIThere are farmers, there are entrepreneurs, there are sex workers that are going to Africa from China. What conditions in China are prompting these people to seek their fortune in Africa?
FRENCHYou know, we tend to think in the United States and elsewhere in the west of China as this booming country that is growing incredibly fast and that, you know, for some people may even sort of taking over the world, never mind Africa. In China however, life is -- the picture is much more varied. Of course there are lots of places that reflect great new prosperity in China, but China is a country of 1.3 billion people and has still hundreds of millions of people who have not attained the kind of prosperity that they yearn for.
FRENCHChina is a crowded country, a country with relatively little arable land and a country with a new culture of capitalism that is unforgiving, very cutthroat. And so ordinary Chinese people, who may not have had a chance to really partake of the great new opportunity that others have gained for themselves in China, are looking outside of their country.
FRENCHAnd many are settling on Africa as the new frontier, a place of immense opportunity that -- where everything sort of remains to be built and where you can get in on the ground level with relatively little experience, relatively little capital and have a bid at making a fortune for yourself.
NNAMDIWhat prompted you to choose the countries you focused on over others?
FRENCHWell, so there are a few factors involved. One of them is that I wanted just basic diversity. So I -- my book -- I used the title -- the word Africa in the title but it's really concerned with Sub-Saharan Africa. Within Sub-Saharan Africa I wanted diversity geographically. So I have countries from west, east, southern and central Africa that I visit.
FRENCHBeyond that, you know, the image that we have often of China's involvement with Africa is a kind of overwhelming interest in the mineral trade, exploiting Africa's primary products, things like gold or uranium or copper or bauxite, et cetera. And indeed China has a great interest in these sorts of commodities. However, we also find Chinese newcomers and Chinese companies in countries that are not dominated by huge natural resource exports.
FRENCHAnd so I wanted a mixture economically of real resource play kind of countries and other countries where the reasons for attracting these newcomers might be a little less obvious.
NNAMDIZambia is one of the nations you looked at and it's long been a draw for Chinese businessmen and migrants. What do they find so appealing about that country?
FRENCHSo Zambia is a country that opened up in the beginning of the 1980s at a time when China itself was transforming itself from a very sort of self-sufficient socialist model to a very open and aggressively globalizing capitalist model. And Zambia, as it reformed its economy after a severe downturn in its own mining business. Copper is the major commodity in Zambia. The IMF obliged Zambia to sell off its state corporations, particularly the mining firms. And so this led to a sort of fire sale kind of liquidation of a lot of Zambian copper mines.
FRENCHAnd this was occurring at the very moment when China was beginning to look out upon the world for great economic opportunities and for, in specific, commodity places or plays that could feed its own industry. And so China beacons at a very early stage in this bigger broader phenomenon that my book describes to think about Zambia as a place of great opportunity. And as Chinese people begin to get involved in mining in Zambia, they discover that there are lots of other things that they can do in Zambia.
FRENCHFor one thing, Zambia is a big fertile country that by the standards of China might appear to the ordinary Chinese person as being almost under populated. And so Chinese people arriving in Zambia thought, wow, we can farm this place, we can raise livestock in this place. This is just a kind of undreamed of bonanza land. And so by this point today you find Chinese in all walks of life in Zambia, including ordinary people selling loose cigarettes on the street or market women selling chickens that they've raised in African markets right next to African women doing the same thing.
NNAMDIMigrant workers have changed the dynamics of many a community around the globe so at the street level one wonders what does this look like? How is this influence of Chinese workers affecting the fabric, if you will, of communities in African nations?
FRENCHSo, you know, I've used the word -- the number 2 million in our conversation. And if you think about it, Africa, as a continent of roughly a billion people, 54 countries, 2 million people, as large as that number might sound, just spread out over 54 countries is not a terribly huge number. So one thing that we have not seen so far is the development of big Chinatowns here and there in Africa. There are a few exceptions. There are some sort of nascent Chinatowns here and there, but the general pattern has not been what we've seen in the west, which was driven by discrimination in the 19th century, the Chinatown pattern.
FRENCHWhat we see instead are much smaller communities of Chinese people living in African cities and in the African countryside very often spread out or divided up according to their own place of origin, meaning whatever province or even count level origin that they might have in China. You know, in certain African cities, places like Lagos in Nigeria, places like Lusaka in Zambia, Dar es Salam in Tanzania, you see in certain neighborhoods, a very heavy commercial Chinese presence.
FRENCHAnd I think -- Dakar, Senegal is another example of this -- this is a wave of the future I think in many places where even if they're not living in Chinatowns, these ordinary Chinese people who are migrating and settle most often into small business come to dominate the retail trade and congregate in particular neighborhoods in order to do that.
NNAMDII was going to ask you next about depending on where you are, what region cultural differences, how do opinions of Chinese investment differ from one country to another, but I'll have Itacha in Springfield, Va. on the phone address one of those opinions. Itacha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ITACHAThanks, Kojo. When the Chinese investors or the Chinese government come to Africa, they said build roads or bridges. They bring their own people. They don't offer just for other people, Africans, be it in Nigeria, in Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Uganda and Kenya. Whatever they ask, they bring their own people. Most of the time they bring prisoners so -- and they dump them there. They leave them there. So these people, these soldiers, most of them prisoners from, you know, the main land, they leave them there. They're not developing. They just put their people into better life.
ITACHANow they're talking about some Chinese from Shanghai. Yeah, there could be some business people who have genuine interest in working with Africa. But the government of China is not like the government of the United States or the West. The West, when they come to Africa at least they hire, they leave technology, they teach people how to and what to do. The Chinese, no, they don't. They don't leave anything for the people of Africa. They are just taking advantage of the people of Africa.
NNAMDIWell, that is distinctly or definitely one perception, Howard French. I am originally from Guyana, South America where a Chinese company is currently building a major hotel. And that's the complaint you hear, that all of the workers who are used are Chinese. They don't hire local labor and they don't teach local laborers anything. Howard.
FRENCHSo in the first phase of this big Chinese embrace of the continent, what one found most often was African governments, African leaders, African regimes falling over themselves to welcome the Chinese. Because, as I said, Africa had been through an economically fallow era in which the west had sort of begun to fade as an economic partner. And Africa was left to drift.
FRENCHHere comes China, lots of money, wants to do business, do big projects, build roads, build airports, build ports, other kind of infrastructure. African leaders were sort of overcome with optimism about what this represented for them. We've now entered into a second phase where African public opinion, African civil society, the voices of ordinary Africans is coming to bear much more. And the kind of criticism that the caller just voiced is one very prominent strain of reaction.
FRENCHI must say that I looked very carefully at the claim, which is widely held, that prisoners are being used in Chinese labor and found that to be unsubstantiated. I have seen, just by looking for -- very intensely and being able to speak with Chinese people in their own language on the ground, no evidence for that. However it is definitely true that the general pattern is that Chinese companies come to Africa and that they bring their own workers to execute their products -- projects.
FRENCHNot only do they bring their own workers, but there's a much more complicated sort of economic or financial loop involved. So China sends, to build a given project, 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000 workers. They're there for a year or two to complete a project. China also sends the design team, engineering, the technology. China very often sells the raw materials and China provides the financing, state financing for these projects.
FRENCHAnd so the flows of all of these sorts of business activity go directly back to China. The workers are paid and often bank their money in China. The technology is paid for from China and there's often very little handover or exchange. The raw materials are paid for often from China. And the financing of course has to be paid back to China. So this is hugely beneficial to China. And it's one of the reasons why I use the word empire in the title of my book. However, I must insist, I have seen no evidence for slavery or slave labor. I'm sorry, prison labor.
NNAMDIHow do opinions of Chinese investment differ from one region to another, on the one hand say in Namibia which does not have a very large population as opposed to Nigeria which does?
FRENCHSo in Namibia, as you said, is a sparsely populated country, like other sparsely populate countries I think feels the impact of this surge of Chinese newcomers much more strongly, and often negatively than bigger more densely populated countries in which the Chinese newcomer presence sort of more easily sort of melts away or doesn't stand out. You have, you know, in Namibia whole regions, for example the northern border region with Angola is dominated by Chinese trade with Angola. And this is one of the places where you actually do find what deserve to be called China towns.
FRENCHNamibians don't take well to this, in my experience. Chinese people have taken over the beauty trade, meaning beauty salon trade in Namibia, which Namibians I think still express shock over. The construction trade in Namibia. In a country like Nigeria, where you may have easily 100,000 Chinese people, that's out of a population of over 100 million people. And so, you know, it's much harder for the Chinese to dominate any given sector, and the Chinese presence in general just doesn't feel as onerous.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Howard French about his latest book. It's called, "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." We're going to take a short break, but we're also taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. could take some cues from China when it comes to strategic investing in Africa? Tell us why or why not. 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Howard French who has covered both Africa and Shanghai for the Washington Post and The New York Times. He's currently on the faculty of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. We're discussing his latest book. It's titled, "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." Howard, infrastructure's one big area where the Chinese are investing in Africa. We were in Addis Ababa earlier this year.
NNAMDIYou couldn't help but notice that migrant workers were at work on the light rail project underway there. What kinds of projects are Chinese investors pursuing most ardently and what's in them or isn't perhaps, in terms of jobs, for both sides?
FRENCHSo you can -- any big infrastructure across the board is a priority for China and for China State companies. Engineering and construction companies in Africa. This means ports, this means railways. I was in Kenya a couple of weeks ago where the Chinese premiere was visiting a big signing ceremony for a huge railway that will go from Mombasa, on the coast, all the way across Kenya and eventually into certain other East African countries. Airports, stadiums, dams, you name it.
FRENCHWhat's in it for the two sides are unsurprisingly rather different stakes. For China, China is an investment-driven economy. And China needs to sustain a high metabolism for its civil engineering and construction companies in order to maximize employment in an economy like China that's investment centered. And so this means not only sort of rolling out incredible infrastructure projects against China itself, but supplementing that with big infrastructure anywhere else in the world China can find business.
FRENCHAnd because of the particular financing model that China has offered to African countries it is able to sustain a huge rhythm of infrastructure building in whatever country it engages with in Africa. For the African countries, the stakes are rather different again. Most of the time an African country is offering up, as a way of paying for this development, 10 or more often 20 years of production of a particular primary product, bauxite or copper or what have you.
FRENCHAnd so if you are building a highway, for example. A highway in sub-Saharan, Africa, I have been -- it's been explained to me by Chinese engineers themselves, may have a typical lifespan of between 7 and 10 years. If an African country is financing the construction of a highway system, with 20 years production of bauxite, for example, and they haven't thought through the next stage of their development or if they are wasting, through corruption or through poor decision making the revenues that they're getting from their bauxite trade, then they end up with a very scary scenario on the horizon.
FRENCHYou've paid -- you've committed 20 years of your production of essentially your main product for a perishable piece of infrastructure, namely a highway. The Chinese haven't done -- in a strict-speaking sense, haven't done anything unfair. They've paid you cash on the barrel for what they said they were going to give you, a highway system.
FRENCHAfter seven years, if you haven't maintained the highway system, and moreover, if you haven't thought through an integrated economic plan that makes the highway system pay for itself in other ways, then you're still going to be paying for the next 10 or 15 years for the highway system, even, well, seven or -- I'm sorry, 10 or 13 years after the thing has crumbled. And so, you know, there's a great amount of risk involved for the African players in this sort of bargain.
FRENCHAnd the companies that are not well governed and that don't have a very good sense of national priorities or national interests, I think, are going to find themselves regretting these kinds of deals in the long term.
NNAMDISeveral callers have -- would like to join the conversation. We'll start with Nicholas, in Silver Spring, Md. Nicholas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Nicholas is right here. Nicholas, your turn.
NICHOLASYes. I have this to say about the West making noise about Chinese are taking care -- taking over Africa. And the West had opportunity so many years ago. I mean, even the country that I'm from, from Ghana, the Brits ruled Ghana for 75 good years. Could you believe what they did? They built roads and railway only from the place they can get the natural resources from to the ports. Only. And Kwame Nkrumah took over. Within a short time he was able to build Ghana, within nine years, build roads and to so many places.
NICHOLASTo the villages and everywhere. So the West, they come to Africa, basically -- mainly for their interests. And the Chinese, if we give them jobs to do in Africa, the thing is they bring their people from China. Besides, if you allow the African man to take over, there will be corruption. The job will not be done perfectly. So that's why we allow the Chinese to do the job. So the Chinese are not there mainly to exploit Africans, but they there to help and also, I mean, serve their interests. So that's what I wanted to say.
NNAMDIWell, he raises two important questions, Howard. First one is that the complaint has been that after the Cold War the West, in large measure, abandoned Africa. The other is the ongoing complaint about internal corruption. Concerns about corruption plague aid and investment programs of all kinds. So if you can, express how wide spread was greasing of palms and exploitation of resources in your experience and the issue of the role or lack thereof of the West.
FRENCHSure. I think we agree that the West has more or less abandoned its economic interests in Africa. And is just sort of reawakening toward Africa as a result of this incredible surge of Chinese interests. I haven't said that China's taking over Africa in the way that the caller just described. Where I differ with the caller -- I talk, in fact, in my book a bit about -- there's a chapter on Ghana and I talk about Kwame Nkrumah and the very sort of points the caller made about Ghana. Where we differ is that I don't think that Africa, in the long run will be developed by anyone else, other than Africans.
FRENCHIn other words, Westerners come in pursuit, primarily of Western interests. Chinese also come primarily in pursuit of Chinese interests. Africa will be developed when Africans figure out what is in their own interests and begin to build the kinds of systems and a sense of trust that allows them to have institutions that function for themselves in the execution of their own interests. Nobody's going to come and build Africa in a lasting way for Africans, whether it's Chinese people or Westerners.
NNAMDIHow about the allegations of corruption that the Chinese are being asked to do this because corruption at the local level is such -- there is this ongoing perception that corruption at the local level is such that it's difficult for these things to get done? I guess it would depend on what country and what region you're talking about.
FRENCHWell, it does depend quite a bit from place to place. So it's hard to make too big a broad generalization about this. However, you know, corruption plays itself out in many ways. In the caller's country, Ghana, there are road-building companies that don't get business, that lose business to China and to Chinese companies because the kind of -- sort of the nature of the political process in Ghana, which is a democracy. So if the party that's in power may not want to do -- give business to a road-building company if it is in -- thought to be sympathetic to a party of the opposition.
FRENCHAnd so from that perspective, very often, it's easier for the people in power to offer business to a foreign country, like China, which is putatively neutral in the political process. This is a destructive dynamic for Africa. Africans have to begin to value themselves in this sort of business, in the pursuit of development. The other thing is that, you know, China's not unique in this regard. But Chinese companies come in and they win these sorts of contracts through corruption of their own.
FRENCHThey are very definitely, with these big infrastructure plays and many of the big mining deals that are going on, paying bribes and other sorts of inducements, under the table, to the people in power. So to simply point to African corruption I think is to miss a big part of the picture.
NNAMDIOn now to Ibrahim, in Alexandria, Va. Ibrahim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IBRAHIMYeah, thank you, Kojo. The way I see it is that at any one time there's a game on the floor. We've had colonialism, imperialism, the Cold War and so on. And in my opinion, most African leaders did not know how to play those games for the maximum benefit of their respective countries. Now that we have this new game with the huge Chinese presence in Africa, African leaders just have to wake up. Discern, in that game, what is good for their respective country, take it out of there, and discard those things that they consider to be against whatever it is, culture, tradition and so on and so forth. That's the way I see it.
NNAMDIHoward French, you make the point that there's a difference between growth and development. And the final analysis, I guess what's most important is what this does for the millions of African people who are poor and seeking to escape poverty.
FRENCHThat's correct. And I like the sentiment of the caller's remarks, that, again, it's the determination in a serious concerted, sort of forward-looking way of a country's own national interests. And then the application in pursuit of those national interests. That's going to create development in Africa. And the countries that are relatively more Democratic and the countries in which the local civil society finds a way to keep pressure on leaders to minimize corruption and to make good decisions, these are the countries that are going to end up with the best results in terms of development.
FRENCHNot the countries that take shortcuts in terms of under-the-table deals that produce big projects that aren't necessarily well thought through, whether they're Chinese projects or other people's projects. It's, you know, development is more complicated than that. And it really involves the interplay actively of a well-informed and engaged population.
NNAMDIIn Ethiopia earlier this year -- speaking of a well-informed and engaged population -- our show producers and I heard a lot of concern about shrinking space for civil society. One defense we heard from government officials was that our idea of democracy and civil society is different from the prevailing norm in that region.
NNAMDIWhen we look at China and African nations in that context, what kind of middle ground, if you will, is found? And where do views on democracy differ? There seems to be a notion that views on civil society in China and views on civil society in Africa are much closer than views on civil society in the West.
FRENCHSo it depends on who's views you're talking about. If you're talking the views of the Chinese State, the views of the Chinese State, which is hostile to independent civil society, will in fact be rather similar to the views of relatively undemocratic African states, which are also obviously hostile to independent civil society. However, it's my experience in China, as in Africa, that ordinary people in both places very much wish to find ways to participate freely in the direction of their country.
FRENCHThey wish very much to have a free say, the opportunity to voice their opinions freely about the affairs of their country and the decisions of their leaders. I find this to be a universal thing and I don't place much stock in arguments which talk about Western democracy or say that, you know, a certain system doesn't fit the patterns of the local culture. If you give the people in Ethiopia or in any other country that I've been to, an opportunity, you give them a choice about whether or not they can express themselves freely, I have never encountered a people who would not like that choice.
NNAMDIAnd finally, this tweet we got from Jay. "What is the relationship between these Chinese migrants and South Asian migrants that have occupied similar business roles? Are they operating in different areas, seen as competitors, collaborating?"
FRENCHSo the South Asians are Indians and Pakistanis, for the most part. And they have typically, in East Africa or in southern Africa have a much longer-term presence in these countries, having been brought under British colonialism, under difficult circumstances very often. Laborers and rail projects and plantation labor to Africa by British Imperialists.
FRENCHThese South Asians have constituted commercial classes in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, various other places as well, and see suddenly a very stiff competition from these mounting new, much relatively newer Chinese merchant classes that have arrived. Indian companies or South Asian companies are also involved in civil engineering and construction and various other sorts of big business in some of these places. And they, too…
NNAMDII'm afraid -- I'm afraid we're just about out of…
FRENCHAnd they, too, face new competition.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time. Howard French's latest book is called "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa." He's currently on the faculty of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has covered both Africa and Shanghai for the Washington Post and The New York Times. Howard French, thank you so much for joining us.
FRENCHThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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