Howard W. French’s disturbing account of China’s growing presence on the African continent—a damning picture of what he calls a “camouflage for immigration” —couldn’t come at a better time given recent incidents of increasing political unrest across the continent and what they imply for the West. His imaginative focus is not upon Chinese government officials or even Chinese corporations and their often slipshod work on the continent (new roads, sports arenas, government buildings which are often symbolic of bigness) but on individual Chinese entrepreneurs who have invaded the continent like army ants during the past twenty or thirty years. Since they operate mostly on their own initiative, it appears as if there is no official Chinese goal for taking over the continent, but their combined presence is clearly intentional government “leverage” against the West. We’re here doing great things because you (America specifically) are ignoring the continent.
French estimates that there are currently at least a million Chinese living in sub-Saharan Africa and says that may be a conservative figure. Several countries alone (Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique) have a hundred thousand each. Others have fairly decent sized enclaves or Chinese towns, often of ten thousand people. Africans have said for years that the Chinese isolate themselves, that they don’t integrate, though French shows that there are numerous exceptions to that, especially when Chinese males have married African women and started families. There is little question, however, that often these enclaves have sprung up because in many places Chinese companies have brought their own workers to complete a specific project. Again, that is not the focus of French’s study. Instead, he tracked down individual Chinese (mostly men but also a few women) typically living in remote areas of the continent who, in some countries, have become petty shopkeepers much like the Lebanese and the Indians before them. And many of these individuals, through hard work, have become enormously successful, starting modestly and slowing growing their businesses into large agricultural or industrial success stories. Some are fabulously wealthy.
Sadly, too many of them are condescending, outright racists. They typically arrive with more education than the Africans around them and a determination to work very hard. By contrast, they consider the locals more interested in having a good time than working and building up a business or a farm. They consider the Africans stupid and have no compunction of taking advantage of them. Here’s the observation of a man in Mozambique, which pretty much sums up the entire perspective: “I didn’t think they [the Africans] were so clever, not so intelligent, and I was looking for an opportunity based on my own capabilities. Can you imagine if I had gone to America or to Germany first? The people in those fucking places are too smart. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I don’t think I would have beaten them. So we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully. If it was the United States, with fucking intelligent Americans, how could we compete?”
Variations of that quotation appear throughout the book. A Chinese man in Senegal says of his hosts, “They just don’t learn.” Worse, he states that African politicians are mostly clueless. They can be taken advantage of in “noncompetitive deals…struck all the time between builders and local politicians.” In Liberia, another Chinese male says, “You couldn’t find ten competent people here.” Another, in Tanzania, refers to the Africans as “children.” We have seen this all before throughout the history of colonialism in Africa. Take advantage of those with lesser education, skills and worldview. Colonial greed—colonial thievery or whatever you want to call it—raped the African continent well before the recent influx of Chinese and yet, just like the Europeans in Africa, the Chinese have the audacity to refer to the Africans as the real crooks. A man in Namibia tells French, “Ninety percent of Africans are thieves.” Well, I can best that: One hundred percent of Chinese in Africa are thieves.
Yes, a few Africans are willing to defend the Chinese, hopeful that the infrastructure will be built up and, over time, the Africans will benefit. But by that time (far in the distant future) the continent’s natural resources may long have disappeared and the massive buildings and the roads constructed by the Chinese will long have crumbled. In many areas that French does not write about in his book, Botswana for example, that has already happened. And it is difficult to ignore this lament from an African in Mali: “We don’t like the Chinese…. We don’t want to be speaking Chinese someday.”
French provides devastating examples of environmental destruction caused by Chinese in Africa. Often, when large tracts of land are acquired for farming, or when they are building roads, the Chinese “take everything down, from the big trees to the small trees, and they don’t do any replanting. When you speak with a Chinese company, as I have with the directors of timber companies, they’ll say, ‘Our problem is not your environment. Your environment is a question for your future, not mine. Talk to me about money. I came here to make money and I have brought money to your country.”
Money still talks—especially in Africa.
Knopf, 285 pp., $27.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.