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A review of ‘China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa’ (2014) by Howard W. French

The book is a tale of opportunism, spoliation, misappropriation and dispossession. The arrival of Chinese in Africa in drovees lately is arguably the latest chapter in a very long narrative of empire building through emigration.

Howard W. French, celebrated author of 'A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa' (2005), has come up with yet another masterpiece intended to enlighten Africans and friends of Africa about the economic, human and ecological implications of Chinese migration to Africa. China’s Second Continent is a replay of the 1884 Scramble for Africa [1], with the exception that this time the pillagers are not Europeans; they are Asians. French observes that Chinese exodus to Africa is often reduced to China’s quest for access to natural resources, of which Africa is the world’s greatest storehouse. However, there is a more farsighted motive, one oftentimes glossed over in almost all the speculation about China’s ambitions in Africa: cultivate future markets for China’s export-oriented industries. Basing his arguments on empirical evidence, having visited fifteen African countries, large and small, with dense Chinese populations such as Mozambique, Zambia, Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Namibia, Tanzania and more, French contends that Chinese presence in Africa is a poisoned gift in several respects as will become evident in the narrative that follows.

In spite of all denials by Chinese economic role-players in Africa, French describes Chinese ventures on the continent as “a rapacious recolonization in all but name.”(5) He notes that China exports large numbers of its own people who are settling as migrants and long-term residents in far-flung and hitherto unfamiliar parts of the continent. As he puts it, “By common estimates, Africa has received a million or so of these Chinese new comers in the space of a mere decade during which time they have rapidly penetrated every conceivable walk of life: farmers, entrepreneurs, building small and medium-sized factories, and practitioners of the full range of trades, doctors, teachers, smugglers, prostitutes.”(5) Chinese demographic explosion in Africa has its latent causes, the most deleterious of which is the exportation of labor. Chinese refrain from hiring local skilled labor; they prefer to bring their own people from home. As one Ghanaian worker confided to French, “…the Chinese had employed six hundred of their own workers to build the dam, housing them in isolated compounds, beyond the humpbacked mountains in the distance. They have only hired a few of our people, and it is only the unskilled labor” (199). This scenario is not unique to Ghana; it is rampant all over the continent as evident in the testimony from a Mozambican worker who pointed out that the government is “allowing Chinese road builders to bring in as many workers as they liked…”(217). Most locals interviewed by French agree that Chinese hiring practices in Africa have forestalled all forms of transfer of skills: “Beyond questions of hiring, there is the problem of transfer of skills that will never take place so long as foreign workers fill even the most rudimentary jobs.”(53) These remarks point to the fact that Chinese hiring practices in Africa are unwholesome due, in part, to stereotypes about Africans as the following remarks by a Chinese entrepreneur suggest: “I’d never dealt with African people before… At first just coming in contact with them made me feel uncomfortable, their skins is so black.”(17)

The reticence of Chinese toward hiring African labor is attributable to the prejudice they harbor against Africans as the following remarks by a Chinese entrepreneur suggest: “Black people are not good at getting things done.”(104) Racism has soured business relations between Chinese immigrants and their African hosts. Worse still, Chinese use half-truths to justify their disinclination to employ Africans as the following statement from French about a conversation he had with a Chinese contractor in Liberia illustrates: “He recalled our conversation the previous day about Liberian employees, when he had told me that he didn’t hire locals, because they were dirty and lazy and prone to stealing.”(107) Locals interviewed by French were not naïve, as they expressed outright disgust at the Chinese and their business practices in Africa: “These people have all chosen to come to a poor place to make their money. Even if you are not sick, they will try to sell you medicine, and all kinds of treatments.” (106) The sore point is that Chinese are notorious for dumping shoddy goods on the African continent as French’s remarks about an antagonistic exchange between two Africa-based Chinese show: “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.”(106) French posits that these kinds of deals have soiled the reputation of Chinese doing business in Africa: “Chinese have made a bad reputation for themselves by selling crappy goods.”(106)

China’s Second Continent is an X-ray of Chinese commercial malpractices and shady deals in Africa. As one interviewee puts it, “I think Chinese policy is actually to dominate us, especially through trade relations…” (243) It is interesting to know that Chinese themselves make no bones about their hidden agenda in Africa: “…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully.”(17) Chinese are notorious for colluding with African government officials to dispossess locals of their ancestral land as noted in this complaint from a disgruntled Tanzanian landowner: “… there is a lot of resentment at the way they have been allowed to come in and buy up land like that for their exclusive use.”(244) Chinese land grab is the single most important thing that has placed Chinese at daggers drawn with Africans. The sticking point in this imbroglio is that African government officials are prone to accepting bribes from Chinese business folks and encouraging them in their land-grab drive as this statement seems to suggest: “… Everywhere I went in Namibia, I heard concerns from locals who felt disempowered by the Chinese as they watched these foreign workers and traders flock to their country and flout their labor laws, or as they watched their government, the inheritors of Namibia’s liberation struggle, defend outsiders and do their bidding. These complaints, as we’ve seen, are rife in Africa.”(249)

Howard does not mince words in his depiction of Chinese maneuvers in Africa; he stops short of portraying Chinese entrepreneurs as lawless criminals, people who employ force and violence to take possession of resources they believe are there for the taking: “… in the Copper Belt where the newcomers were particularly thick on the ground, Chinese bosses had developed a reputation for rough and dangerous conditions, low pay and punishing hours.”(45) He further notes that Africans working for Chinese are abused and paid a pittance: “They didn’t mind so much that Hao was a hard taskmaster; it was the pay that rankled. I did the math quickly in my head when they gave me a figure and found that if their numbers were true, Hao was employing eight men on the site for nine hours at just under $10 a day total.”(38) Chinese labor malpractices in Africa seem to be a reflection of China’s notorious record of human rights abuses. French brings this to the limelight in his conversation with Zambians who did menial jobs for the Chinese: “John complained that the Chinese wear protective gear when they worked with volatile chemicals but that Zambian workers were forced to do without.”(57) He noted that the Chinese wore different clothing and special gloves to protect their hands when they handle the chemicals. They wear masks but Africans are not provided with gloves. He further noted that the dust and fumes that came from the copper concentrate was too harsh for him. He complained of the strong smells. As French puts it, “He described the way he and others used little bits of torn cloth to stuff their noses to ward off chemicals.”(59) Another man complained that working with the Chinese is dehumanizing: “Working with the Chinese is no good… All three workers grew animated as they vented over their low pay and routine thirteen-hour workdays. They complained about the harsh way they were addressed by their overseers, who they claimed threatened them with firing or beatings.”56) Chinese employers tend to shoot to kill if they feel threatened by locals: “From the inside, two Chinese supervisors fired fifteen rounds at the men with their shotguns. After their arrest, the two said they were frightened and we attempting to disperse the crowd…” (64)

These narratives lend credibility to the assertion that Chinese presence in Africa is a bane rather than a boon. In fact, Chinese presence in Africa has been equated to neo-colonialism: “What we found is that they are frequently paying as little as one-third of the legal wage, and for some people here this feels like a new form of colonialism.”(254)That is why there is palpable anti-Chinese sentiment throughout Africa. In Zambia, for instance, comments such as “Zambians do not need foreign labor being dumped here” (64), speak volumes about the tension that exists between the two communities. African business people feel threatened by Chinese presence in Africa. And for good reason—Chinese businessmen and women have driven locals out of business. In Senegal, for instance, Chinese have taken over the retail sector, occasioning streets protests: “Large protests followed in Dakar, with the striking Senegalese traders demanding government action to protect them from the Chinese newcomers.”(69) This scenario is not unique to Senegal. In Namibia, Chinese retail traders pose the same threat to indigenous petty traders as this testimony shows: “Shannika spoke at length about the arrival of small-time Chinese traders, who could be seen by the roadside throughout the north nowadays grilling meats for sale on charcoal fires, Namibian-style.”(243)

The irksome point in this whole conundrum is that in the event of disputes between Chinese and locals, the government generally stands by the Chinese as seen in Namibia: “… the country’s president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, had said publicly that his country men were too busy complaining about the Chinese, forgetting how they had helped Namibia obtain independence.”(257) Statements like these have intoxicated Chinese residents in Namibia who are now running all over the place telling whining locals: “You can say whatever you want, but there is nothing you can do to us.”(257) Chinese superciliousness is palpable throughout the African continent as seen in the following excerpt: “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 the people around. And they behave very arrogantly.”(248)

Worse still, most Africans perceive Chinese as tricksters that should not be trusted as this comment from Paulus Mulunga, a Namibian trained in China, suggests: “They are tricky people. There are elements of trust that arise with them all the time, but if you understand them, at least you stand a better chance… They won’t do any favors for you unless they get something from you.”(255) Statements like these debunk the myth about the relationship between Chinese and Africans being a win-win deal. Chinese use this mantra as window-dressing in unctuous business transactions throughout Africa as the following statement from a Chinese businessman in Tanzania illustrates: “We are in a big hurry, you are right. But it is win-win. Double happiness.”(232) Yet, the numerous disheartening tales that populate this book tell a different story. The truth of the matter is that Chinese are in Africa to carve out a niche for themselves and the country they hail from. That is what Chen means when he says “China is a country that was shut off from the world for a long time… Now it is in a hurry. It wants to expand its reach and grow and enrich its people as fast as it possibly can.”(232) Good to know that there is still one living Chinese that tells the truth!

Land acquisition is another modus operandi that Chinese have used in a bid to reposition themselves not just in Africa but around the globe. As one of them resident in Zambezia puts it, “Lots of Chinese are now looking for places to grow rice. The Chinese are not big landowners yet, but their presence on the land is growing rapidly… Five years ago you couldn’t find them at all here, but now they are farming in almost every district.”(225) Chinese are not appropriating only land; they are taking possession of Africa’s mineral and forest resources: “Li told me that he had only recently gotten into the timber business, which he called the ‘resource trade.’”(102) Forest resources have been depleted in literally everyone African country where Chinese have settled as the following statement suggests: “The countryside was denuded of trees in the process and toxic industrial wastes were dumped into ditches or poured into the open earth.”(51) Mineral resources are the mainstay of Chinese business in Africa: “The Chinese had ridden the last and perhaps the wildest wave of this phenomenon, pouring by the thousands into the Congolese Copper Belt, which began at the border just a few miles from Ndola, and setting up shop all over the countryside surrounding the city of Lubumbashi.”(51) It is not just the people of Africa that are abused; but also their natural environment. Howard French paints a dismal picture of Africa in this book, just like he did in the first one. Africa, once again, is depicted as a continent that is up for grabs—one for the taking. One of the things that make the picture painted in this book particularly dismal is the lack of foresight on the part of African leaders. One of French’s interviewees in Liberia puts it this way, “The Liberians have all this wealth, all of this good land and they cannot use all of this forest, these big trees, redwood trees... Chinese people would die for this wood. What the Liberians need to do is hitch their fate to people who know how to exploit these things and that will pull this country out of poverty.”(101)

In a nutshell, Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa is a tale of opportunism, spoliation, misappropriation and dispossession. The arrival of Chinese in Africa in droves lately is arguably the latest chapter in a very long narrative of empire building through emigration. Each of China’s new immigrants to Africa is an architect helping to shape this grand design of empire construction. China’s strides thus far have unquestionably been peaceful, and for the most part welcomed by those at the helm in Africa, even though here and there, there are growing signs that the honeymoon is over. China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa is a great read for Africanists as well as friends of Africa interested in learning something new about Africa’s political economy. Howard writes in impeccable journalese that is within the reach of an average reader. His book is a treasure-trove of insightful information about Africa in the twenty-first century. It should be read by students and professors of African studies the world over.

* Peter Vakunta is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies, and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Indianapolis. He is a prolific writer with several fictional and non-fictional books to his credit.


[1] The “Scramble for Africa”, also known as the “Partition of Africa” is the name given to the invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of the African continent by European powers during the period of new imperialism between 1881 and 1914.

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