Getting away from cliches is tough, but author Howard French tries to do so in his latest book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. In The Diplomat he tries to get some of the larger misunderstandings out of the way.
Seeing China as either savior or demon in Africa, as so many people tend to, are particularly unhelpful ways of trying to understand the encounter between these two parts of the world. China, in an objective sense, is the bearer of a great deal of opportunity for an Africa that is beginning to hit its stride in terms of economic development, and which is also entering into a so-called demographic sweet spot. Having a large and fast-growing country like China that is eager to trade on a vast scale and is willing to invest in big projects will serve to the advantage of relatively well-governed African countries that know how to articulate policies based on the sound calculation of their national interests.
At the same time though, China, which represents a very new kind of partner, could become a liability for others in Africa. China’s economic interests in Africa are heavily oriented toward extractive industries, and new Chinese economic operators typically bring with them with a spotty history of regulatory compliance, respect for the environment, or experience of dealing with independent organized labor. In African countries with weak or venal governments extraction under these circumstances may bring little long-term gain, and potentially even great long-term damage. Thus, it is important to think about the Chinese impact on a country by country basis and to expect sharply divergent outcomes.
Having traveled extensively throughout the region, what are some of the conversations Africans are having about China’s role in their communities?
As my first answer suggests, I am very wary about making all-encompassing generalizations on this topic. China’s role and presence is seen very differently, according to the local details. In small, sparsely populated countries like, say Namibia, the arrival of a few tens of thousands of Chinese, and their perceived takeover of entire industries, such as construction, has created a great deal of anxiety. In big, populous countries, on the other hand, say Nigeria, for example, the Chinese population, though large in absolute terms, compared to many other African countries, is just a drop in the bucket compared to Nigeria’s own population. The result is that Nigerians and indeed Nigeria tends to be rather relaxed about China and about the arrival of Chinese in their midst. Having said this, I would make two general propositions: Africans tend very often to be very skeptical about China’s official rhetoric, which speaks of win-win relationships, and positions China as a fellow “developing country.” Secondly, in countries whose economies are dominated by extractive industries, China tends to be regarded with a greater baseline of suspicion than in non-resource-based economies. This is true of other foreign countries as well. In a heavily resource-based economy, the locals tend to feel that the foreigners have come to exploit them, all too often in cooperation with their own national leaders.