Howard French on Africa in a Chinese Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder by Belgium with help from our CIA — the journalist Howard French is sketching an alternative path ahead for African development today. China is the big investor in 21st Century Africa. China sees Africa as yet another “natural-resource play” but also as a partner in growth — not a basket-case but a billion customers who’ll be two billion by mid-century. With the West and Japan deep in a post-industrial funk, China is keeping its focus on manufacturing, exports and markets, “and we’ll have them largely to ourselves,” China calculates, “because the West doesn’t make the stuff middle-class Africans are buying — cars and houses and shopping malls and airports and all the things associated with a rise to affluence. Those are the things that China makes.”

For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.

HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people — coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes — and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they’re maybe a fifth of all the passengers — are all, almost to a person, business people. They’ve pulled up their stakes wherever they lived — in Szechuan province or Hunan province — and they have come to make it in Africa. And they’re not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they’re going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who’re there for a couple of years. They’re thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There’s no looking down one’s nose or pretending to superiority. It’s all how I can make something work here.

CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America’s next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West’s better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?

HF: I think we’re still asleep.

Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. “There’s a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: ‘there’s a thousand-year gap between them and us,’ meaning… culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there’s an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon…”

And what are Africa’s chances of doing well in the new Chinese “deal”? Howard French sees “an incredible opportunity for Africa,” but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of “how people’s daily and longer-term interests will be served” stand to get good results. “In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it’s not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don’t blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished.”

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  • Incredibly interesting!

    I took Mohammed Hanif’s comment about how if Islamic militants were to secure control of Afghanistan, all they would have is a handful of NGO workers as a very cynical joke. It seems we’re starting to be asked to contrast the western NGOs and the Chinese investors as different strategies in the development of third world countries (how bizarre!), and that we have reason to fear China exploiting a number of countries. But what percent of western NGOs concern themselves with fighting the exploitation happening today? It’s very hard to take the idea that NGOs are the basis of a model for development when they so often only compensate for a small fraction of what is holding these countries back.

    I was going to comment on how I found myself almost admiring that the tourists to Africa are interested in wildlife rather than the sex trade, but it occurred to me that at least, even if they don’t see them as such, the western tourists here have an interest in human beings.

  • Jay Sames

    I am increasingly drawn to Al Jazeera as a news source. They alone seem to be talking bout the Chinese presence in African. And it’s FASCINATING! But you can’t watch Al Jazeera very much in the USA. Mr. French’s book sounds like it will be wonderful, and I’d like to read it. But before then, check out Al Jazeera.

    Mr. French’s most unlikely-to-be-heeded warning, though, is this: until the American psyche is adjusted to other than Victorian ideals, Africa will always seem a place we feel needs our help, when in fact the future will reward those who see how they need Africa, as the Chinese have seen. And they are years of head of our thinking, let alone our action.

    • David Cowhig

      Yes, I started watching Al Jazeera to understand the Arab world better and found that they have much more Africa coverage, particularly of East Africa, than I see in the US media. I put a dish on my balcony to get it. I am told that the Arabic language broadcasts of Al Jazeera are more slanted than are the English language ones, but being used to seeing Fox and CNBC, I am not shocked that they have an attitude in their news presentations.

  • Potter

    I am reading Anthony Shadid’s excellent journalistic writing in the New York Times on the Egyptian revolution. Other than that we are listening, I am sure along with many others, to Al Jazeera English(AJE), live, cameras in Egypt (somehow since they were kicked out) . We listen via the circuitous route ( CNBC or MSNBC relaying) because our cable company does not carry AJE boycotted since it’s inception here a few years ago. This is totally outrageous. Furthermore Al Jazeera reporting is quite good even preferable to much of the reporting we get, broadcast or cable. (Al Jazeera has no commercials either).

    This is an exciting time. As Howard French says, we don’t know how these Arab revolutions (plural now) will turn out but it seems he is already not right about the Tunisian revolt not spreading.

    Regarding “Black Africa” (as opposed to Arab Africa) and the Chinese, I feel more comfortable with our presence as tourists and NGO’s than as businessmen who exploit and prey as they can on a vulnerable people. Chinese commercial interests, and ours when we wake up, don’t have to be thus. We may be asleep, but the Chinese may be myopic in their callousness.

    I hope we don’t see a race to destroy Africa. (I see Kento Ikeda feels the same way).

    One thing we are seeing now is that a promising revolution is not started by invasion. George Bush and the Neocons, in the best light we can muster, were hoping to do for the Iraqis what only they, like the Egyptians and the Tunisians, could do for themselves.

  • David Cowhig

    A year ago, I found an article by Chinese journalist Liu Zhirong in Africa , which I summarized in English.
    An article by Chinese journalist LIU Zhirong, What Do Africans Think of the Chinese? 非洲人眼里的中国人 It was deleted from many PRC websites but one can still find it online. The article begins
    I’ve spent the last few years in Africa, meeting a range of people from government ministers, governors, businesspeople, tribal chiefs and village heads and all levels of African society to try to understand how Africans view the Chinese. We can take the Africans as a kind of mirror to ourselves, and take a look at what the Africans in their hearts see in the Chinese so that we can adjust our own behavior accordingly, and become better accepted by Africans. Just as the Tang Dynasty [Prime Minister] Wei Zheng who said, “We can use copper as a mirror to see how our clothing looks, or we can take history as a mirror to understand the rise and fall of states, or we can take people as a mirror, to come to understand our our strengths and shortcomings.”

    Portugal arrived on Africa’s west coast in 1418, and after that Africa was never isolated again. Africa become the stage upon which a continuing tragedy of European colonial exploitation, massacres, plundering and slave taking played out. By 1914, except for Ethiopia and Libya, all of Africa had been divided up European colonialists. Africans had no choice but to give up the languages they had spoken ever since they descended from the trees and to begin speaking the languages of the colonial powers. After the Second World War, the African countries became independent one after another and the European rulers were forced to retire from Africa in defeat. The economic vacuum they left behind was filled by the Indians and Pakistanis with whom they had long been trading. In today’s world of economic globalization, Africa is not longer black Africa but the last remaining gold mine on Earth. Prospectors of all skin colors come to Africa to prospect and seek their fortunes, including about one million Chinese. The African black people know well the whites from a century or two of colonial rule; the Chinese, economic explorers who arrived late on the scene, are much less familiar. They look at us, just as we look at them, starting with remaking on exoticism and with curiosity and gradually from an impression based on guesses, observation, and evidence.

    Summary of points Liu made on typical African views of Chinese in Africa:

    1. Chinese work very hard and work all the time. Africans enjoy life. Do Chinese get their joy in working all the time?
    2. Chinese are frugal and self controlled. In many countries in Africa, a man might have more than one wife. Africans see that Chinese have only one wife but might life in an African country for two or three years without her. Do Chinese get an anti-sex injection before they leave China? Why don’t Chinese men need women? It seems like they just like to sit around and drink tea.
    3. China makes cheap, poor quality products. China also makes good products but doesn’t export them to Africa. Many people made this comment about clothing,
    cars, and other items.
    4. Chinese are scofflaws. In one case a Chinese company laid off workers in a way inconsistent with local labor laws. The workers took the Chinese company to court and won. China perhaps because of its feudal traditions doesn’t understand the rule of law. However, Africans learned this from the Europeans so Chinese companies operating in Africa need to understand to that they can operate successfully there.
    5. Chinese are not careful of sanitation. In Francophone Africa, they mistake bidets in hotel rooms for urinals. They won’t obey local rules such as no smoking in the washroom.
    6. Chinese disrupt markets. Their bids are often one third the price of a bid by a French competitor, making the French so angry that they tear out their own hair. Later the Chinese companies are very polluting, use poor materials, or break their contract. Africans are often angry at being underbid by Chinese who they see as
    forcing them out of their own market. Some Africans say that wherever the Chinese go they disrupt markets.
    7. Chinese are fractious. Chinese unlike Africans, won’t help someone from their own country, but rather combine according to the part of China they come to and fight against other Chinese. Africans notice the fight to the death competition between Chinese companies in Africa. The worst tricks Chinese business people play isn’t against Africans but against other Chinese.
    8. Chinese are atheists. They see that Chinese work all the time but Africans feel that finding a purpose in life is a spiritual quest, and that the purpose of life is to
    return to be with God.
    9. Chinese will eat anything. Chinese need to be careful in Africa. In Ethiopia, they should not eat donkeys or dogs. One local official said once Chinese came to build a road and ate up all the pigs in the area. Next time you come, tell us a year in advance and we will ask the farmers to raise a lot of pigs.

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