Howard W. French is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a veteran journalist who has reported extensively from Africa and served as Shanghai bureau chief of the New York Times. His book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa is about Chinese migrants in Africa and the Africans who come into contact with him. He answered our questions about his book via email.
You visited a dozen African countries in this book. How did you decide where to go and which countries to write about?
My book is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa, first of all. Within that large region I had a few concerns. I wanted large, meaning populous countries, and small ones. I wanted countries with very large Chinese migrant populations, and I wanted countries where this experience was newer and less dramatic. I wanted countries in east, west, central and southern Africa. And finally, I wanted countries with different economic backgrounds: some with heavily mineral dependent economies, and some that had much less to do with natural resources.
Most of the Africans you talk to in the course of the book, no matter how critical they may be about what the Chinese in their countries are doing, say they welcome Chinese investment. Do you think it is possible for Chinese entrepreneurs and SOE to come into an African country and do business responsibly?
I didn’t find it surprising that Africans should welcome Chinese investment, as a general principle. Africans are eager for more and better development, for more employment and better jobs, and they generally see foreign investment as an important potential contributor to such things. As for the poor behavior of Chinese business people, this is an issue that is belatedly coming to be recognized by Chinese authorities themselves. These comments by the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania, one of the countries I wrote about, are indicative. It is certainly true that there are crass, lawless people everywhere, and that China has no monopoly on objectionable behavior. The issue that arises with the large numbers of Chinese newcomers to Africa, though, is that they very often come from lower socioeconomic strata of their own society, and have limited education and little or no prior exposure to the outside world. On top of that, they come from a society which suffers serious deficiencies in the rule of law, where corruption is rife, and where protections for labor and for the environment are weak and often go unobserved. This doesn’t make it impossible for them to do business responsibly, but it makes such an outcome much more unlikely.
Do you think it is fair to say that Chinese people in general have a relatively poor understanding of other countries and of world history? I was surprised to read, in your book, the same kind of ignorant talk about Africa coming out of the mouths of both small-time entrepreneurs with little education and high-level diplomats.
I am a little bit uncomfortable with broad generalizations, but yes, I would say that China, as a society, has been wrapped up in its own concerns, understandably even, for most of the last century, and at the popular level there is a relatively poor understanding of other countries and of world history. Because of the way history is taught in the country, and specifically because of the heavy political guidance and censorship that such a topic receives, I would say that most Chinese also have a rather incomplete view of their own history, which complicates things yet further.
If I could ask you to look into the future, where do you see the Chinese population in Africa in 50 years’ time? Will most of the million there now stay? Will African countries have to acknowledge their second, third, or fourth-generation ethnic Chinese citizens? Will the Chinese there hold themselves apart as much as they have done so far?
If I am forced to go out on a limb, I would guess there might be 20 million Chinese people in Africa by mid-century, maybe more. They will be concentrated in African cities, which exhibit some of the highest growth rates in the world. Second and third generation Chinese will very often have African citizenship, and a great many of them will live in an integrated fashion, deeply socialized and networked within their societies of adoption.
You mention in your recent New York Times op-ed that China’s foreign policy has historically been focused on state-to-state relations. Do you see any signs of improvement in this regard? Does the Chinese government now recognize the need to deal with more than just state institutions?
The Chinese state’s preference for state-to-state relations stems from the way China itself functions, with the state arrogating tremendous power for itself even, as has been alluded to here, to decide such matters as “correct” history. The Chinese state is wary of independent authority at home, unwilling to see the emergence of much real pluralism. This makes the Chinese state far less willing and able to interact nimbly and constructively with independent civil society forces in other countries. I think that Beijing sees the need for it to be able to relate better to such forces abroad, but doing so is inherently difficult, and I don’t see that changing much in the near to medium term.
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Buy China’s Second Continent on Amazon here.