[Marxism] The Chinese Invade Africa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 6 19:15:59 MDT 2014

NY Review, SEPTEMBER 25, 2014 ISSUE
The Chinese Invade Africa
by Ian Johnson

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New 
Empire in Africa
by Howard W. French
Knopf, 285 pp., $27.95

China’s Congo Plan: What the Economic Superpower Sees in the World’s 
Poorest Nation
by Jacob Kushner
Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 42 pp., $1.99 (e-book)

In early May, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, made a trip to Africa that 
raised a central question about China’s rise: What effect will it have 
on the world’s poorer countries? As a big third-world country that has 
lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in just a few decades—and has 
risen so fast that it’s easily the only serious challenger to the United 
States’ superpower status—China has enormous cachet, with lessons that 
many countries are eager to learn. But as the trip showed, those lessons 
are complex and ambiguous.

Premier Li visited four countries and the headquarters of the African 
Union in Addis Ababa. He pledged billions of dollars in new aid, 
promised to share technology, and unveiled a series of much-publicized 
deals, including a nine-hundred-mile railway line in Nigeria and a 
research center to help link major African capitals by rail. Li urged 
African leaders and Chinese companies that China—already Africa’s 
largest trading partner—should double its trade with Africa by 2020 and 
quadruple its investment there.

For the better part of a decade, these sorts of headlines have caused 
distress among nongovernmental organizations and in Western capitals. 
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have detailed labor abuses and shown 
how China’s limits on free speech at home have been exported abroad, 
especially to dependent states in regions like Africa.1 The economic 
ties are sometimes portrayed as under-the-table deals cut between 
Beijing and corrupt leaders in Africa. Instead of helping to build civil 
society, these deals are said to hurt Africa’s long-term interests, 
reinforcing the tendency of corrupt elites to secure resources at a low 

In early August, President Barack Obama welcomed delegates from fifty 
African states to the White House. It was the largest-ever summit 
between the continent and the United States, although China has been 
holding similar conferences every three years for over a decade. And as 
if to undercut Li’s visit, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited 
Africa a few days earlier than Li. He talked up trade but he also warned 
against corruption and censorship—the sort of advice that some African 
leaders are happy not to hear from China.

Chinese and some foreign commentators argue that the West’s support for 
corporate responsibility, human rights, and efficient development aid 
is, at best, rather sudden, if not downright hypocritical, in view of 
the West’s decades of colonialism, support of dictators, and resource 
grabs by its own large corporations. In an English-language commentary 
during Li’s visit in May, the govern- ment’s Xinhua news agency wrote 
that China was providing Africa with the infrastructure it needs—the 
sort of roads, rails, and schools that underpinned China’s rise over the 
past four decades:

Biased people in the West tend to see China, a late comer to Africa, as 
a rising contender and smear it as the new colonist that snatches 
natural resources to fit its own development agenda as Western powers 
did centuries ago. Such misgivings only attest to the West’s poor 
knowledge about the real story of the China-Africa cooperation.
But in comments aimed more for domestic consumption, Chinese leaders 
also nodded toward some of their critics’ concerns. During his visit, 
Premier Li met with Chinese employees of state firms working in Angola. 
This oil-rich country has been the site of heavy Chinese investment, and 
Li promised that the interests of the local Chinese would be protected. 
Cutting the ribbon at a new Chinese center for its overseas workers, he 
said that though far away from China, they were in everyone’s thoughts. 
But then he went on to warn them not to give China a bad image by being 
too cutthroat, insular, and disrespectful. According to a Chinese report 
of Li’s comments on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, he added:

As Chinese companies and people develop abroad, even though they’re 
swimming in the big lake of market economics, it isn’t a zero-sum game. 
Both sides should benefit. Only then can we have a rich outcome. We have 
to unite the lives of Chinese and local people. Chinese companies and 
people should abide by local laws and respect local traditions, carrying 
out to the utmost social responsibilities and protecting China’s image.

Li’s choice of Angola to make such a statement probably wasn’t a 
coincidence. Eight years ago, China and Angola pioneered deals that 
would be emulated in many other African countries, sometimes with the 
same unhappy endings. Starting in the early 2000s, China secured rights 
to sell Angolan oil in exchange for billions of dollars in credit that 
the Angolan government can use to buy Chinese infrastructure. But 
instead of hiring locals, China imported tens of thousands of workers. 
Resentment and violence flared, with local armed gangs attacking Chinese 
companies and expatriates. Chinese gangs also got involved, setting up 
extortion and prostitution rings, which led to dozens of arrests.

All of this was diametrically opposite to Li’s message of a mutually 
beneficial engagement between a once-poor country and poor countries on 
their way up. Which was accurate?

Trying to figure out China’s true intentions in Africa has resulted in a 
cottage industry of analysts, writers, and bloggers investigating just 
how much aid China provides (foreign aid is a state secret in China), as 
well as whether the pledges, memoranda of understanding, and so on 
really are panning out, or are just empty announcements designed to give 
meaning to the barrage of summits and visits between Chinese and African 
heads of state. Their conclusions can be confusingly different, with 
some arguing that China is a new imperialist power and others seeing a 
more benevolent approach that, at worst, is no different from Western 

Howard French’s new book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million 
Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, takes a different tack, 
giving us a bottom-up look at China in Africa. A former New York Times 
Africa and China correspondent, he is fluent in Chinese, French, and 
Spanish, enabling him to speak directly to many of the people involved. 
He doesn’t bypass the pundits and analysts, but tries as much as 
possible to let the Africans and Chinese speak for themselves as he 
travels through fifteen countries. The result is a rich, complex, and 
satisfyingly contradictory look at this strange marriage.

French sets his story in broad terms, helping to convey its relevance to 
general readers. He points out that when China began its ascent in the 
1970s, it was during an earlier phase of globalization that primarily 
involved Western countries developing export industries in poorer 
countries, mostly in Asia, but also in Latin America and Eastern Europe. 
In other words, it was globalization carried out on the West’s terms.

Now we are in an era when rising powers like China, and to a lesser 
degree India and Brazil, are investing heavily in one another—and other 
countries down the food chain. China, writes French, is “rapidly 
emerging as the most important agent of economic change in broad swaths 
of the world.” China uses Africa as a proving ground for its companies, 
most of which are not quite ready to take on their Western competitors 
on their home turf, but which can provide Africans with robust, low-cost 

Although China’s foray into Africa has been a staple of media reports 
for the past decade, it’s worth pausing to consider just how dramatic 
this change is. When China first entered Africa in the 1960s, it was 
something of a curiosity, positioning itself as a fellow victim of 
imperialism, a socialist brother, or a provider of modest, low-end 
technology. Generally, though, it did little more than build the odd 
showpiece factory or railway line—good deeds to complement a kind of 
missionary Maoism not unlike the religious and ideological opportunism 
that drew Europeans to Africa in earlier eras. When China launched its 
economic reforms in the late 1970s, it was more concerned with its own 
development, and although engagement with Africa didn’t disappear, it 
was minimal.

That began to change in the 1990s, as China increased its aid to Africa, 
culminating in the triennial 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 
Beijing. Delegates from forty-eight countries attended, and the Chinese 
capital was lined with billboards hailing “Amazing Africa.” China 
pledged to double aid within three years and suddenly the world woke up 
to the fact that Africa had a new suitor besides the two chief colonial 
masters, Britain and France, and the winner of the cold war, the United 
States. China’s export-import bank estimated that it would provide $20 
billion in loans during the three years after the forum, while the World 
Bank planned $17 billion.2

But it’s another statistic that underpins French’s reportage: one 
million. This is the number of Chinese that French reckons are active in 
Africa today, not only as guest workers building the continent’s 
telecommunications or transport infrastructure, but also including 
thousands of ordinary people who see Africa as a land of opportunity. 
For Westerners, Africa is mostly a series of kleptocracies, natural 
disasters, violent conflicts, and public health crises like the recent 
outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. But for many Chinese, Africa 
is an underpopulated region of forests, plains, and seemingly fallow 
lands, a vast continent (three times larger than China) of just one 
billion people that, in some places, is starting to grow quickly. As 
French sees it, we are in the midst of a “historic movement of Chinese 
to Africa.”

One of French’s most colorful chapters is set in Mozambique, where he 
finds a Chinese pioneer farmer named Hao who is determined not only to 
build a homestead, but to start a clan that will be part of the 
country’s economic takeoff. He has brought over two sons whom he wants 
to set up with local women. Hao hopes they will marry, procreate, and 
establish a clan of economic titans with vast holdings of land that can 
only be dreamed of in overcrowded, highly regulated China. It seems 
delusional, but is it more so than the white homesteaders of earlier eras?

French is extremely open-minded. He tells us that he’s here to challenge 
the stereotype of Chinese being insular and clannish, and to show how 
many are excited about Africa. Examples like Hao help make this point 
about how outgoing and entrepreneurial Chinese can be, although French’s 
reporting is good enough to let us make up our own minds. Personally, I 
saw Hao as almost a caricature of a Han chauvinist, spewing racial 
stereotypes about the locals and treating the women like walking 
receptacles for his sons’ semen. Not surprisingly, the local women 
seemed to hate him, and I wondered how long he could last out there on 
the range, with so little empathy or understanding for local people. 
French isn’t as judgmental, and as readers we are probably better for it.

Time and again, French introduces us to risk-taking Chinese. We meet the 
manager of a copper smelter in Zambia, small shop owners in Mali, and a 
suave businessman in Guinea whose fluent French puts American diplomats 
to shame. French takes us on epic road trips through the bush and 
sprawling cities, and along the way we encounter boosters and critics of 
China’s growing engagement. He doesn’t come down as hard on the Chinese 
as some Western critics do, but he talks to enough African skeptics and 
boorish Chinese that some readers can find plenty of evidence for why 
China is probably likely to be held at arm’s length in Africa, just as 
Western powers are.

A theme that runs through French’s book is that parts of Africa are 
prospering. He cites the oft-used statistic that Africa’s middle class 
is 300 million, which is staggering. Not all people agree with this 
figure, however, and the definition is quite low—applying to those who 
spend between $2 and $20 per day, though about 60 percent of this group 
spend only between $2 and $4 a day. Most of those who earn more live in 
the oil-rich countries of North Africa.3

And yet French takes us to so many places, and we meet so many Chinese 
enthralled with Africa’s opportunities, that he convinces us that Africa 
is rising, perhaps not quite as dramatically as China was a generation 
earlier, but still on the way up. He also makes one consider China’s 
point of view, which is that if it practices a kind of mercenary 
mercantilism, its engagement with Africa is at least honest. It wants to 
make money and figures that if Africans can achieve governments that are 
halfway competent, they’ll figure out how to make money too and lift 
themselves out of poverty.

This is how China itself escaped poverty. Suspicious of their 
intentions, China never welcomed NGOs, while foreign aid to China was 
limited (and now mostly has been phased out). This meant that China does 
not have the culture of nongovernmental organizations found in many 
African countries. NGOs such as Amnesty International, for example, are 
barred from working in China, while many others have very small 
operations in China that are sharply curtailed. In a way, its engagement 
with Africa is the same as its blueprint for its own country: grow, 
grow, grow, and sort out the rest later. It’s easy to see why many 
Africans might be exhilarated by this, especially if they are in the 
elite and stand to benefit from the new projects.

Another take on China in Africa is provided by Jacob Kushner in his 
e-book China’s Congo Plan: What the Economic Superpower Sees in the 
World’s Poorest Nation, which was published by the Pulitzer Center on 
Crisis Reporting, a Washington-based foundation that supports 
investigative journalism. Kushner’s book is smaller—about forty-odd 
pages—and it focuses on just one country. But like French, Kushner is 
fair-minded and has invested much time and effort in figuring out the 
interplay between the new superpower and a poor but strategically 
important African country.

China’s way of doing business in Congo is typical of many other parts of 
Africa. It secures hugely profitable mineral rights in exchange for 
setting up infrastructure projects. Based on their experience over the 
past few decades, China’s leaders believe that such projects, more than 
anything, help reduce poverty. Roads mean access to markets, rail means 
products can get to ports, and schools mean the creation of a literate 
workforce that can take advantage of the new opportunities.

In Congo’s case, the government’s plan is to pay for such infrastructure 
by guaranteeing China access to 6.8 million tons of copper and 427,000 
tons of cobalt over the next twenty-five years. At current market prices 
those minerals are worth between $40 and $84 billion, or two to four 
times Congo’s current GDP. The output will be sold on the market, with 
two Chinese companies getting two thirds of the profits and the one 
Congolese company getting one third.

In addition, China is building roads, hospitals, and universities that 
Congo decided it wanted. The projects were not chosen by Western aid 
advisers imposing their ideas of what would best help local people. The 
projects are worth $3 billion—not gifts, but loans to be repaid with the 
profits from the mines.

In some ways this is a bad deal. It could be better for Congo to take 
the profits and put the projects up for open bidding. But the Chinese 
approach guarantees that something will get done. As one Congo official 
told Kushner:

It’s been 50 years that we’ve cooperated with the IMF, the World Bank. 
And for 50 years we’ve had the same problem. There aren’t roads. There 
aren’t schools. There aren’t universities.

Two problems, though, arise. One is that many Chinese infrastructure 
projects have a reputation for poor quality—both in China and perhaps 
especially abroad. That’s led some Africans to label these deals as “a 
new form of imperialism.” And then there is the inevitable corruption 
that seems to accompany these deals, which are almost always cut 
directly with African leaders, bypassing what civil society structures 
exist, including lawyers and local businesspeople. This way of doing 
business also leaves Chinese companies exposed. A Chinese manager named 
Robin told Kushner that the Chinese

talked with a Congolese official who promised to help them do it. They 
began courting him with kind words, and later, with gifts. “We gave him 
a car, a house, and a lot of furniture,” says Robin. “He had been to 
China to meet with our (company) president. He said ‘No problem, I 
promise you, you can buy a mine in Congo.’ But it was so complicated.” 
The mine never materialized.

Some Westerners might shake their heads, but the West pioneered not only 
colonialism in Africa, but the worst practices in dealing with newly 
independent countries. For thirty years after Congo’s independence, 
Western countries supported Mobutu Sese Seko, one of Africa’s most 
corrupt dictators, supplying him with aid and weapons. Western companies 
have also sought to corner parts of Africa’s resources, often turning a 
blind eye to abuses. China’s novel approach is to package aid, soft 
loans, and private investment into a practical bundle, often sealed by a 
state visit.

This might be relatively new in Africa, but it’s also how Western 
countries did business in China itself. Especially in the 1990s, when 
China’s economic potential was becoming hard to ignore, Western heads of 
state would descend on Beijing with scores of corporate leaders in tow, 
pledging various goodies in exchange for access to the Chinese market. 
Perhaps the only difference was that for a brief period, when China 
needed the West more than the other way around, Western leaders secured 
token concessions on human rights, although this was usually little more 
than the release of a dissident or two. China makes no such pretenses in 
Africa, but then again, Western countries over the past decade have 
pretty much stopped talking about human rights when visiting China.

An even more interesting parallel might be between China’s strategies in 
Africa and in its remote regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. There, China 
also follows a policy of heavy investment in infrastructure, and also 
reaps mixed benefits. Those regions have historically been marginal to 
the Chinese heartland, and ethnic Chinese have moved there in 
significant numbers only since the founding of the People’s Republic. 
Both areas have been hit by violent protests against Chinese rule, and 
China has tried to pacify them with spectacular infrastructure projects, 
such as a railway to Lhasa. But unrest has increased, with violence even 
spilling over into Chinese cities.

Whether in Xinjiang or Africa, China seems befuddled that economics 
doesn’t solve all problems, including its sometimes bad image. Several 
opinion surveys show that China is viewed more favorably in Africa than 
in many other parts of the world, but criticism of China is growing 
there. In part, this is because its policies often just entrench the 
corrupt oligarchies that have run the countries into the ground. In one 
of his best chapters, French takes us to Mali, where China has tried to 
revive a project, originally funded by France, of irrigating a vast 
tract of land. While the Chinese approach the project with gusto, they 
are confronted with NGOs skeptical of yet another foreign power coming 
in and snapping up land. Here and elsewhere, the Chinese seem unaware of 
European history and how it has made Africans extremely skeptical of 
foreign interlopers.

This is reinforced by yet more Han chauvinism—a problem that underpins 
many of China’s troubles in Xinjiang and Tibet. In Liberia, French meets 
Chinese investors who think that African farmers don’t have hoes, and 
arrogantly assume that Africans are inherently lazy and disorganized. 
French wonders if Chinese familiarity with their own history might not 
make them a bit more humble. Not too long ago, China was so poorly run 
that the same Communist Party ruling the country today presided over the 
worst famine in recorded history: “A snapshot taken then would have 
given a very different picture of the supposedly essential character of 
Chinese people, and it would have entirely missed the point.”

Despite these problems, Chinese history has valuable lessons to teach. 
Chinese leaders have been ruthless in playing foreign powers against one 
another, threatening to withhold market access, for example, if 
technology is not transferred. This has helped China to be more than an 
export-processing and resource-exporting center: the country is starting 
to innovate and challenge the West on a host of fronts. For Africa to do 
the same, it will need leaders who are equally adept at putting their 
national interests first, even if they occasionally line their pockets.

French sees Africa at a crossroads. The combination of demographics, 
education, and communication is giving some African countries a chance 
to move up the ladder, just like East Asian countries did after World 
War II and as China did a generation later. African countries have a 
youthful population, which means a productive workforce, and by the end 
of the century the continent could have 3.5 billion people, more than 
China and India combined. But French thinks that only the best-governed 
African countries—probably the emerging democracies, such as Ghana—will 
be able to take advantage of these changes. In other countries, a greedy 
elite will squander resources.

In Africans’ dealings with China, they face a hard choice. They can 
accept the football stadiums and broad boulevards that many of their own 
politicians would like to build—the prestige projects that do little 
other than satisfy a leader’s vanity. Or they can insist on high-quality 
roads, schools, and hospitals, and make sure they get the best price for 
their resources. If they do, they can use new Chinese suitors to their 
advantage, much like China has done with the West. In French’s words:

Mid-century will stand out as a sort of twin horizon for Africa, when 
population growth peaks and when known oil and mineral reserves are 
exhausted in many countries…. For the less fortunate, though, China and 
its voracious appetites will merely hasten an already foreseeable demise.

1 See, for example, “Zambia: Workers Detail Abuse in Chinese-Owned 
Mines,” Human Rights Watch, November 3, 2011, as well as “China: 
Quashing Criticism at Home and Abroad,” Human Rights Watch, May 27, 2014. ↩

2 This history is admirably expounded by Deborah Brautigam in The 
Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford University 
Press, 2009). ↩

3 See, for example, Jacques Enaudeau, “In Search of the African Middle 
Class,” The Guardian, May 3, 2013. ↩

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