“NI HAO” and “chi ku” may be the two commonest phrases in this riveting worm’s-eye account of the Chinese in Africa. They mean, respectively, “hello” and “eat bitter”.
The first is relentlessly used by Howard French, a veteran American reporter with a Ghanaian wife who has been based in both Africa and China for the New York Times and speaks Chinese, enabling him to converse with an array of Chinese people in Africa, from rugged bricklayers in Zambia and brothel madams in Liberia, to engineers in Mali and farmers in Mozambique.
The second phrase is used by many of Africa’s new Chinese diaspora to denote their ability to live rough in remote and inhospitable places and to work staggeringly hard, qualities that the continent’s previous roaming visitors, principally from Britain, France and America, seem to have lost, at least in Chinese and African eyes.
The numbers are hard to pin down. Mr French reckons that the million cited in his book’s title may be an underestimate. Most of them, he says, came to work on big projects, then stayed on as adventurous entrepreneurs on their own or in family groups. Chinese companies bring far more of their own people to work in menial jobs than Western companies would ever do.
Mr French says that in 2011 China’s parliament debated a proposal, admittedly fanciful, to deploy as many as 100m people in Africa. The rumour circulating widely in Africa that many of the more roughneck types of Chinese incomer are prison labourers is, he says, may have been entirely baseless.
The trade and investment figures are hard to verify, too. According to one source used by Mr French, “China’s Export-Import Bank extended $62.7 billion in loans to African countries between 2001-2010, or $12.5 billion more than the World Bank.” Other figures go even higher. What is clear, at any rate, is that Chinese people and money have flooded into Africa in the past decade, chiefly to buy raw materials to fuel China’s roaring economy.
What is tantalisingly unclear is whether the Chinese economic onslaught is the result of a methodical policy fashioned in Beijing as part of an imperialist venture to promote “Chinese values” and dominate the continent as Europeans did a century ago, or whether it has become a self-generating process fired up by individual Chinese who are simply keen to enrich themselves without the slightest intention of kowtowing to the authorities back home.
The conversations recorded by Mr French in a dozen of Africa’s 48 countries leave an impression that strongly supports the second thesis. Indeed, many of the Chinese in Africa excoriate the Communist Party back home and have dared to start new lives far away precisely to breathe fresher air–much as pioneers from Europe did when heading to the new world or to the African continent. Many cite the Chinese ruling party’s corruption as a spur for seeking a freer climate elsewhere and even say that Africa is a lot less corrupt by comparison.
At the same time, many Chinese in Africa have intensely nationalist feelings, often expressed in crudely racist terms. They tend to stick together, perhaps even more tightly than other incomers in the past. They are wary of joint enterprises with Africans, except at the highest level, where presidents and generals come into play.
Africans are routinely derided by the ordinary Chinese, in virtually every country Mr French visits, as lazy and incompetent; “90% of Africans are thieves,” says a Chinese entrepreneur in Namibia. In Liberia a Chinese hotelier explains that his compatriots generally bring their own towels for fear of using one previously used by “hei ren” (“black people”) as they are lumpenly known.
Far from embracing Chinese values, many Africans have become wary of them. In Guinea, writes Mr French, “there was mounting resentment over the way China was seen to be…despoiling the environment, dispossessing powerless landholders or flouting local laws, fuelling corruption, and, most of all, empowering awful governments.”
The dumping of cheap and shoddy goods is another source of complaint, and poor safety standards at work yet another. In Namibia, a local activist says Chinese businessmen often pay their labour a third of the official rate. Illegal fishing, ivory-smuggling and logging by Chinese operators are rife. African worries about such activities and behaviour are gaining ground across the continent.
Some African leaders, by contrast, plainly like the Chinese approach to government and big business, which puts human rights and transparency totally to one side, while ritually uttering the official mantra of “win-win”: Africans and Chinese benefit equally.
The presidents of Angola and Zimbabwe are examples, but others abound. Moreover, if Western donors or investors try to lay down conditions on such matters, African leaders have become adept at threatening to “go east”.
As a massive transactional process, China’s entry into Africa has been a dramatic success, and many of those roads and bridges are useful. But as an ideological and cultural undertaking, Mr French’s masterly account suggests that it is getting nowhere.