Magazine article The Spectator

'China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa', by Howard French - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa', by Howard French - Review

Article excerpt

Credit: Aaron Ross

China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa Howard French

Alfred A. Knopf, pp.320, £22.50, ISBN: 9780307956989

Few subjects generate as much angst, or puzzlement, among Western policymakers in Africa as China's presence on the continent. In his new book, China's Second Continent, the American journalist Howard French recalls meeting US officials in Mali to sound them out on the matter. Instead, he finds himself barraged by questions. 'It would really be useful for us to know what the Chinese are up to,' one American official tells him. 'So far we've been limited to speaking with them through translators. We've got very little idea about any of this.'

Grasping the range and scale of China's activities in Africa is indeed a tall order. Commercial deals are cloaked in secrecy. Immigration statistics from African countries are poor. And contrary to some perceptions, the Chinese in Africa hardly move as a bloc. Many live deep in the hinterlands, toiling in small-scale mining or petty commerce.

The upshot, as French rightly notes, is that mere statistics are hopelessly inadequate to capture the China-Africa relationship. Understanding what the Chinese 'are up to' requires going out and meeting them. A lot of them. Low-end estimates peg their numbers in Africa at around one million. The true number, in all probability, is significantly higher.

Fortunately, French is the ideal man for the job. The former West Africa and Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, he speaks Chinese, French and Spanish. His linguistic prowess and intrepid travel regimen -- he visits 15 countries in all -- win him access to Chinese migrants from every walk of life, from a French-educated elite commissioned to build a 32-storey tower in Dakar to an electronics vendor in an isolated Mozambican village who explains that she 'discovered the country online'. The result is a colourful and revealing collection of anecdotes culled from interactions planned and impromptu.

What does French learn? For one thing, China's African story is no flash in the pan. Though migration is encouraged and heavily subsidised by Beijing, the process tends to unfold in much more organic -- and probably sustainable -- ways. Frustrated by cramped living conditions and stifled economic opportunities back home, many Chinese see Africa as 'a place of almost unlimited opportunity'. …

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