After Tiananmen Square, New Lives On A New Continent

After the democracy protests were crushed in 1989, many thought China would turn inward. Instead, a million Chinese citizens moved to Africa. Howard French discusses his book China's Second Continent.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start the program today by taking note of a difficult moment in history. Twenty-five years ago today, the Chinese army attacked demonstrators who had been occupying Tiananmen Square, protesting for more democracy and freedom. The crackdown brought international condemnation. Some observers believed it would lead the communist country to become increasingly inward-looking and isolated. It turned out that did not happen. Today, China stands as a major global power, and one part of the world in which it clearly rivals the U.S. as an influence on politics and the economy is Africa. Thousands of Chinese companies have established themselves in Africa over the last two decades. China-Africa trade has surged from $10 billion in 2000 to $200 billion last year, far surpassing the U.S. and any European country. China's top leaders make multiple trips to the continent every year. But, as author Howard French tells us in his new book, just as important as those high-level visits are the people who are rarely discussed. And they are the million or so Chinese expatriates who aren't just passing through, but are staying and moving into all walks of life. That's who the former New York Times bureau chief spent time with as he prepared his latest book, "China's Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa." And Howard French is with us now. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

HOWARD FRENCH: It's great to be with you again.

MARTIN: Now you use the word empire in the title, which, of course, conjures up images of European colonialism. What did China's top leaders have in mind? What was their goal in setting their sights on Africa, and have they achieved it?

FRENCH: So in the mid-1990s, the Chinese leadership looked out upon the world, feeling, I think, very satisfied that several years after Tiananmen Square, they had managed to really take off economically through a first stage of globalization. But through the 1990s, African leaders were emerging from a period when the West had, essentially, turned their back on Africa. Africa, in the 1980s, had been through a very harsh, structural adjustment - regime-imposed, most of the time, by the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank. African economies were in terrible shape. And Westerners had their focus on Eastern Europe for the most part - or, in the case of the United States, increasingly on the so-called war on terror. And so Africans were left adrift economically. They didn't have partners who were willing to invest or to do big things. Suddenly, along come the Chinese, as they were opening up their economy and following the watchword of Jiang Zemin, the president of China in the 1990s, who said, we have to go out into the world to seek new business. And African leaders fell over themselves in enthusiasm for, just, the notion that anybody would embrace them, and do business on a large scale and build big things. Now, a leader wants to be able to point to something that he or she has built and say, OK. So I was in power for four or five years, and here's the highway I built, or the university I built, or the airport I built, or the stadium I built. And that's exactly what the Chinese were proposing to them. And so you had this great rush of enthusiasm of African leaders competing with each other, actually, in effect to sign deals with China. And it wasn't until later - until fairly recently, that African civil societies have begun to press their leadership ever more forcefully with skeptical questions about whether this sort of business model is good for the national interest - whether it pays off in the long term - whether it, in fact - it does any good.

MARTIN: Now, in 2008, NPR did a special series on China-Africa relations. And one report featured Zi Xuting. He is a Chinese business leader who runs a copper mine in Zambia. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZI XUTING: Chinese and Zambia is brothers. You have to know what the local people is thinking. We want be the best. Number one. It's a win-win project.

MARTIN: So what about that? Professor French, do the people there feel that way - similarly? I mean, do they think it's a win-win?

FRENCH: It's worth pausing to take apart this notion of win-win for a second. The Chinese government has made these immense inroads into the African economic environment over the last 10 or 15 years with a very specific model, which gets back to the notion of imperialism that I hint at in my title. It sends large work crews on big infrastructure projects, which could be highway systems, or roads, or ports, or airports, or dams, etcetera. There could be 500, or 1,000 or 2,000 workers at a go, staying in an African country for a year or two to complete these projects, very typically. Essentially, all of the labor is done by Chinese people, who will live, typically, in a compound, having relatively little exposure to the African environment and the local economy. Their salaries is banked back in China. Now, the second piece of this, what I call, an economic feedback loop that all goes back to China in a very profitable way, constitutes the materials - the technology that is used in the building of these projects. That's all sourced in China. And so all of that money goes back to China, and not into the African economy. The engineering, the know-how, also comes from China. And very little of that is passed on along the way to African collaborators. Finally, all of this is paid for by Chinese state banks, typically with commercial loans. And so the Chinese state banks provide the upfront capital for the big project, and the African country is left to pay back this debt over 20 years or so, you know, directly to China. And so at every level of these kinds of projects, almost all of the money is flowing back to China. And I think this defies any attempt to characterize - African countries are not getting nothing out of this. And they're clearly signing on the dotted line, in most cases, and contracting these sorts of projects. But I think it makes it hard, under the circumstances, to agree to this glib characterization as win-win.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Howard French. We're talking about his new book, "China's Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa." The former New York Times bureau chief conducted interviews in Mandarin, French and Portuguese, among other languages, to, kind of, get to the ground level of how China is influencing the continent. One of the characters that struck a chord with me was Hao Shengli, whom you met in Mozambique. Tell us a little bit about his story, if you would. I was struck by the fact that he wanted his sons to marry local women, but I didn't get the sense that this was a love-match he was seeking, here.

FRENCH: Hao was interesting because, unlike most of the people I profile, he was not a working-class person. He had started up several businesses in China that had done reasonably well. He had some savings. He set off to the Middle East - tried to do business there. He failed. He comes back to China. And he goes to a trade fair and meets some people in Guangzhou who tell him that there's all kinds of opportunity in Africa. And so he then begins to fixate on Africa. And he ends up in Mozambique on the theory that, as a Portuguese speaking country, they'll be very few Chinese people there. He spoke no Portuguese, but he figured, at least, he wouldn't have any cutthroat Chinese competitors. And so he goes to Mozambique. He doesn't do well in the capital. He discovers, to his disgust, that there are a lot of Chinese people there, in fact. And so he sets off for the countryside. And he ends up finagling his way into buying a very nice piece of irrigated, very rich farmland. And he gets into these relationships with the local people. And their relationship becomes ever more testy, and so he's worrying. Even though he's got a long-term lease, he's wondering if the villagers won't find a way to contest it, or the local government will take it back from him. And he settles upon a scheme, which absolutely astounded me, of bringing his teenage sons from China to settle there with him - and to have children by local women, in whose names he could place the property and control it indirectly through these people, who, as Mozambican citizens, would legally have the right to own land forever. And so that's the scene that I stumble upon in this rural place.

MARTIN: It was interesting to me how much racism you personally encountered over the course of your travels. I mean, just the kind of day-to-day, casual reminders of distance that is certainly not polite in this country anymore. I'm thinking about when you went to this hotel in Liberia. And then you went to this room to drop off your things and wash up, and there was no towel there. And then when you told your host this, he summoned a young Chinese man who worked for him and told him to fetch me one. He says, we don't usually give them out because most Chinese bring their own. They wouldn't want to use one that a black person might have used. I mean, put this in some context for me. I mean, do you think that this is, kind of, growing pains, and that at some point will people have moved beyond that? What's your sense?

FRENCH: Everywhere I went, the local Chinese person referred to the people, in whose midst they had come to settle, as black people. You know, they would say, the blacks, the blacks, the blacks, the blacks. They wouldn't say the Ghanaians, or the Tanzanians, or the Zambians, or the this or the that. It was just, the blacks. And this refusal, or reluctance, to allow any kind of finer identity - to render them totally anonymous as just simply black, as if that was the only pertinent detail about them, was very telling for me. That whether or not this is a passing phase, I can't really say. But for the time being, the Africans are just, essentially, serving as a backdrop for Chinese processes - somebody that will be useful for them - or a place that will be useful for them for the time being along the way, as they proceed up the ladder of hierarchies, if you will, of civilizations of nations.

MARTIN: Just as a final thought - this is very much of an ongoing story. And my sense is that we will probably be talking again about this in the years to come. But just one final question about the U.S. What does this portend for the U.S. relationship? Can the U.S. catch up? Should they try to compete with China - take a fresh and more aggressive posture toward the continent?

FRENCH: Africa is not lost to the United States. I would say, though, the biggest handicap that the U.S. faces is totally self-imposed. We have somehow arrived at a place, through our own historical processes, where we find it almost impossible to regard Africa as a terrain of opportunity. We have conditioned ourselves to regard Africa as a place of tragedy, of disaster, of pain, of poverty, of corruption, and when we're feeling generous, as a place that we need to, sort of, patronize - to pat on the back, or pat on the head and to do quote-unquote, "good things," in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. This isn't, for the most part, what most Africans expect or want from us as a society. And Africa is in this moment of its history, if I can speak very generally, of immense opportunities. Sub-Saharan Africa, taken as a unit, has a larger middle class than all of India. Africa, as a continent, has the fastest average rate-of-growth of any continent in the world. But how many Americans know this? Americans are so deeply conditioned to think about Africa in the terms that I've described that they're blind to these sorts of opportunities. And this is to our detriment. And we're not in a fight with China. But I want to say we're fighting with one hand tied behind our back because, you know, the Chinese don't have this baggage. They don't have this handicap. They don't have any trouble identifying Africa as a place of opportunity. And they have no inhibition about jumping in, obviously, if you have a million people there ,in the space of a decade or a little more. They have no inhibition about chasing that opportunity.

MARTIN: Howard French is the author of "China's Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Howard French, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FRENCH: Thank you, Michel. Great to be with you again.

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