By Luwen Song, Laiyin Yuan, and Albert Zhu
Author: Xing Wei
Translator: Luwen Song, Laiyin Yuan, and Albert Zhu
Published on: 08/04/2014
Source: Dongfang Daily
Original text (in Chinese): http://www.dfdaily.com/html/51/2014/8/4/1172805.shtml
After intermittent phone contact for several days, Howard W. French and Hao Shengli finally met.
This scene could never happen a decade ago: an America journalist meeting with a Henanese farmer, not in Washington D.C., New York, Beijing, or Zhengzhou (the capital of Henan Province), but in an African city faraway from both China and the United States – Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.
Hao was barking into his cell phone when his white chauffeur-driven, late-model Toyota pickup pulled up in front of my hotel. It was clear that he was in a hurry and angry. There was a brisk handshake, followed by a lot more shouting in salty Chinese as he struggled to make himself understood to a countryman whom I could grasp he wanted to buy goods from.
“‘China is a big, fucking mess with all of its fucking dialects,’ the shaven-headed, stocky Hao, in his late fifties, said as he hung up.
As I stood there with my bags, already sweating in the mid-morning heat, Hao’s frustration caused him to train abuse on John, his tall and sinewy Mozambican driver, who had been coolly smoking a cigarette while he rearranged the supplies loaded onto the Toyota’s flatbed.
‘You, cabeça não bom, motherfucker,’ he said, the curse word coming in Chinese, as the grizzled immigrant farmer angrily employed three languages in one short and brutal sentence…”
With these vivid descriptions, French’s new book China’s Second Continent – How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa focuses on the at least one million Chinese living in Africa, embodied by Hao Shengli, who in most cases come to Africa voluntarily, rather than sent by the Chinese government.
Of the voluminous texts on Sino-African relations, most of them are just general geopolitical analyses or descriptions of African reactions to Chinese investment. Those millions of Chinese usually appear symbolically as a group rather than depicted with flesh-and-blood individual portraits.
Thus, Chinese people like Hao Shengli can bare their soul to individuals like French. Hao’s previous business in Dubai was a failure, but Chinese agricultural experts there, who once gone on aid missions to Africa, explained that he could get good land cheaply in Africa. As Hao explains to French:
“He had flown to Maputo alone, was not greeted at its airport by anyone, and did not understand a single word of the local language. Eventually, he went to the southern Inhambane Province and ingratiated himself to local officials by helping on road and bridge repair projects. However, after a short period of hospitality, the people from nearby villages began to question him about how he had gotten a hold of the land and asked him for compensation, with some of them claiming the area was an ancestral holding.
The local people are really not friendly. They are peasants and they resent the idea that the government took their land and gave it to us. They have no land for themselves. They are not comfortable. They are working for us, and they are not comfortable with it. In fact, the Mozambican government has given us land, but it is not forever. After a few years, once we have put the land to good use, perhaps they will take another tack and try to reclaim it from us, but we have got our own ideas; we are also making plans.”
Hao is has a uniquely Chinese cunning. His solution to this problem was to bring his children to Mozambique. His older son has already got an African girlfriend. “The mothers are Mozambicans, but the land will be within our family. Do you get it? This means that because the children will be Mozambican, they cannot treat us as foreigners. If need be we can even put the property in their name, protectively, but it will remain ours. It will be in my clan.”
Hao also mentioned hardship (Note: chi ku, a Chinese phrase which literally means to “eat bitterness,” in order to endure great hardship). He trained his son to catch fish, shoot guns, and hunt birds. French questioned whether this mirrored the way youth were treated in the Cultural Revolution, Hao replied: “young people in China today no longer learn how to chi ku. I want my son to become a real man, a worthy person.” In fact, it is not only Hao that came to Africa, but also China’s strong national power.
Within one year and three months’ administration of the new Premier of Chinese government, President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and Chairman of the Standing committee of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang all completed their first visits to Africa.
Since 1993, when China and the United States were under the leadership of President Clinton and Jiang Zemin respectively, the three generation of Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping have paid nine visits to Africa, reaching twenty-three countries. In contrast, three generations of American presidents have visited Africa eight times, but only eight counties, even when including unofficial visits such as participating in Nelson Mandela’s funeral and engaging diplomatically with the Middle East and regional Africa.
Today (August 4, 2014), the White House invites 50 African heads of state, alongside hundreds of diplomats to the first summit between the United States and Africa. Except for the head of Zimbabwe, Sudan, Eritrea, and Central Africa Republic, all the African heads of state will participate (Note: the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone pulled out due to the ongoing Ebola crisis). President Obama will discuss American efforts to improve Africa’s geopolitical and environmental sustainability, to promote trade and capital flows, and to support the construction of democracy and strong legal institutions. Moreover, the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) will serve as a warm-up for this huge summit.
Despite all the controversy and conflicts, Chinese people like Hao who leap into this uncertain land and underdeveloped corner of Africa seem to have the greatest potential to change this continent.
Nothing can stop this wave.
Howard French, Associate Professor at the Columbia Journalism School in Columbia University, has his own theory: Africa is considered by more and more Chinese people a place full of adventure and opportunities. Known for their diligence and persistence, those Chinese people are willing to commit and work hard.
Question: Given the large amount of publications about China-Africa relations, why did you choose Chinese immigrants in Africa as your topic?
French: Although many journalists are covering this topic, I don’t think there are a lot of books about China and Africa on the market, especially books that target general readers. Unlike many authors, who only have knowledge about limited parts of Africa, I have been in Africa and China for many years, so it is a natural move for me to focus on this topic. I came upon the topic of Chinese immigration through a long and considered process. I used to travel a lot in Africa and I wrote a series of news pieces focusing on different angles of China-Africa relationships for the New York Times, then for the Atlantic Monthly. Those experiences convinced me of the importance of Chinese immigrants in Africa.
Question: Most of the Chinese people you interviewed in your book are at the grassroots level such as restaurant owners, farmers, shopkeeper, hotel managers, and even sex workers. Was it hard for you to convince them to share their stories? How did you manage to do it?
French: Covering so many interview subjects was not easy and it was also difficult for people to open their hearts to me and talk frankly about meaningful parts of their personal lives. First, you must to be patient and persistent. At the same time, I did not wish for people to feel that there were things they could not say. If a journalist is genuine, honest, and if the interviewees feel they are being sympathized with, there will be lots of surprises waiting for you.
Question: You have been to Mozambique, Zambia, Libya, Guinea, Senegal, along with Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Namibia, how do African people see the role of Chinese people in their community?
French: No matter the topic, the feelings of African peoples are very difficult for to generalize, even for other China-Africa issues. African people crave Chinese investors to help them develop and create more jobs. At the same time, many Africans will, in private conversations, cautiously discuss contracts developed by Chinese enterprises and African local governments. One widespread concern is the lack of transparency. Many African people also complain about the lack of training and promotion opportunities available in Chinese companies. They think that Chinese companies tend to avoid hiring local employees. Even when they are hired, they have little access to large responsibilities or the ability to move to the management level.
Question: What is your perspective regarding claims of ‘Neo-colonialism’?
French: No colonialist will acknowledge colonialism, so it is important to understand who is making this stand. If we look at patterns of European colonialism in the mid-twentieth century, China is not colonizing Africa in that sense, but there is a view that China is establishing a new pattern of relations with Africa, that China benefits more from their relationship with Africa than vice versa. Africa is disadvantaged in that it does not have too many options to negotiate, especially when it comes to infrastructure and other projects initiated by China.
Question: China is initiating even deeper ties with Africa, and their focus has shifted from resource extraction to manufacturing. In May of this year, China invested in $2 billion to set up the “African Common African Growth Fund” with the African Development Bank. From predominantly bilateral ties with African countries, China is embracing more and more multi-lateral efforts. Do you think this will affect Chinese immigrants?
Question: At the same time, China is more involved in African security issue, sending troops to Mali for United Nations peacekeeping operations, balancing the conflicts between South Sudan and Sudan. How will the complexities in Africa affect China’s non-interference policy? Will Chinese immigrants be affected?
French: I think that China’s non-interference policy is never absolute. In the past it has exerted influence on Africa in its own way, such as in dealing with Taiwan, criticism towards China, and friendly policies towards Chinese immigrants. I believe that as China is getting stronger and its world interests expand in scope, their diplomatic habits will be more and more obvious. Just like what you said, they will have more involvement, or even interference to protect the interest of Chinese people and the Chinese nation.
Question: Most African elites have a Western educational background. Do they have different perspectives on China from ordinary Africans?
French: It is hard to generalize how elites and so-called ordinary people see the world, let alone China. Whether at the elite or public level, I do not think there is an inherent hostility towards China. However they are widely skeptical about foreign impact, which naturally includes China. For instance, I think that China underestimate African sophistication when they are shouting the “Win-Win” slogan. Whether elites or ordinary people, Africans do not expect pie in the sky, because they are fully aware of the fact that foreigners come for their own interests.
Question: China has invested a lot of money expanding Chinese media presence in Africa, such as CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, the “China Daily African Edition,” etc., in order to let the people of Africa better understand China. How effective do you think this investment has been?
French: I think at most levels that CCTV and the “China Daily Africa Edition” are failures. Africans are already accustomed to consuming domestic and international media which feature very intense debate, and these Chinese products are more propaganda, relative lacking in competing points of view. Censorship will become an obstacle to the development of China’s soft power.
Question: Despite the fact that Chinese people are not good at integrating into the local community, due to China’s growing influence what cultural changes are you expecting?
French: I have not seen any huge changes on the cultural level caused by Chinese people. We have already discussed that Chinese media does not have too much influence. Chinese television companies are just beginning to sell Chinese entertainment programs and other programs to Africa, and we will see how this will turn out. However, your question already presupposes a “new colonial” premise – a strong party from afar with the purpose of changing the weaker party or expectations, which absolutely cannot resist such a change.
Question: China Previous Vice Foreign Minister of African Affairs, Zhai Jun, said in 2012: “Some countries think that alone can support African countries to develop their democracy and good governance. This is not true. The building of those institutions is also critical to China-Africa relations, so China is also offering robust support.” The People’s Daily commented on July 30, 2012 that: “Many developing countries have tried to or been forced to adopt the development model of certain Western developed countries. However, what those in the West regard as a ‘universal’ development path, such as using laissez-faire macroeconomic policies, frustrate developing countries and lead to the middle-income trap that those countries are suffering. If developing countries can exchange experience and lessons learned with each other, they will take a less indirect route to prosperity or if they went on the wrong path, they can backtrack quickly. China actively strengthens exchanges with other countries in managing state affairs, at the outset promotes the simultaneous study of outside ideas, shares its experiences in successful development, and does not to impose its own development model.” Now, outside of the traditional Western definition of a democratic path, a number of emerging economies are also trying another path, and some African leaders mention those alternative options. What’s the impact on Africa?
French: I’m not quite sure what you mean when referring to “emerging economies,” but if I am not mistaken in my understanding, there are some false assumptions.
In addition, I would like to say yes, the African people to hold the authoritarian route is deeply skeptical of their history is filled with examples to explain why they should be skeptical.
Finally, China does have a lot to share with Africa, including the ability to bureaucracy, including the development experience, I hope China can share these. Of course, this does not necessarily lead people to adopt the “China model.”
First, astonishing growth rates coupled with disastrous authoritarian governments should not be perceived as the inherent traits of that path. Although from a historical perspective, it is true. My point is that you chose a good example to support your conclusion, but this conclusion does not depict the whole picture, not historically, and not in the future.
Second, if there really are some African leaders who admire the authoritarian model, it is highly possible that they simply wish to pursue their own interests. At the same time, I can say with certainty that today’s Africana democratic institutions are stronger than at any time in its history, while also growing rapidly in Africa than any other piece of the continent, including Asia. Although I tend to be cautious about drawing excessively simple conclusions, but when considering this question, what kind of conclusions can we draw?
Furthermore, African people are very skeptical about the authoritarian because their history is filled with examples as to why they should be skeptical.
Finally, China does have a lot to share with Africa, such as public sector capacity, including China’s growth model, and I do hope they share those stories. Of course, this does not necessarily lead people to adopt the “China model.”
Editor: Xia Xuedong