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How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

Written by Howard W. FrenchAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Howard W. French

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On Sale: May 20, 2014
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35168-3
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A New York Times Notable Book 

One of the Best Books of the Year at • The Economist  The Guardian

Chinese immigrants of the recent past and unfolding twenty-first century are in search of the African dream. So explains indefatigable traveler Howard W. French, prize-winning investigative journalist and former New York Times bureau chief in Africa and China, in the definitive account of this seismic geopolitical development. China’s burgeoning presence in Africa is already shaping, and reshaping, the future of millions of people. From Liberia to Senegal to Mozambique, in creaky trucks and by back roads, French introduces us to the characters who make up China’s dogged emigrant population: entrepreneurs singlehandedly reshaping African infrastructure, and less-lucky migrants barely scraping by but still convinced of Africa’s opportunities. French’s acute observations offer illuminating insight into the most pressing unknowns of modern Sino-African relations: Why China is making these cultural and economic incursions into the continent; what Africa’s role is in this equation; and what the ramifications for both parties and their people—and the watching world—will be in the foreseeable future.

Excerpt

After days of coordinating with me over patchy cell phone connections, Hao Shengli arrived in Mozambique's capital city of Maputo. He'd come to load up on supplies and to collect me for the long ride back to the farmland he owned in a remote southern part of the country.

            When his white Toyota pickup stopped in front of my hotel, Hao was barking into his phone. He was in a hurry, and he was angry. There was a brisk handshake, followed by a lot more shouting in salty Chinese as he struggled to make himself understood by a countryman from whom, I could grasp, he wanted to buy goods.

            "China is a big fucking mess with all of its “fucking dialects,” Hao said to me in English after hanging up.

            As' I stood there, already sweating in the midmorning heat, Hao began to train his abuse on John, his tall and sinewy Mozambican driver, who had been coolly smoking a cigarette while rearranging the supplies on the Toyota's flatbed to make room for my bags.

            "You, cabeça não bom, motherfucker," he said. The final curse came in Chinese: he'd employed three languages in one short and brutal sentence.

            Having overheard me speaking Spanish to the driver and assumed it to be Portuguese, he pleaded with me to help him translate. "Could you please explain to this motherfucker where we need to go? We've got to get out of here. We need to be on the road."
 
            For more than a decade, the Chinese government has invested hugely in Africa. The foundation for this partnership was laid in 1996, when President Jiang Zemin proposed the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in a speech at the Organization of African Unity headquarters in Addis Ababa. Four years later, FOCAC convened triumphantly for the first time, gathering leaders from forty-four African countries in Beijing. China pledged, among other things, to double assistant to the continent, create a $5 billion African development fund, cancel outstanding debt, build new facilities to house the OAU (later replaced by the African Union), create "trade and. economic zones" around the continent, build thirty hospitals and a hundred rural schools, and train 15,000 African professionals. Fitch Ratings estimated that China's Export-Import Bank extended $67.2 billion in loans to sub-Saharan African countries between 2001 and 2010-$12.5 billion more than the World Bank.

            Although there are no official figures, evidence suggests that at least a million private Chinese citizens have arrived on African soil since 2001, many entirely of their own initiative, not by way of any state plan. This "human factor" has done as much as any government action to shape China's image in Africa and condition its tics to the continent. By the time I met Hao, in early 2011, merchants in Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, and Tanzania were protesting the influx of Chinese traders. In the gold-producing regions of southern Ghana, government officials were expelling Chinese wildcat miners. And in Zambia, where recent Chinese arrivals had established themselves in almost every lucrative sector of the economy, their presence had become a contentious issue in national elections.
 
            As we left the capital, we passed the new national stadium, nearing completion by Chinese work crews at the edge of town. Built to support the country's bid to host the 2013 continent-wide Africa Cup of Nations, it was a showcase gift from the Chinese government, intended as a statement of generosity and solidarity. China has become an avid practitioner of this kind of prestige-project diplomacy. I asked Hao whether a $65 million stadium was the best sort of gift for Mozambique, one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

            "Chinese government projects in Mozambique have all failed," he said. "That's because the Chinese ganbu [bureaucrats] don't know how to communicate on the same level with the blacks." He shook .his head and wagged a stubby index finger excitedly.

            I asked him about his early days in the country. A prior attempt to do business overseas, in Dubai, had gone bad. Chinese agricultural experts there who had been on African aid missions planted a very powerful idea in his mind: Go to Africa, where you can acquire good land cheaply. He had flown to Maputo alone, and no one had greeted him at the airport. "I didn't understand a fucking word that was being said to me." On his own, he made his way into town and found a flophouse. Making little headway-he spoke neither Portuguese nor English- he soon gave in to the temptation to call up some fellow Chinese he had found online while still in China.
           
"I thought if I met a few people I could distract myself a bit, learn about the situation from them, and then figure out how to get some land. But I quickly discovered that not all Chinese people are your friends. The Chinese folks here, or at least a portion of them, a big portion of them, are really bad characters. They arc looking for a way to get hold of your money. Yeah, they'll do any thing for you, but they won't do anything for free. It’s all about money."
         
  Hao had naively loaned money to various Chinese people he met who seemed to have fallen on hard times and offered to help guide him. A few months later, having been burned by several such encounters, he left for the countryside, following the very route we were taking northward.
           
When he reached the southern part of Inhambane province, he said, he contacted the provincial government about acquiring land, and they directed him to local officials. He found some who were receptive, and he set about ingratiating himself by helping on road and bridge-repair projects.
           
"I took charge of the work all by myself," he said proudly. ''In the end, 1 was able to secure a piece of land."
           
Hao had scored big, but before long there were other things to worry about. He hadn't thought much about the people who lived on the land or controlled it before he came along, or even who his neighbors were. After a period of warm enough hospitality, people from nearby villages began to ask him how he had gotten the land and to demand compensation, with some of them, claiming the area was an ancestral holding.
           
"The local people are really not friendly. They arc peasants, and they resent the idea that the government took their land and gave it to us. They have no land for themselves. They're not comfortable. They are working for us, and they arc not comfortable with it. In fact, the Mozambique government has given us land, but it's not forever. After a few years, once we've put the land to good use, perhaps they will take another tack and try to reclaim it from us. But we've got our own ideas. We're also making plans."
           
The first-person plural had been creeping into his banter, but only now did its significance become clear.
           
“I have been bringing my children here," he said. "My older son, my younger son, eventually my daughter. I'm taking them out of school in China and bringing them all here. Within the next ten or so years we need to raise enough money, and then if my son has a lot of offspring with local girls-my two sons, in fact, if they've had lots of children-well, what do the children become! Are they Chinese or Mozambicans?"
           
Hao told me his older son already had a live-in African girlfriend. Then he proceeded to answer his own question. "The mothers are Mozambicans, but the land will be within our family. Do you get it! This means that because the children will be Mozambicans they can't 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 said that his older son had been with him on his newly acquired land for about half a year now. His younger son, who was fourteen, had 'joined them a few weeks earlier. "The older boy is doing fine already," he said, with evident pride. "He’s doing a lot of training."
           
"Training?"
           
"I'm guiding him," he said. "It's not hard physical labor. I have to encourage him, have him fool around a bit, catch some fish, shoot a gun, hunt some birds. Boom, boom! That way he’ll be happy. He already shoots well."
           
I told him that his son's experience seemed to mirror the way youth were treated in the Cultural Revolution, when schools were vlosed and young people were "”sent down” by the millions to work alongside peasants in the countryside. ,
           
"That's how I was raised. Young people in China today no longer learn bow to chi ku," he said. The expression means to "eat bitterness," to endure great hardship. "I want my son to become a real man, a worthy person."
 
            After a couple hours' on the road, we dropped John off at the main square of Maxixe, a snoozy little drive-through town that nonetheless enjoys the status of economic capital of Inhambane. John, who was from Maxixe, spoke happily about being able to sleep at home with his family after several days away. His main employers, a group of road builders from Hao's home province of Henan, shared a house just off the narrow main road. When Hao invited me into their home, he introduced them as lao xiang, people from his hometown or region, a connection that resonates deeply for many overseas Chinese. Hao's friends lived in a modern, one-story villa with a large living room and a kitchen in the back, from which emanated the very distinctive aromas of a home-cooked Chinese dinner, In the living room, which had the feel of a frat house, two men and a woman were hunched in nearly identical poses over laptops, each at a separate cheap desk, connecting with friends in China.
           
I secretly hoped that we would be asked to stay for dinner. The traditionally generous hospitality I was accustomed to from traveling in China seemed to make this a safe bet, but no invitation came, Hao talked business with one of the Henan road men in an adjacent bedroom and then we were on our way, with Hao at the wheel. His banter picked up again as he spoke of the utility of having friends, especially lao xiang like this, living nearby.
           
"I've only gotten sick once since I've been here, but it was malaria, and it was a very bad case," he told me. "I'm lucky that they came looking for me. I was laid out flat on my back at my farm, all alone, sweating and shivering there in my own vomit, They took me right away to the hospital, and I'm told that this saved my life."
 
            The full moon had risen high in the sky, and we had begun slicing through little townships every few minutes as the population density of the area increased. There were glimpses of prayer vigils in clapboard churches; smoky, ramshackle saloons filled with garrulous drinkers; women sitting by the roadside wrapped in printed shawls, hunched, half asleep over storm lanterns as they awaited nighttime buyers. All this activity Signaled a city was nearby. Hao announced with relief that we were about to enter Massinga, the city nearest to his farm. I asked him how he had come to settle in Mozambique.
           
“I went to an African trade fair in Fujian province and there were lots of Chinese businesspeople there," he said. "I got excited by all the talk of business opportunities in Africa. Later I figured my· English is no good, though, so I got the idea that if I went to an English-speaking country, English being a popular language, Chinese people would be everywhere.
           
"I’ll be damned if I understood Portuguese, but damn it, I figured, neither do most~t Chinese people in general, so what the fuck? There must be great undiscovered opportunities there, and I won't have to be constantly looking over my shoulder for other Chinese coming to compete with me, cheat me out of my money, or steal my ideas."
           
As we pulled into Massinga, Hao announced, almost sheepishly, a major change of plans, He had decided to have me sleep at a cheap hotel rather than, host me himself. He had been unable to reach his son, he said, to make sure there was dinner waiting for us, and this way I'd be sure to have an evening meal.
           
In the courtyard of the roadside hotel, we sat at a plastic table with an exposed bulb above us and ordered a late dinner. While we waited for the food, Hao asked me for the third time that day about my itinerary. I told him I'd just been in Ethiopia and that the next country on my itinerary was Namibia.
           
"What is Namibia?" he asked.
           
I drew him a crude map in my spiral note; book. "Ethiopia is up here," I said, pointing to the continent's northeastern shoulder. "Mozambique is here. And Namibia is over here. It's on the Atlantic coast." Hao wanted to know how far away that placed Namibia from where we were. Several hundred miles, I said.
           
I started to fill in the map to show him some of the other countries I planned to visit.

When I sketched Senegal's position, at the continent’s westernmost point, I added Europe, tracing it’s downward slope toward Africa.
           
"Here is Portugal," I said, which produced a look of confusion. He asked me what Portugal was exactly. It was the colonial power that once controlled Mozambique, I told him. As he nodded, still looking uncertain, I added that it was the place where the Portuguese language came from.
           
He knew that Mozambique had been a European colony, a zhimindi, but he had not known it had been Portugal's colony. "I thought Portuguese came from Brazil," he explained.
           
I drew South America on the map for him and told him that Brazil, too, had been a Portuguese colony. Hao began making some connections, thinking of Macau, the tiny formerly Portuguese enclave near Hong Kong.
           
"Son of a bitch," he exclaimed. "You wonder how the fuck little countries like Portugal controlled so many big, faraway countries. It's just like the way the Europeans carved up China, I suppose." After a pause, he asked: "Where is America?”
           
I sketched North America onto my crude and now crowded map. Hao had always assumed that it was part of Europe.
           
Hao's geographic curiosity waned and the conversation shifted back to his African ambitions, which apparently went far beyond his farm. "I've got lots of other plans, lots of projects," he said. "1 want to open a beverage factory. I want to produce tea for sale and for export that will be grown on our own land." There was talk about building a charcoal-processing factory, for which he had already broken ground, 120 miles to the north. It would produce honeycombed braziers for cooking. At first, he said, these would be sold only in Mozambique. but later the export potential back to China, and perhaps around the world, would be very great.
           
            As we drove northward out of Massinga the next morning, Hao became reticent, and he offered only clipped, almost grudging answers to my questions. After we were waved through a roadblock at the edge of town, he pulled over suddenly. He said he didn't enjoy driving, and asked if I would take over. With me at the wheel, we proceeded in a vaguely eastward direction down a graded trunk road, which soon led us past a tiny settlement where a cluster of people by the roadside gave us a halfhearted wave. Beyond this dusty outpost lay dense, tangled bush punctuated now and then by a neatly swept clearing with a solitary aluminum shack.
           
The road had narrowed considerably and the smoothness of its first leg had given way to an obstacle course of divots and tree stumps and the occasional peasant balancing huge loads of scavenged wood atop his head. Hao instructed me to stop up ahead, where I could see the road cresting beneath a stand of oil palms in the distance. When I reached that point, we came upon a group of men sitting and standing in conversation at the edge of a cleared field. Hao stuck his head out the window and began calling out in his unique and polyglot pidgin: "Ganma, ganma, zheli, trabalho, ganma? Wei shenme? What are you doing? What are you doing? Here, work. What are you doing? Why?"
           
The local men gestured off into the distance and answered that someone else was paying better now. This was a showdown over wages, a walkout. "Why should you pay us differently?" one of the Mozambican men asked.
           
Hao grew excited and started to curse. He was saying, mostly in Chinese, that he was not going to raise their pay. The two sides went back and forth like this for a few minutes. Hao was sweating profusely, wiping his brow with a hand towel. "Forget it. I don't need you," he said. "I'll find other workers." With that, the men picked up their belongings and trudged off in the direction we had just come from.

Hao laughed even as he continued to swear. "Africans like nothing better than to get together and complain," he said. "My son told me we don't need these people any longer, though. Why should we pay them more?"
        
 Within a few minutes, Hao's homestead appeared around a bend. There were two shacks thrown together roughly with poles, canvas, straw mats, and whatever other cheap materials were at hand. We climbed out of the vehicle into the heat and light.
          
Hao was eager to show me the place. Beyond the huts lay his experimental garden, a handful of acres where he was already growing stevia, tea, and a variety of Chinese vegetables.
He plucked some of the stevia leaves and crumpled them in his hand, urging: me to taste them, which I did; they produced an instant and overpowering sweetness.
        
   We circled back around the huts and wandered into a large, open plain. The dark, pliant soil was crisscrossed with irrigation canals. Hao pointed out the concrete blocks here and there, sunk in the muck of the channels. He explained that they were the remnants of a system of locks that had been built by the Portuguese.
           
''They built all of this and then they left it," he said, evidently bewildered. "When we first arrived, even our tractors had trouble passing here. I had to employ a lot of blacks to dear the fields, and I had to clear them three times before the bush would finally yield." He fixed me with a fierce expression and offered his best measure of himself. "Some of the Chinese who have come to work the land in this country under sun this strong have failed," he said. "Others before them have failed, too. But for me, there is no such thing as failure. I am no ordinary man."
Howard W. French

About Howard W. French

Howard W. French - China's Second Continent

Photo © Howard French

Howard W. French wrote from Africa for The Washington Post and The New York Times. At the Times, he was bureau chief in Central America and the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, and China. He is the recipient of two Overseas Press Club awards and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. The author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among other national publications. He is on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York.
Praise

Praise

A 2014 New York Times Notable Book

“Extraordinary…French delves into the lives of some of the one million-plus Chinese migrants he says are now building careers in Africa…and the stories [he] tells are fascinating.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Riveting…As a massive transactional process, China’s entry into Africa has been a dramatic success...but as an ideological and cultural undertaking, Mr. French’s masterly account suggests that it is getting nowhere.”
The Economist

“Howard French…let[s] the Africans and Chinese speak for themselves as he travels through fifteen countries. The result is a rich, complex, and satisfying look at this strange marriage.”
The New York Review of Books

“In his important new book, French weaves a rich tapestry of anecdotes, interspersed with numerous interviews with Chinese migrants and Africans alike, offering readers an eminently fair, occasionally humorous and sympathetic, but always engaging account….A searing, trenchant, and entertaining study of how China, in both an individual and collective sense, is shrewdly and opportunistically maximizing its relationships with African nations in an effort to extend its economic influence across the world. ”
The Christian Science Monitor

“China’s trade with Africa has grown dramatically…But China’s investments…are less significant for this rapidly evolving relationship, according to this 15-country survey by veteran African correspondent French, than the significant flow of new Chinese immigrants—often pushed out by the pressure and oppression back home as much as lured by opportunity. In vivid first-person reportage, French explores this momentous phenomenon, while challenging assumptions about China and Chinese immigrants…The book will appeal to students of China and Africa, and anyone interested in the shifting contours of the global economy and its geopolitical consequences.”
Publishers Weekly

“Although several recent books have discussed…China’s recent incursions into Africa in pursuit of resources and profit,…French has the advantage of significant personal experience in both Africa and China….Interacting with Chinese and Africans in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Namibia, and elsewhere, French capably illustrates that although Chinese omnipresence in Africa may be a form of soft imperialism, it is also a result of the crushing pressures—lack of space, merciless business competition, pollution—of modern Chinese society.”
Booklist

“Accounts of China’s foray into African markets are often made with numbers; French goes beyond the statistics and illuminates the accelerating involvement of Chinese migrants….These candid moments are arresting, delivered via seasoned and sensitive reporting.”
Democracy

“The huge and growing ties between China and the African continent will be one of the most crucial relationships of the 21st century, and you simply could not invent a better guide to it than Howard French. Superbly written, rich in anecdote, insight, and a sense of the immense scale of what is happening, China’s Second Continent should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to understand how our world is being reshaped.”
—Adam Hochschild, author, King Leopold’s Ghost

“We owe tremendous thanks to Howard French for this fascinating and deeply reported book. He is an audacious writer who takes his readers to the far-flung factories, farms and living rooms of the Chinese entrepreneurs who are flooding into countries like Mozambique, Zambia and Senegal. French intrepidly explores the other side of the global coin, giving voice to an array of Africans reacting warily to the new imperialists in their midst. This is an essential book for understanding not just China and Africa but our changing world.”
—Peter Maass, author, Crude World

“Almost no other writer would have dared the reportorial and story-telling challenge Howard French has set for himself in China’s Second Continent, and absolutely none could have pulled it off as well. This is foreign reportage and analysis presented as compelling human drama.”
—James Fallows, author, China Airborne


“In Howard French’s wonderfully engaging new book, he draws on his journalistic experience covering both China and Africa to weave together a series of vivid portraits which limn the country’s global rise in this remote and unlikely part of the world. What is so surprising about the stories he tells is that they chronicle everything from the constriction of massive stadiums, hospitals, universities, highways and mineral and energy extraction operations to small-scale shops, farms and family businesses. China’s Second Continent is a grand tale of the world’s newest diaspora, one that promises to change a previously largely forgotten continent.”
—Orville Schell, Director, The Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society

“Howard French has given us the most lush, fair, and expansive look yet at China’s role in Africa. This is a tale not strictly about China or Africa; it is about the encounter of civilizations and the energy produced in the collision. Infused with thought and sympathy, this is a book with no agenda other than fidelity to facts that were so difficult to gather on the ground.”
—Evan Osnos, staff writer, The New Yorker
 
“Is China’s burgeoning empire in Africa a ‘win-win’ for both parties? For the most comprehensive, closely-reported answer to this question, read this book. It’s full of surprises, from hard-driving frontiersmen looking for (and finding) countries with less corruption than they faced at home in China to healthy democracies constraining the more rapacious practices of extractive industry. I cannot imagine a better, more-qualified guide to this vast, fascinating subject than Howard French.” 
—William Finnegan, author, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique

“Howard French magisterially holds up both ends of his transcontinental bargain: fluent in the idioms of the two worlds, China and Africa, he reveals the variegated diaspora of the one million or so Chinese in Africa yet also drives home that Africa is awakening in turn. His pages are teeming with human beings of flesh and blood, and often outlandish characters, at the new frontier explored in this fascinating book.”
—Stephen W. Smith, former Africa editor of Le Monde and professor at Duke University

“An important contribution to a critical debate on China’s rapidly changing relationship with Africa. Howard French goes beyond official statistics to weave stories of new wave Chinese immigrants and the Africans whose lives they impact. Unlike ideologues who focus on motives, French seeks to discern the impact of this relationship on all drawn into its vortex.”
—Mahmood Mamdani, Executive Director, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Kampala, Uganda and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Columbia University

 
“Howard French is one of the most insightful American journalists to have covered Africa in the past twenty years. In this riveting and rich new book, he powerfully juxtaposes two worlds he is uniquely positioned to observe, namely China and Africa. Anyone who has recently spent time in Africa knows how important China is becoming on the continent. Yet French tells a nuanced story about the Chinese few will have previously understood. His storytelling is sharp and wise, the characters we meet are vivid and unforgettable, and the implications are profound and at times disturbing. Anyone interested in Africa and China, or more generally in migration and globalization, will find a wealth of material in this terrific book.”
—Scott Straus, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin, Madison

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