China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

Howard W. French

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“You can’t compare it with Western countries. But at the same time, most Western people probably have the wrong idea about life in China. They think that whatever you do, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is following you around, ready to arrest you. It’s like our ideas about America. We think everybody has a gun in their pocket, and there’s danger everywhere.

“Back home, ideas about Africa are way off, too. I get lots of questions from friends asking about animals and telling me to send pictures of them. People think it’s a big mess here and that it’s really dangerous, that there’s nothing but crises all the time. That’s because the news just focuses on the negative. It’s the same with the way Americans think about China. It’s also the way Chinese people think about Americans. Our news always accentuates the negative.”

As we walked forward into the crowd, a man flashing an exaggeratedly clownish expression stepped in front of Jamie, shifting right and left to block his way forward. I recognized the gesture immediately as a robbery attempt of a type usually attempted by a team of two, with the clown acting as a distraction.

“I’m Chinese,” he answered, “and we have an expression that says you leap forward if there’s an empty space. Empty spaces are there to be filled.”

the boy warned that the Chinese guards manning the barrier would stop us to make inquiries about our business, I told John he should merely slow down, allowing me, the foreigner, to give a brisk wave from the passenger’s seat, a kind of bluff, which I rightly figured would be enough to get us through

I asked him whether the Chinese government was helping businesses like his in this frontier export zone. He laughed, saying that Chinese state banks constantly offered easy money to finance trade. “The credit requirements are ridiculously easy. You hardly have to document anything,” he said. “China has too much money, with all those American dollars we are holding. There’s so much money that they don’t know what to do with it.”

If you have your equipment and your people in place and there is no business, that is very bad. If you bid low, though, even if you have a tiny margin, you are better off. That’s the reason Chinese companies bid low. It’s not because we want more market share. The number of companies and people working in this sector [in China] is very large. We need more and more markets to keep people employed. Most of the companies like mine are state-owned, and if you start laying off workers, it will create huge problems for the country.”

Chinese officials had negotiated the writing off of an unspecified amount of Namibian debt in exchange for five thousand passports and immigration permits for Chinese nationals.

I told him I would be visiting Dragon City, the popular name of the Chinese border enclave in Oshikango. “If you go there you will find that it is 100 percent Chinese, and there is a lot of resentment at the way they have been allowed to come in and buy up land like that for their exclusive use. “In Namibia, we have a place called Swakopmund. It is a German town; every second person you pass there is German. The Germans even have their own schools there. We don’t need more of this kind of thing in our country. We have already experienced apartheid here before

you go to some parts of Ghana and people have given up on farming because they have no roads. This is a big waste. If Ghana gets roads, they will be able to farm and earn money and this will allow them to develop

Or drone routes.

an apparent paradox widely observed in Africa: poverty is declining much faster in countries without mineral wealth than in those that are richly endowed in natural resources.

His instructions for when we reached the border town were strikingly simple: “Just look for the place where there are lots of Chinese. You can’t miss it. Give me a call, and I’ll come and get you.”

When I came here, Namibia was richer than China,” he said, laughing. “Here, I am a very rich man. But in the China of today, there is nothing remarkable about me at all.”

As we parted company, Pereira said grimly that with the country given over to illicit enrichment, lawlessness, and exclusion on such a vast scale, all signs pointed not to economic takeoff for Mozambique, but rather to yet more war.

Civil society works, in part, by demanding more from those who govern: better performance, more accountability and openness, and more fairness. In this way, and not just through the regular exercise of elections, habits of democracy are formed

I didn’t point out that in China, the very week before, its ambitious high-speed railroad program had suffered a fatal accident so embarrassing that the government had tried to cover it up by burying the trains before there could be an investigation.

“Each of the companies that comes here acts like a private intelligence operation and they inform their embassy about all of the resource and business opportunities that might interest China,” Pereira said. “They do some good things. They are providing some jobs. They are adding to the budget. They are building roads, and they do it quickly. But if you compare the negative to the positive, the negative is much greater. It’s not part of the public agenda, though, because of the party’s relationship with the Chinese over the years, and because Chinese business has captured our elites.

“He comes from the same class as me, but within three years of getting his minister’s appointment, he had three homes in Maputo, each of which is worth more than a million dollars.”

“In order to have a good outcome here, people need to know their rights. They need to know how to negotiate. Unless we get stronger participation from people at the grassroots level, the natural resources of this country will all be gone soon. There may come a day when people open their eyes, but by that time it will be too late.”

“There is a risk that they should consider, though, that one day the people of Africa will come to see China as an unfriendly country,” Diop said. “That could put all of their interests in danger over time. They should think about this a little more.”

Whatever land was not claimed or routinely worked now was likely to begin coming under heavy demand in the space of a generation, as the continent’s population skyrockets.

“I have a hard time imagining a Chinese leader deciding to invest in grain production here in Mali for sale in China,” Boly said. “We are a thousand kilometers from the nearest port, and with the transportation costs to get rice to China, it wouldn’t make sense. But I can easily imagine them producing rice to sell to us here in this region, which frees up grain from elsewhere for their consumption. And if they become really big players here, that gives China a lot of influence over our [African] governments.”

For thousands of years, Chinese had called people on their frontier barbarians, and now the stereotype had been reversed.

“I’d never dealt with African people before,” Hao said. “At first just coming in contact with them made me feel uncomfortable, their skin is so black. But once you’re in contact with them you begin to get used to it. You realize it’s just a color.

“China is a big, fucking mess with all of its fucking dialects,”

Time and again, Chinese told me they did not fully realize how oppressive things were at home until after they had left. Living in Africa, they said, it felt as if a lid had been removed from a pressure cooker. Now they could breathe.

Rising powers throughout history have forever faced a simple but fateful choice: whether to take on the established players in their backyards, in places where their interests are greatest and most deeply entrenched, or try to expand into relatively uncontested zones of the world.