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

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
by Howard French
4 stars

David Wilson

Africa has entered a new age of Chinese imperialism, it is said. Prompted by that perception, foreign correspondent Howard French embarks on an epic trek across Africa to gauge the impact of investment by a million-strong Chinese business cohort. Despite the blurb's tactful talk of "nuance", French's findings are damning - forget China's "win-win" blandishments, he says.

"China had not so much broken with the paternalism of the West that it so often decried, as replaced it with a new one of its own. Africans were not really brothers. Not at all. Behind the fraternal masks, Chinese officials thought of them as children, capable only of baby steps, to be brought along with sugary inducements and infantilising speech," French writes.

His case rests on exhaustive research. Like a cross between Dr Livingstone and Naomi Klein, he visits a spectrum of countries including Mozambique and Liberia to Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Ghana. Impressively, he talks to his sources in a range of languages including Putonghua, French and Portuguese.

His roving exposé suggests that the commercial colonists have an arrogant attitude. Branding local hires lazy, the Chinese pay peanuts, meanwhile trashing the environment, driven by greed, according to Mozambique-based analyst Joao Pereirah.

"They take everything down, from the big trees to the small trees, and they don't do any replanting. When you speak with a Chinese company, as I have with the directors of timber companies, they'll say, 'Our problem is not your environment. Your environment is a question for your future, not mine. Talk to me about money. I came here to make money and I have brought money to your country'."

China tries to counter its rapacious image in Africa by "parachuting hardware": pursuing giant construction projects that spawn bridges and stadiums. But development requires more than pouring concrete and building things, French says.

Some critics may protest that he is biased against China - but its development style could be seen as more pragmatic and less patronising than the old-school charitable Western approach.

Still, French's scathing survey of China's new "empire" has clout. The veteran reporter cites many on-the-ground sources. Readers meet a swathe of angry Africans and brash Chinese immigrants including a timber entrepreneur razing Liberia's old-growth redwoods and a monstrous farming baron who badmouths "the blacks".

Apparently, Africa is doomed to exploitation, whichever country intrudes - as France, Britain and Portugal did in their scramble for wealth before. It's a grim thought.

China's Second Continent contains at least one top business tip, from Chinese construction company aide Shuai Yuhua. Never go anywhere that has no Chinese, because making money is impossible in those areas.

Another of the hard-nosed, topical travelogue's pluses is its descriptive flourishes - French has a keen eye for landscape. Witness this Niger snapshot anchored in memories of visiting the area as a college student, by train and bush taxi, from Côte d'Ivoire.

As the author walks the dusty, unpaved streets through the old city's heart, he studies the buildings: "old, earthen African structures or the functional Cartesian French colonial ones; the fat, buzzing flies that follow obsessively as one walks, eager for a sip of one's sweat; the sweet smell of mangoes from trees that hung pregnant and heavy with the fruit."

The two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee invokes the senses of sound, smell and taste for maximum impact, remarkably proving that poetry and geopolitics can mix.