Howard W. French discusses his new book about the massive Chinese migration to Africa



Howard W. French, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, has spent years reporting about the massive migration of Chinese people to Africa.  Alfred A. Knopf  has just published the results of his work:  China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in ChinaFrench, who has served as the bureau chief in Japan, China, West and Central Africa, and the Caribbean for The New York Times, spoke with Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute about his new book. 

How did you conceive of and organize such a geographically expansive project?

There’s a lot of writing on this topic that tries to take an analytical approach—the cliché of the 30,000- foot view of the scene—and that tries to draw very sharp conclusions. The most common question one encounters is: “Who is winning?” People want to know if the West is winning or losing, China is winning or losing, or Africa is winning or losing. I did not want to start and end on that thought. There’s been a lot of that and I’m not really sure how far any of that gets us. I decided to take a different lens for this story. I tried to determine “What are the pieces that haven’t been described or explained very well before?” I concluded that the actual human experience hasn’t been explored very much. You know, you have this winning and losing stuff that’s written all the time, but there are very few Chinese and very few Africans speaking in that kind of writing.  That’s very striking if you stop to think about it. I decided that I wanted to go and see who these Chinese migrants are and who these Africans they are dealing with are and to get as close to that story as I could. I wanted to explore that world at the ground level as opposed to the 30,000-foot level. That’s essentially the organizational conceit of the book.

Where I ended up going was determined by a few things: first of all, I made a common but arbitrary separation of Africa into two parts: sub-Saharan and North Africa. I decided I would limit myself to sub-Saharan Africa. I then decided I wanted a good geographic spread, so I wanted countries in east, west, central, and southern Africa—I chose more than one country from each of those regions. I wanted big countries and I wanted small countries. I wanted countries that are famous for natural resource-based economies, because that is the presumed driver of Chinese interest in Africa. I also wanted countries that are not primarily known for their natural resource production because it struck me that there’s a world of Chinese people in those places that tells a very different story. I wanted countries where Chinese migration has been more recent and relatively more ancient. That’s how I chose my countries. The book has me bouncing around from one of these countries to another. It’s not like each chapter has a different, specific theme; it’s basically me wandering this landscape, explaining what I’ve found there.

What was China’s relationship with Africa prior to this massive migration?

There’s a much longer history of China’s involvement with Africa. The most immediately relevant time is during the revolutionary period under Mao, especially during the Cultural Revolution.  Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, visited Africa. China built an iconic project crossing Tanzania and Zambia called the TAZARA Railway, which linked those two countries and gave landlocked Zambia, which is one of the world’s leading copper producers and which is located near South Africa, access to the sea via Tanzania. This was significant, because at that time South Africa was ruled under Apartheid and was hostile toward Zambia because Zambia was supporting South Africa’s liberation. This was a big revolutionary initiative under Mao. There are modest-sized older communities of Chinese migrants who have lived in different places—South Africa especially—in Africa for generations. But, the migration that I write about in my book is large-scale and it is a new phenomenon, taking place during the past decade or so.

What spurred the massive move of Chinese people to Africa and the cooperation between China and Africa in the 1990s?

I know that China pitches this as “cooperation” and I don’t mean to say that there’s no aspect of cooperation involved here, but I would not choose that word to characterize it myself. I think that China in the 1990s was making a very astute reading of the state of the world and the future of the global economy and its own place in the global economy.  It recognized a few things: it recognized that, as a country whose main vocation is manufacturing and export on a very large scale, China needs markets. The traditional markets that China had targeted in the reform and opening period—Europe, the United States, and Japan—are what are called “mature markets,” where the populations are aging and where debt levels are rising. So, China, with great foresight in the Jiang Zemin presidential period, saw that it needed to develop markets that would pick up the baton from the traditional markets. And, so, Jiang Zemin and his collaborators looked out around the world and prospected, in effect, for places where China could engage with or even create newer, younger, fresher markets for themselves. Africa became very attractive because Africa had the most dramatic demographic prospects in the world.  The population of Africa is set to double by the middle of this century and perhaps triple by the end of this century. It’s almost a truism now that Africa is very fast-growing and that it has very fast-growing middle classes. The middle classes in Africa as a continent are larger than the middle-classes of India today, for example.  It was a matter of great prescience in the 1990s for a country like China to have identified this and to have built a strategy on this basis.

Jiang Zemin had a great amount of foresight in these matters. He saw Africa as a place of the future for Chinese products, for Chinese exports, for Chinese investment.  The other attractive aspect of Africa for China was, of course, that in the early post-Cold War phase, Africa was perceived as being very much neglected by the traditional western powers that had previously been influential there. And so China saw Africa as this part of the world that not only had good demographics and economic prospects and a strong natural resource portfolio—all of which it desired–but that also was this place that was sort of off the radar of the more sophisticated and richer economies of the world. Jiang Zemin and his collaborators understood, I think, very smartly, that Africa was this place where Chinese companies and Chinese individuals could go and cut their teeth at fairly low risk—without having to go up against the strongest western and Japanese competitors. They could gradually transform themselves into global players in this playground called Africa where the competition was pretty mild.


How did China encourage Chinese companies and people to make the move to Africa?

I don’t think the Chinese state explicitly told Chinese people “go, move to Africa.” There may have been a little bit of that but I don’t think it’s been the primary motor of this kind of movement. I think what happened was something a bit different in which the Chinese state under Jiang Zemin set the watchword, which was “Go out”—literally that phrase. Jiang Zemin and others who followed him were very explicit about the opportunity that Africa presented for China. The way China works is that once the central government sets an objective, it then delegates execution of those sorts of objectives to provincial governments and it sets up a reward system where it says to provincial governments: “So, we’re going to twin you with a country in Africa and we will measure you on how well you do.” The provincial governments that take this objective most seriously and achieve the best results will be rewarded with profitable business in Africa and the central government will find other ways to reward them with various kinds of incentives. This led to a gold rush, if you will, of Chinese companies—usually provincial state-owned companies—going out into the African environment to seek projects. The Chinese central government usually serves as the funder or financer of those projects—we’re talking about infrastructure, typically.

The way that Chinese begin migrate to Africa in large number is that once these projects begin to fill the pipeline—and lots of Chinese companies are going to do project work in Africa—you could have anywhere between 300 and 2,000 Chinese workers at a time working for a year or two years on a given contract in a given country somewhere in Africa.  Well, once you start moving those numbers of people into a new environment like this, it’s taken for granted that a certain number of them are going to decide “Hey, this is actually an interesting place. There are all sorts of other opportunities here. I might have had a very bad image of Africa before, but now I see this as being a very happening environment where I can do business once my contract is over.” You begin to see Chinese workers staying on in Africa after their contracts expire and setting themselves up in new businesses on their own with their own funds and under their own auspices. The next phase of what you see is once a certain number of those people began to succeed, there is a kind of “pull effect” because inevitably the people have positive experiences in Africa spread word back to China. Often, they begin to tell their friends and relatives “Hey, I never knew that Zimbabwe, or Zambia, or Nigeria, or Senegal, or wherehaveyou, was a place of such opportunity. I am doing great business here. Why don’t you come join me?” Sometimes, simply the news spreads of these people going off to these relatively unknown places and doing well for themselves. The news gets around in China so people who had never had a prior thought about Africa of any note then decide, on that basis: “If so-and-so can succeed there, then I can succeed there too. I am going to try my hand.”

What are the backgrounds of people who make the move from China to Africa?

Project work—primarily construction work–has been the primary driver of this sort of movement of the Chinese to Africa. You would expect that this would determine the class level of the people. The people who work for construction companies, except for the engineers and high-level managers, are working-class people by definition. That’s who this first big wave of people comprised for the most part. The people to whom they conveyed news of their success would have been, usually, people of comparable class to them. You see lots of working-class people moving from China to Africa as the result of these phenomena. I’ve encountered people of other classes as well and I don’t think anyone has hard numbers on this—but I think, anecdotally, we’re talking about, in the bulk sense, working-class people who are coming from all over China. Since Chinese provinces were encouraged by the central government to compete to “go out,” you would expect people from lots of different provinces to have had this kind of experience.

There’s a person in your book named Hao who is open about the fact he knows little about the history or geography of Africa. How much do Chinese migrants usually learn about the African countries in which they’ll be living?

Hao was a very striking case and a very colorful figure. That’s why I begin the book with him. I don’t mean to say he’s atypical—it’s fairly accurate to say that the great majority of people who migrate to Africa don’t have a terribly rich picture of African history or even of the political and economic background of the countries to which they’re migrating.  I’ve met all kinds: I’ve met people who have researched Africa carefully; I’ve met people who have bounced from country to country. Specifically, I knew a guy who went to Madagascar first and did business there—he did okay—but found it not to his liking for a variety of reasons. He continues to switch from country to country and winds up in Senegal and becomes very successful there.  Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa and Senegal is as far west in Africa as you can go. So, he’s made his way clear across the continent on the basis, basically, of trial and error. You find all kinds of stories.

Do many Chinese people eventually become citizens of African countries?

Some of these migrants are seeking to acquire land and often, to acquire land, you are required to be a permanent resident.  Sometimes, in certain African countries, you even have to be a full citizen to acquire land. If your motivation as a Chinese migrant is to acquire land, that will determine your approach to immigration and the status you seek. Some will become permanent residents, some will try to become citizens, and some people play it by ear on a shorter term basis but, nonetheless, wind up spending a very long time in Africa. I’m not aware of any useful statistics on this, but my anecdotal sense is that few Chinese people surrender their nationality whether or not they plan to stay in Africa for a long time or indefinitely.  My own anecdotal sense is that most people remain legally Chinese.

Hao, in your book, talks about wanting to marry his son to a woman from Mozambique in order to secure his family’s land ownership. Have many Chinese people begun families with African people?

Chinese people come to America and they marry American people. Chinese people go to Africa and a certain number of them will wind up marrying African people and having children by African people. It’s a universal story. It’s a question I get asked a lot, but I think that if one pauses to think about what happens when people from different backgrounds mix, certain outcomes are fairly predictable. Some people will be repelled by the other, and some people will be attracted by the other and that’s what happens in this regard too.  I have a number of stories of Chinese people marrying—or having significant relationships—with Africans in my book. Clearly, this is something that is growing and is going to take on a dimension of its own in the future.

As the population of Chinese people in Africa grows, are Chinatown-like communities popping up?

The future of Chinatowns in Africa, in my opinion, is somewhat uncertain.  There are small versions of what one might call Chinatowns in various places, but, in many African countries I’ve been to, it seems that the Chinese have generally avoided that pattern, unlike in the long history of Chinese migration in the West, where Chinatowns are a standard model.  In other words, Chinese people in Africa do not seem to have all decided to congregate in one place and to have something they would call—or resemble—a Chinatown.  In a few places, I saw embryonic versions of Chinatowns, but, in most of the countries I visited, the Chinese people were relatively dispersed.

How do Chinese communities develop in Africa?

In my experience, the clustered communities of Chinese are very often based on place of origin in China. You can see a cluster of people from Fujian, or you can see a cluster of people from Hunan. These people, across clusters, recognize each other as Chinese but also see each other often as competitors and people to be somewhat wary of.

How are people in Africa addressing the environmental impact of Chinese development?

One thing that people unfamiliar with Africa—including many migrants from China–are likely to be surprised by is the fact that, in many African countries, civil society is very well developed. It’s kind of an unexpected thing according to many of our common assumptions. You think: low economic development would mean that you would have poorly organized and not sophisticated civil societies. Well, Africa, for a variety of reasons, in many cases has very sophisticated civil societies.  Chinese newcomers, looking to make money for themselves and prospecting for opportunity—often collide with these civil societies, and often unexpectedly.  That’s one of the things I explore in the book. The environment is one of the themes that has caused friction—or even conflict—between Chinese newcomers seeking opportunity and the Africans who are the citizens of the countries where they’ve been landing.

The example I will mention in Ghana took place essentially after I had finished the reporting for this book—there are other things like this on a smaller scale in my book. In Ghana, a country in West Africa, there was, in the last year or so, a major conflict between Chinese people—almost all of whom came from a specific county in Fujian Province–showing the word of mouth pull-factor that’s involved here—who learned there was great alluvial gold deposits in Ghana that were easy to prospect. People from this county in Fujian arrived in Ghana, setting themselves up as gold miners—doing so by a variety of processes that are not, strictly speaking, legal, such as bribing their way into the country and giving payoffs to local law enforcement people. This led very quickly to a friction with the local population for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that alluvial gold mining is very polluting. That kind of mining involves cutting down forests and polluting rivers and streams with dangerous chemicals like Mercury.  There were conflicts and protests and a lot of noise by civil society about this. Ghana’s government was forced to act and a lot of the Chinese people wound up getting deported. You see this kind of thing in a variety of scales all over the continent and you will continue to see it.

Has the arrival of so many Chinese migrants led to much conflict in Africa?

I have to say that even though there are some instances of conflict in the book, if you take a step back and look at the big picture here—and if the numbers that are reflected in the book title of a million Chinese migrants (and I think the numbers are greater) are accurate—it’s hard not to be impressed that, given the scale of this phenomenon, there has not been more conflict. I think the bigger story really is that perhaps two million Chinese migrants have streamed into the African environment in a very short period of time and, other than the odd protest and the odd skirmish here, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hubbub about this. It’s only been in a very few countries where the Chinese presence has risen to the level of an important national political issue—one that political parties campaign about or that presidential campaigns turn on. This is not to say that the arrival of the Chinese people and their economic and other practices do not raise serious issues—they definitely do, almost everywhere. We have to be careful not to be overly alarmist about this.

How does China work to build a positive image of itself in Africa?

The Chinese state is trying to catch up in many regards. One of the ways it’s trying to catch up is competing in Africa, where the North Americans and Europeans have long experience and great roots in terms of corporate presence and political relations. The Chinese are coming in very late but with big ambitions. They are climbing uphill. One way the Chinese state is trying to buy its way into the game is by doing highly visible prestige projects that are meant to build goodwill and to convey the message—I think, rather crudely and not always very effectively—that China is here to do good things for Africa. How well this will work in the long run is unclear to me. My own sense is that Africans are not overly impressed by that. They recognize that a stadium is a stadium and it’s not going to change their economic circumstances in the long run and it’s not going to solve their problems. Meanwhile, China is perhaps extracting twenty years of cobalt or oil production in exchange for a gadget that will break before twenty years are over.

How have Chinese people—as outsiders–forged stable businesses in Africa?

I don’t think the Chinese state has much to do with relations between Chinese migrants and Africans. Chinese embassies in African countries have not been terribly proactive or useful for the migrants I’m describing. These migrants tend to regard the Chinese state with great skepticism—even cynicism. The migrants tend to be very plucky, very resourceful people, and, if you’ve come some small town in Sichuan and you’ve pulled up your stakes and decided to build an ice cream factory in Malawi, you made a big bet and you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that bet pays off. “Everything you can” can mean a lot of stuff: it can mean learning how to speak the local language; it can mean marrying yourself or your family members to people in the local environment to help make this thing work; it can mean making all sorts of payments to all sorts of people to grease your way through. It means, at the basic level, applying every bit of human intelligence and wit that you have in terms of navigating this new environment and coming to terms with the people and figuring out how to operate and avoid trouble. By and large, this has been a story of success at that level—many of these people, without the Chinese state behind them, are making huge bets as individuals.  Because of that, they are scrambling and applying every bit of smarts that they have to figure stuff out in a hurry. Many fail, but I think the reason this hasn’t caused a grand disaster on a larger scale is that many have succeeded, relatively speaking. They have been great problem solvers in terms of figuring out how to navigate this new environment for themselves. In a way, I think it would be even worse if the Chinese state was perceived as being in their corner or behind them. Then, Africans would often be quicker to conclude that this was a matter of exploitation or a matter of imperial strategy on the part of China.