For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.
Listen to our conversation:
HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people -- coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes -- and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they're maybe a fifth of all the passengers -- are all, almost to a person, business people. They've pulled up their stakes wherever they lived -- in Szechuan province or Hunan province -- and they have come to make it in Africa. And they're not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they're going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who're there for a couple of years. They're thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There's no looking down one's nose or pretending to superiority. It's all how I can make something work here.
CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America's next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West's better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?
HF: I think we're still asleep.
Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. "There's a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: 'there's a thousand-year gap between them and us,' meaning... culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there's an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon..."
And what are Africa's chances of doing well in the new Chinese "deal"? Howard French sees "an incredible opportunity for Africa," but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of "how people's daily and longer-term interests will be served" stand to get good results. "In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it's not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don't blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished."