China's Second Continent
French’s stories form an often brutal tale of exploitation, racism and mutual mistrust. He summarized his findings in his new book, China’s Second Continent, an easy-to-read, shocking account about the Chinese presence in Africa. — Read the complete FT review
A prizewinning foreign correspondent and former New York Times bureau chief in Shanghai and in West and Central Africa, Howard French is uniquely positioned to tell the story of China in Africa. Through meticulous on-the-ground reporting - conducted in Mandarin, French, and Portuguese, among other languages - French crafts a layered investigation of astonishing depth and breadth as he engages not only with policy-shaping moguls and diplomats, but also with the ordinary men and women navigating the street-level realities of cooperation, prejudice, corruption, and opportunity forged by this seismic geopolitical development. With incisiveness and empathy, French reveals the human face of China’s economic, political, and human presence across the African continent - and in doing so reveals what is at stake for everyone involved. We meet a broad spectrum of China’s dogged emigrant population, from those singlehandedly reshaping African infrastructure, commerce, and even environment (a self-made tycoon who harnessed Zambia’s now-booming copper trade; a timber entrepreneur determined to harvest the entirety of Liberia’s old-growth redwoods), to those just barely scraping by (a sibling pair running small businesses despite total illiteracy; a karaoke bar owner–cum–brothel madam), still convinced that Africa affords them better opportunities than their homeland. And we encounter an equally panoramic array of African responses: a citizens’ backlash in Senegal against a “Trojan horse” Chinese construction project (a tower complex to be built over a beloved soccer field, which locals thought would lead to overbearing Chinese pressure on their economy); a Zambian political candidate who, having protested China’s intrusiveness during the previous election and lost, now turns accommodating; the ascendant middle class of an industrial boomtown; African mine workers bitterly condemning their foreign employers, citing inadequate safety precautions and wages a fraction of their immigrant counterparts’.
French’s nuanced portraits reveal the paradigms forming around this new world order, from the all-too-familiar echoes of colonial ambition - exploitation of resources and labor; cut-rate infrastructure projects; dubious treaties - to new frontiers of cultural and economic exchange, where dichotomies of suspicion and trust, assimilation and isolation, idealism and disillusionment are in dynamic flux. Part intrepid travelogue, part cultural census, part industrial and political exposé, French’s keenly observed account ultimately offers a fresh perspective on the most pressing unknowns of modern Sino-African relations: why China is making the incursions it is, just how extensive its cultural and economic inroads are, what Africa’s role in the equation is, and just what the ramifications for both parties - and the watching world - will be in the foreseeable future.