Empire State of Mind: A Reflection on Howard French’s “China’s Second Continent”

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It was November of last year when I first learned of Howard French’s new book at an SSRC (Social Science Research Council) hosted conference on “Making Sense of the China-Africa Relationship: Theoretical Approaches and the Politics of Knowledge.” He was among a collection of presenters that included both well-known and upcoming African, Chinese, European and American scholars specializing in different aspects of contemporary Sino-African relationships. An interesting theme emerging from the two days of presentations and discussions was that it was untenable to identify a single China-Africa phenomenon and discover a singular story (or theoretical approach) to that phenomenon. Indeed, the more we learned about, for example, Chinese extractive industries, the more we needed to know about how extractive industries have operated in Africa in general. The more we looked at migration, the more migration studies reared its head. The more any particular aspect of these relationships was looked at in the detail, the less useful their Chinese-ness became in explaining them. This was all the more so given that we were discussing a relationship between a single country and an entire diverse continent.

Why were we assembled? Why is “China-Africa” so compelling? Jamie Monson, the historian of the Cold War era Chinese-built TAZARA railway, gave a presentation that identified the “elephant in the room” to be race; the large scale presence of China in Africa disrupting what W.E.B. DuBois called the global “color line,” wherein the presumption of Euro-American political, economic and cultural hegemony in Africa has been so naturalized that the presence of the Chinese invites disproportionate comment. Everyone agreed that increased Chinese-African interactions were large and important, and while the presentations differed on the equitability and effects of Chinese investment or migration, there was a general skepticism and wariness towards invocations of “empire” or “neo-imperialism” because that was precisely the hyperbole scholars wanted to challenge or qualify.

It was in this venue that Howard French presented the thesis of his now published book. From the provocative title alone, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, there were fears among some of the assembled attendees, myself included, that the book would have a negative impact on popular understandings; reinforcing narratives of a China threat rather than providing an empirical nuance to the diversity of Chinese and African actors. French is a well-known journalist with a larger audience than those of who have done, or who plan to do, extended ethnographic fieldwork. His own research for the book had involved a kind of leapfrogging year-long trek around the continent (illustrated for the reader in an “adventure” map at the front of the book), and the goal was explicitly generalization. For some of us undertaking research on the topic, the narrative of Chinese imperialism is one of the baseline assumptions that is being challenged or complicated. This is especially true for those of us studying Chinese migration to the African continent.  It is not uncommon to hear in both popular and academic contexts exaggerated numbers and/or claims that the central Chinese government has a deliberate resettlement policy. To study these questions in any depth, one cannot help becoming something of a mythbuster, and to be a mythbuster is to find “China in Africa=Empire” to be a problematic formula. French was insistent, however that Empire is a fair characterization of Sino-African relationships, and even offered the development of the early modern Portuguese empire in Africa as a comparative example. Sure, he said, they started as small traders, but eventually they reached a critical mass that required direct attention from the imperial metropole. The comparison struck more than a few of us as ahistorical (Africa and its institutions in the early 21st century is not Africa at the dawn of the Portuguese). French also defended his claim that migration was encouraged by the Chinese government because in an interview, a Zambian government official told him that a Chinese official told him Zambia should “allow” migrants.

These two claims and their logic are what stuck with me the most from his presentation; leading me to expect that there would be much disagreeable about his book. Having finally read the book, I am among those who have discovered that much of our worry was premature.  As a journalist with longer term experience in both Africa and China, he is certainly among the better qualified of western journalists to cover the topic. And despite the title, and despite his own attempt to live up to the title; French has actually written a rich and nuanced book. To be sure, the conclusion and the overall conceptual framework are still problematic, but it is not poorly written or thought out. Setting aside the issue of “empire” for the moment, French’s strongest contribution is to provide colorful portraits of the kinds of individual Chinese who come to Africa as entrepreneurs of varying means. His skills as a writer are much in evidence here.  For anyone who has even a little direct experience with the topic, the people, language, mannerisms he describes and subtle details he skillfully inserts (such as the ‘horn-tapping ritual’ one encounters waiting in cars outside a guarded compound) will ring true. He provides a strong introduction, rightly pointing out that discussions of Sino-African relationships are meaningless without looking at the experiences and perspectives of the thousands (if not the two million he counts) of Chinese migrants coming to Africa and their relationships with people in Africa. The manner in which these relationships will develop are the key determinant of how Sino-African relations will develop. Unfortunately, French’s colorful portraits of Chinese migrants are not evenly balanced with equally in-depth portraits of the individual Africans who work with them. Instead, African perspectives are vocalized primarily through civil society leaders, many of whom seem to already be old friends of French. Their perspectives are concentrated in the second half of the book as if a ‘response’ to the first half of the book.

The first half of the book consists primarily of semi-biographical portraits of individual Chinese entrepreneurs. French appears to have contacted many of them online beforehand. The kind of people we are introduced to are ironically hyper- entrepreneurs, some of whom come to Africa having had no prior international experience, and sometimes knowing no language other than Chinese. Through a combination of what French identifies to be some parts skill and some parts luck, many (but not all) have managed to set themselves up in a range of industries from timber exploitation to manufacturing. These rags-to-riches stories are set within an atmosphere of “eating bitterness,” wherein Chinese migrants strive (not always successfully) by working in environments that they expressly do not like, and do business with people towards whom they frequently express negative sentiments. French notes that many of the people he meets are members of China’s “lost generation,” those whose opportunities for education were disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, and who were unable to compete successfully in the post-reform economy. As French points out, “huge numbers of Chinese had not boarded the up escalator, or at least they did not feel they had,” (240) and Africa presents one alternative option.

The pursuit of these opportunities are fragmented, rather than organized. We meet more than a few migrants who studiously maintain either physical or social distance from Chinese co-nationals. French offers evidence for, but himself does not fully elaborate, on intra-Chinese tensions based on perceptions of social class. He meets relatively established or better-off migrants who complain about newly arrived or less-well-off migrants whose behavior and business practices (ranging from bribery to the sale of shoddy goods) are seen to hurt what they consider to be their own hard earned reputations. In a particularly illustrative example during his time in Liberia, French spends time alone with both a proud self-made entrepreneur named Mr. Li and a Chinese doctor. He soon discovers they are mutually hostile toward each other; insulting the other when alone with French; accusing them of either opportunism and/or lack of proper upbringing.

If this is Chinese “empire,” it is closer to the frontier, or to Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini’s “ungrounded empire” of Chinese diaspora (1996). It is not what Emma Mawdsley (2008) would call the “Fu Manchu” story of China in Africa. This is worth emphasizing because alarmism about Chinese empire is often alarmism about the assumed geopolitical motives of “Beijing” to seize access to natural resources, rather than appreciating the diversity of Chinese actors, themselves often working at cross-purposes. French does demonstrate, however, that these different Chinese actors do share a particular “imperialist” view of Africa. The people he reports on often speak of African landscapes and markets as open, virgin and underexploited; revealing themselves in turn, as French points out, to be somewhat naive about local histories and social contexts. On the one hand, some Chinese informants tell French they are optimistic about the assumed inevitability of economic development in the African countries they now call home. On the other hand, the same informants will say they are pessimistic about the capacity of Africans themselves to develop. The implication seems to be that only foreigners, and the Chinese in particular, are capable of realizing that development. Given how much celebratory discourse in Africa and China about Sino-African cooperation emphasizes a break from the paternalism of Western actors, French is justified in pointing out that the Chinese are not innocent of paternalistic attitudes in their engagements with Africa.

Closely related to these attitudes is the prevalence of what French calls “casual racism” among Chinese migrants, which, as he rightly notes, undermines discourses of Sino-African friendship. In some ways, French’s book should be a reminder to scholars studying Chinese-African interactions that, in our zeal to challenge misinformed narratives of Chinese neo-imperialism, one should be equally critical of narratives of Chinese non-imperialism. French, however, is writing for a Anglophone readership that might already be predisposed to need less convincing about China being an empire; or that the Chinese engage in offensive “race talk” (as French calls it).  He leaves it untreated here how such attitudes compare with the West. The reader is treated to a disconcerting selection of Chinese commentary on the assumed incapability of Africans.  Although the purpose appears to be to demonstrate a particular mindset among many Chinese migrants, the presentation of Chinese racism shares a problematic feature too often common in treatments of this topic. Chinese people are shown to be “racist” without any further explanation or critical examination; except the unmarked implication of anti-racist civility on the part of Europeans. Except for occasional and subtle interventions, French maintains a stance of journalistic ‘objectivity,’ quoting such sentiments verbatim.  He occasionally counters, such as when exclaiming at one point to the reader that “history matters, international circumstances manner.” He also highlights for attention the ‘rare perspective of Mr. Li in Liberia that ethics of ‘hard work’ are based on incentives rather than intrinsic to the Chinese. Nonetheless, Adams Bodomo, a Ghanaian anthropologist based in China has argued that French’s book, based on conversations between a Western reporter and Chinese informants, practices a “subtle racism” towards Africans. He even suggests that French manages to ventriloquize white racism through the voices of his Chinese informants. Although I strongly doubt French intends that, I do fear this book may have that effect for many readers. He only briefly refers to the positionality of Chinese views and its similarity to other expatriate “armchair” diagnostics. He also suggests that Chinese views of African labor serve to legitimize the exclusivity of management hiring to the Chinese.

In any case, talking about the Chinese in Africa as empire can only be credible as long as one keeps glancing over to the practices and discourses of the West. For example, the head of an agricultural school in Liberia tells French how, through demonstration farms, “little by little, [the Chinese] can change [Africans]” (113) in their attitudes towards work. This presumption was of course common among European colonial governments. To take the example of colonial Tanganyika, as Hyden (1980) described, both the German and British governments routinely attempted to coerce farmers (with their own concerns and obligations) into producing for surplus commercial production; attributing their lack of success to a supposed “unwillingness” of Africans to work.  The post-colonial state continued these efforts, and leaders like Julius Nyerere also complained about the “work ethic” of Africans; although the goal now was the construction of an economically autonomous state rather than a colonial economy.

The Chinese who came to build the TAZARA railway in the late 1960s were already imagined by the Tanzanian government to provide model post-colonial “new men” for Tanzanian laborers to emulate (Monson 2009). TAZARA, of course, was conceived as an “anti-imperial” project to bypass the Southern African settler regimes and to embody third world cooperation; an historical legacy actively recalled by Chinese elites as the foundation for China’s contemporary “win-win” discourse and non-imperialist practice.

French is correct, in other words, to identify imperialist ways of looking at the world, but he makes the leap from imperialist to empire in a way that elides all the other ways that “empire” manifests itself. Befitting his own background and primary audience, French makes multiple comparisons between a contemporary rising China and a rising United States following the Second World War. Indeed, he presents his book as a kind of sequel to Graham Greene’s The Ugly American. The Chinese in Africa, French writes, are the “new ‘ugly Americans,’ basing this comparison on their perceived brashness, rudeness, self-confidence and historical and cultural naivety. The contemporary Americans in Africa, on the other hand, come off in his book as feckless, tragi-comic bumblers. In a particularly amusing episode, a USAID director in Mali ditches and avoids French’s phone calls after French asks to see an American supported agricultural aid project he has learned of. Elsewhere, Chinese ambassador to Zambia, Zhou Yuxiao, talks to French with evident pride about all the roads and infrastructure being built by the Chinese, adding that he feels sorry the Americans don’t have as much to show. Written by an American for a mainstream American audience, however, it should be kept in mind that such comparisons primarily work rhetorically to argue that the US must do “more.” French does not discuss US military presence in Africa; which is odd for a book arguing that it’s China which is building an empire. Although China has been involved in the arms trade, and has contributed troops through the UN to peacekeeping operations in the Congo, there is not [as yet] any Chinese military archipelago in Africa comparable to that of the United States (or Europe). It may be that French is arguing the US should be acting more like the Chinese (building roads rather than military bases), but that doesn’t resolve the balance of who is (and is not) empire.

The lack of Chinese military presence in Africa is often exhibit A for the argument that it is the US, rather than China, which deserves the label of empire, but the problem with both this response (and French’s own omission of the issue) is the ambiguous definition of “empire” being deployed. French’s arguments about a Chinese empire are strongest when Chinese informants themselves convey imperial ways of thinking about Africa. French groups together Chinese narratives of virgin land and opportunities under a section called “manifest destiny.” While this does capture an entrepreneurial, pioneer ethic, “manifest destiny” does not exhaust the possible comparisons. The colonial white settler comparison is not entirely inappropriate, but it does overlook the massive history of non-European migration; which was in fact as significant, or even more significant to the European colonial empires. In East Africa, for example, millions of South Asians (themselves ‘citizens’ of the British Empire, although they had been migrating long before) transformed the socio-economic landscape. The writings of these migrants and their descendants provide evidence of the  hold that Africa had in the imagination as a place of easy wealth. Desai (2013) describes the writings of South Asian migrants who saw themselves as merchant pioneers engaging Africans in a fantasy of open commerce. In Kenya, White settlers, on the other hand, routinely complained about the threat of Indian business and their own paternalist responsibility to protect Africans from non-Christian exploitation. The South Asians, of course, never built a “new empire” (except for short-lived proposals for an East African sub-colony after WWI) of their own, but they were part of an imperial structure without themselves having full rights within it. It is noteworthy, however, that anti-colonial mobilization (in what is now Tanzania, for example) was targeted primarily towards the Indians and their domination of the economy, even more so than against the British. The story of Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia and their travails under post-colonial regimes there parallels that of South Asians in post-colonial East Africa.

Astoundingly, the experience of the global Chinese diaspora is scarcely mentioned in French’s book. In terms of sheer numbers, both historical and contemporary migration from China makes North America or Europe better contenders as “second continents” for the Chinese. This is especially true if one considers life strategies (i.e. where one seeks education). The contemporary Chinese diaspora, unlike in the past, has been accompanied by a geopolitically weighty China, and much more concentrated Chinese capital; but in other respects, there is much that is similar before we can talk about what is different. The Chinese migrants I met during a trip to Uganda and Tanzania, for example, were decidedly not considering themselves part of any new empire. For example, on multiple occasions, I was asked whether it was true that the American passport includes a sentence promising unconditional assistance from the US government for any contingency I managed to get myself into. The implication is that being an American, or even simply being “white,” was a form of status and privilege not extended to the Chinese in the global order. It was also, however, a critique of the Chinese government for not being assertive enough in protecting its citizens abroad. These sentiments can be seen as either continuities of a “middleman” position in the world, or as French argues, the preliminary stages that any rising power goes through. In other words, from French’s perspective, expectations for greater protection could be seen to forecast a future in which the Chinese passport would be as powerful as the American passport.

In either case, when one begins to consider other forms of migration or historical comparison, what French means by the “new empire” becomes increasingly vague. I would argue that the identification of imperial practices and/or ways of looking at the world is a separate argument from arguing that a new “empire” is being created. For example, although French may be right to see elements of “manifest destiny” among Chinese migrants; the fact we can identify similar sentiments within many diaspora contexts makes the American comparison problematic because in the US, it entailed not only visions of virgin land, but explicitly the extension of sovereign power over the American continent. Africa may indeed be Chinese capital’s “second continent” (capital defined here as both resources for investment and people ready to invest themselves), but to define it as “China’s Second Continent” implies an argument about a speculative political future that distracts attention in his book from what would otherwise be a good argument about China’s entry into a post-colonial structure of inequality which leaves Africa on the short end of the stick. Instead, French turns what starts as a detailed and rather nuanced portrait of the new Chinese migrants in Africa into a cautionary tale about how these migrants are “building a new empire.”

The subtle shift is realized through the book’s narrative arc. The first half of the book stays close to the experience of the Chinese. Although written in the first person, French for the most part keeps his voice in the background. These chapters provide rich portraits of the different kinds of Chinese migrants; particularly those with “rags to riches” stories of varying magnitudes. During the second half of the book, French’s voice becomes more prominent as he begins to actively interpret his trip in terms of the “discovery” of the next empire.

The chapter on Mali (“Why Mali?”) is arguably the books’ pivot, where, in the midst of a diversity of Chinese projects (ranging from small enterprises to the mass purchasing of farmland) he announces that “what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire, a haphazard empire perhaps, but an empire nonetheless.” (170) Having ‘discovered’ empire, the subsequent chapters engage with that paradigm, supported by the perspectives of African civil society leaders. These leaders, who are made to stand in for “African” perspectives more broadly, don’t shy away from comparing the Chinese to colonizers; but more often identify the culpability for the problem primarily with African governments who lack “vision” and sign agreements that will not be beneficial in the long term. Although French does provide a glimpse of the diversity of “Africas” hosting Chinese migrants, he ultimately collapses them into a broader story about Africa. Over the course of the book, we go from a colorful arrival story in Mozambique, where French spends time with an isolated migrant farmer named Mr. Hao to a final chapter on Namibia, where the higher ratio of Chinese migrants to the local population is intended to provide a glimpse of one kind of possible African future.

In the epilogue, French fully lays out his argument that China is a new empire in Africa. To his credit, French’s “empire” is for the most part not the crude geostrategic fantasy of  an imperial project directed from Beijing (although he does occasionally venture into such insinuation when he argues Chinese diplomats are telling African leaders to open their borders, or even when he says that China is playing a “long term game”). Instead, French makes an argument about the intrinsic dynamics of rising empires; challenging Chinese state discourses which emphatically deny that China is (or could ever be) imperial. These claims rely on the historical fact that China never established territorial colonies in Africa. French acknowledges this, but also points out that “it is worth keeping in mind the nature of empire has changed dramatically over time depending on the circumstances.” This is what is often meant by “neo-colonialism.”  In fact, the argument that there can be “empire without colonies” has been the cornerstone of describing American hegemony during the Cold War.

The stated Chinese policy of “non-interference” can be critically assessed in these terms. What is interesting in this case is not whether China violates the spirit of that policy, but rather what the claim of “non-interference” actually does for the manner in which Chinese businesses (state-owned or not) conduct business in Africa. As French notes, the “state to state” model of aid and investment can be limiting. In Guinea, when a civil society organization tried to speak to Chinese businesses and diplomats about business practices, they were told, French writes, to go “see your minister, or go see your president, he’s the one who approved these arrangements” (125). French adds that he “heard very similar language from disgruntled civil society figures virtually everywhere” he went. As the recent criticism of the exclusion of civil society organizations from the US-Africa Leader’s Forum reminds us, however, China is by no means unique in operating within a state-to-state framework. In fact, that is the way much foreign business has problematically operated in Africa, especially when gaining access to concessions in natural resources, or more recently, land.

French’s argument turns rather odd, however, when instead of considering China’s global influence in these broader post-colonial terms, he instead uses the history of European colonialism as a cautionary tale about how China might develop into something analogous. Again, French’s argument here again is internally logical, but contextually problematic. He writes that there is “little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme [to colonize Africa], but in the end, that’s not so important…it is outcomes that count” (264).  Migrants and settlers can unleash processes that go beyond their own intentions or immediate actions. Indeed, there are many historical precedents of empires that were preceded by small streams of migrants or settlers whose actions were originally at odds with the political institutions in the metropole. As a settler population develops, however, metropoles have on numerous occasions been drawn further into the affairs of these distant regions. French suggests that China will face similar pressures as settler populations develop and the Chinese government faces increasing demands to take a more active role. Although it would be absurd to compare this process with the experience of early European colonization, one can see, in the combination of both migrant complaints about the “weakness” of China in defending its overseas citizens, and the complaints of Chinese diplomats about the trouble that expatriates cause for them, that these are real pressures. On multiple occasions, China has indeed had to “interfere,” less from design than from the internal dynamics of everyday relations.

French weakens the impact of his argument that China is not immune to such dynamics, however, by pushing too strongly the idea that Chinese migrants today are the analogues of past colonialists. He even includes in the epilogue the example of Japanese emigration to Manchuria, although he assures the reader this is “not intended as provocation” and that China in Africa “obviously shares nothing with Japan’s militarism.” The depth to which analogy affects his thought process is evident in the definition he provides for imperialism.  He says “imperialism, for me, inevitably involves some form of foreign domination, which results in substantially altering the target population or polity, either gradually or suddenly it loses the ability to resist.” He cites the narrative arc of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a cautionary tale, and in multiple parts of the book, suggests that African leaders may come to regret the kinds of deals made with the Chinese. The problem with this analogy is that it seems to imagine a recent moment before the entry of China as a “pre-colonial” moment. In this moment, African actors still have the capability to “resist,” a capability which will be taken away in the near future. Where in the post-colonial history of Africa would we locate this moment? Was it independence? The third wave of democracy? Before or after structural adjustment? When did global financial institutions and western NGOs leave African society completely to their own devices? When did the African capacity to “resist” appear long enough for it to be threatened by the Chinese? The narrative of Chinese empire in Africa, in other words, may seem to be historically analogous, but its weight actually depends on ignoring a global context that already affords the label “empire.”

The relationship to the future is also problematic. French’s book is emblematic of much popular writing and thinking about China in the West in the sense that it’s temporality is focused on a possible future whose beginnings are in the present (The “when China rules the world” complex). As noted in the aptly named “Imperial Potentialities” project, there are various activities and projects currently unfolding in African states which are based on the assumption of a future situation which in fact has not yet occurred. As these things by definition cannot be proven, the book may tell us less about the present than how we think about the future; and the future weighs heavily on French. At one point, he tells a group of disaffected Chinese of their significance to the future of Africa. He also points out the fact that Africa’s natural resources will eventually run out, and that population growth is outpacing capacity. This prediction about the future of Africa, interestingly enough, complicates the future history of any putative Chinese empire.

French does have a case that the entrance of Chinese migrants and capital into Africa is not exempt from the label “empire,” if by “empire” we mean a broader set of unequal relationships between Africa and the global North. But that is not what French argues in this book; he wants to make an argument about China as the next empire in Africa. The issue here is less the proper definition of “empire,” and debating whether this or that international relationship fits the definition, but rather that the use of “empire” as an analytic tool is always going to become a political argument in a world where the presumptive norm (regardless of structural global inequality) is a community of nation-states. Proclaiming oneself not to be an empire, and accusing others of being an empire has been part of the discursive arsenal with which political formations of varying ideologies have positioned themselves following the end of territorial colonization. French writes as if the rise of a Chinese “sphere of influence” in Africa is “the new empire” in Africa rather than a more modest (and perhaps more accurate) claim that it is “a new empire” in Africa, or a new participant in empire. This perspective would make the more modest claim that China is not so much replacing whatever came before as much as it is altering an already changing landscape.

This reality is in fact evident throughout French’s account. Various (non-Chinese) foreign actors enter the story, but French does not draw any alternative conclusions. He cannot talk about West Africa without discussing the Lebanese, but implies they are part of an old order that is being rapidly being replaced. In Sierra Leone, he introduces the Romanian investor Frank Timus; whose life story not only echoes those of the Chinese migrants, but who himself is both their competitor and partner. In Mali, French finds a USAID funded project being built by Chinese contractors. In Mali, he also finds the signs of older Saudi and Libyan projects. Discussing rapid deforestation for timber in Mozambique, French notes that “European companies were so far responsible for the major land takeovers, or land grabs” (225). In Tanzania, French responds to Tamimu Salehe of the Tanzanian Union of Industrial and Commercial Workers warning about a threat of Chinese economic takeover by asking him “what about the Indians,” who have a longer and more established history in the country, and who have also long had control of the commanding heights of the economy. French says Salehe “ignored” his question and continued, and yet it appears that French himself also ignores his own question. The entanglement of Chinese capitalism in the global economy at one scale, and its entanglement in local economies on another is a far more complex phenomena than the notion of a Chinese “realm of interest” allows. This is especially evident when French observes the fashion choices of Namibian youth and ponders the existence of “new Chinese colonialism” in the middle of “flourishes of Western culture”. These contradictions only appear contradictory when looks at empire through the lens of historical empires rather than current realities (not to mention not asking how Namibians themselves may appropriate things foreign on Namibian terms without ceasing to be Namibian).

In sum, French convincingly demonstrates the relevance of imperialism to understanding the Chinese entry into Africa, but only in the broad sense of historical and contemporary global inequalities that the Chinese themselves are participating in. He provides glimpses of the subjectivities of individual Chinese, and through the voices of African civil society leaders, we learn of prevalent concerns about how African governments govern foreign capital in the interests of Africans rather than vice versa, especially over the long term. The book lacks, however, in-depth portraits of the individual Africans who work with the Chinese. Nonetheless, readers will certainly learn from this book which personalizes the Chinese in Africa. In the end, French less convincingly makes this a story about the rise of a Chinese empire. One can only hope that readers will look beyond his title and conclusion, or at least take it with a critical grain of measured skepticism.

Next time, I will consider the impact that French’s book is having based on both popular reviews, and French’s own subsequent responses.

Other Works Cited

Desai, Gaurav. 2013. Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination. Columbia University Press.

 

Hyden, Goran.1980. Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: underdevelopment and an uncaptured peasantry. University of California Press.

 

Mawdsley, Emma. 2008.  Fu Manchu versus Dr Livingstone in the dark continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British broadsheet newspapers.Political Geography 27(5): 509-529.

 

Monson, Jamie. 2009. Africa’s freedom railway: How a Chinese development project changed lives and livelihoods in Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Ong, Aihwa & Donald Nonini, eds.1996. Ungrounded empires: The cultural politics of modern Chinese transnationalism. Routledge.

Pod-casting in the China-Africa sphere

Winslow Robinson, a self-described “groupie” of research on Sino-African relations, runs a great podcast with the political scientist, Dr. Nkemjika Kalu. They have invited a wide range of people to appear on their podcast, ranging from journalist and Columbia University Professor Howard French to up and coming scholars still in graduate school.  If you study (or do any work) related to African-Chinese relationships, and you meet Winslow, “watch out!”, he will want you to podcast.

He caught me at the African Studies Association meeting last November and I served as a guest in February.  I haven’t listened to it, however. It’s very hard at this early stage pre-field to speak with any confidence about one’s research, and whatever I said should come with a disclaimer called “pending fieldwork…” Judging from the title he and Prof. Kalu gave my appearance, “Deep Thoughts by Derek Sheridan,” I’m afraid I might have come across as too scholastic. Considering my immediate environment at the time (in an Anthropology development finishing grant applications and doing reading for prelim examinations),  I was staying true to my milieu.

But as the famous scholar of African politics, Robert Bates, once said, “fieldwork is the cure for bullshit,” or at least, more charitably, theory.  I’ll be taking that medicine consistently for the next year or more.

In the meantime, what I was thinking about in February.

http://cowriesrice.blogspot.com/2014/02/deep-thoughts-by-derek-sheridan.html

And the Bates quote, for reference, is found in:

Munck, Gerardo L., and Richard Snyder. Passion, craft, and method in comparative politics. JHU Press, 2008.

Unthinking (and then rethinking) the relevance of “China-Africa”: Some small notes from the wholesale-retail trade in Uganda and Tanzania.

Note: This is a re-posting of an entry I originally submitted to The Africa Daily blog back in December 2013.

The Old Taxi Park in the center of Kampala, Uganda.
The Old Taxi Park in the center of Kampala, Uganda.

“You cannot generalize and say “this is China in Africa”, any more than you can say “China is good” or “China is bad”. China is neither bad nor good. China is a combination of these things.”-Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, Special Representative on African Affairs (Africa Research Institute August 6, 2013)

Zhong Jianhua’s words to the Africa Research Institute, a London-based think tank, earlier this summer, captures an important reality that is often elusive in the hegemonic discussion about African-Chinese relationships. Within the emerging international community of scholars and commentators studying the topic, however, such variation, complexity and “fragmentation” (in Solange Chatelard’s (2011) words) is by now becoming generally accepted. Nonetheless, the very fact that it is possible to speak of a research community dedicated to the topic (with its own newsletters, blogs, podcasts etc.) is evidence that the concept in and of itself exceeds the sum of its parts. I am interested in how this conceptual heaviness weighs on (or not) the range of possible relationships emerging between people from Africa and people from China. Officials like Zhong Jianhua have the burden to theorize and talk about the relationships they produce, but what about the migrant entrepreneurs, factory workers, shopkeepers etc that also produce these relationships? Is the concept of “China-Africa” meaningful to them; do they have anything to say about it beyond the immediacy of their own situations? Ethnographic and survey research has tended to focus on measuring positive and negative perceptions of China and the Chinese in Africa, and their determinants. Rather than perceptions that swing negative or positive, I am interested more broadly in how different Chinese and Africans theorize the particular micro-politics of their everyday interactions in different ways.

The first step is to map the distributions of effects and the new kinds of alignment created by the presence of Chinese businesses. Romain Dittgen (2010) and Suzanne Scheld (2010) describe the effects of Chinese traders in Dakar, Senegal.  A protest by Senegalese importers against Chinese traders in 2004 was matched by a counter-protest of consumers against anti-Chinese xenophobia.

Although both of these protests can be explained in terms of economic interests, both of them could mobilized broader ideas (such as nationalism or anti-racism) with different implications for how China-Africa is understood.  My point is not that, behind generalized claims are deeper interests, but rather that particular alignments (ex. Chinese retailers and Senegalese consumers vs. Senegalese importers) may be the conditions of possibility for mobilizing categories other than “Chinese” versus “African”.

I can illustrate this with an example from Uganda. I arrived in Kampala at the end of June last year (2013), expecting to find lots of Chinese wholesale shops in the area around William St. My first day, however, I thought I might have gone to the wrong place. I did not see anybody who looked like they might be from China. Furthermore, I noticed all the shopping arcades were closed. Through asking around, and eventually seeing one of the newspaper headlines conveniently posted to trees around the city, I learned that I had arrived in the middle of a week-long shut-down strike led by KACITA, the Kampala City Traders Association. Although one man told me the strike was directed against Chinese traders, no one else backed up this story. The reason for the strike, as explained in the papers, was discontent over the Ugandan National Bureau of Standards’ new Pre-export Verification Conformity (PVoC) fees. Importers would be responsible for paying to have their products inspected at the port of origin, to verify whether they were counterfeit. Although this was about counterfeit products, and the ports of origin were primarily in China, the main issue was the relationship between Ugandan importers and the Ugandan state, which eventually backed down and promised to modify its fees. The next Monday, the shops reopened and the Chinese wholesaler presence I had heard about finally materialized.

I immediately had a question. Why did the Chinese traders join the strike? It was a given that they would not have closed their shops to protest themselves, but what about the inspection fees on imports? According to a Chinese man I spoke to, but who was not personally involved in wholesaling, the new inspection tax did not affect the Chinese traders the same as it did Ugandan traders. The reason, he said, was that, whereas Ugandan wholesalers purchasing in China would buy a variety of products on each purchase, Chinese wholesalers tended to import items in bulk, meaning they paid fewer inspection fees.   When I asked about why they closed their shops that week, the response from the Chinese traders was generally the same.  KACITA announced that there would be a strike and that all the shopping arcades and stores would need to close for a week. They had little choice but to participate. If they did not close their shops, they told me, people would come around their shops and cause trouble. Some used my question as an opportunity to complain more generally about the taxes in Uganda. Other than that, the traders seemed generally unconcerned about the reasons for the strike. Contrary to the claims of the man who told me it was directed against the Chinese, nothing in it resembled an earlier protest in 2011 that, according to press reports, was upset that Chinese retailers were undermining the livelihoods of local traders.

I interviewed the current head of KACITA, Mr. Kalule, about both of these strikes, and he told me that relationships with the Chinese had improved dramatically since two years ago. The Chinese no longer did retail, he said, but stuck to wholesale. From what shopkeepers told me, and from what I could see, this seemed to be the case. To reinforce the point, a number of shops had “Wholesale Only” printed on a page hanging on the wall, or written onto the wooden side of the counter. How did this happen? Mr. Kalule told me a story about emerging forms of informal governance in Uganda that entailed the cooperation of the Ugandan and Chinese business community to maintain what he called “trade order”. Several years ago, KACITA, responding to complains from Ugandan retailers, directly approached the Ugandan Overseas Chinese Association. The Ugandan Overseas Association was originally formed in the early 2000s, in response to a wave of crime against expatriate Chinese at the time, by several prominent businesses people including Jeff Lin, the Taiwan-born owner of the Shanghai Restaurant and Nanjing Hotel in Kampala. The Association reached out to the Ugandan police, donating police boxes, motorcycles and helmets. The evidence of this cooperation can be seen in different places around the city on small police boxes emblazoned with the classic logo of international cooperation, two hands clasping and the caption, Sino-Ugandan Friendship. According to Chinese who have been in Uganda for more than a decade, the security situation has greatly improved.

When KACITA came to the Overseas Association several years ago for help in maintaining trade order, they agreed to help them. What followed, according to one long-term Chinese resident, was “very difficult” effort on their part to persuade other Chinese that their continued ability to do business in Kampala depended on restricting themselves to the wholesale trade. Eventually, through a combination of these efforts with stricter Ugandan government policy, the semblance of a trade order emerged. “Things are much better now”, Mr. Kalule said, providing an account very different from the conflictual environment political scientist Margaret Lee encountered in 2007. Mr. Kalule went on to describe how KACITA, with the encouragement of the Ugandan government, provided an informal mechanism for resolving trade disputes, including those between Ugandans and Chinese. When I asked about relations between Chinese and Ugandan wholesalers, he claimed both sides accepted the competition of the market. KACITA did not define its identity as “Ugandan”, he told me, but as an association of “businessmen”. Regardless of where they came from, he argued, they shared common interests in the protection of the market. This sense of joint interests and joint subjectivity as businessmen continued with the PVC strike. The Overseas Association agreed to support KACITA, and even updated Chinese shopkeepers by cellphone about the upcoming strike. One long-term Chinese resident described the bargaining strength of KACITA in the collective tense of “we”.

Accounts that look at Chinese-African interactions in cultural terms can easily overlook these other configurations and solidarities that may be more significant. It is possible that in some places, such forms of capitalist self-consciousness may be one way that Chinese and local businesses manage to “integrate”. One can speculate whether similar alignments are possible among the employees of Chinese enterprises.

However, while this may be taken as a positive story of cooperation, things are never that simple. Despite the cell phone announcement, many individual traders I spoke to, when asked why they closed shop for the strike, described themselves as being subtly or unsubtly threatened to do so by Ugandans informing them of the strike. If they did not close, their shops would be vandalized. As Hung Wing Lok and I have both noticed, Chinese traders in Kampala, many of whom envision only short-term stays, claim to maintain a distance from Chinese associations. More significantly, however, the harmony of trade order also has its limits insofar as it entails a hierarchy in the exchange chain. The idea that Chinese should let local retailers “eat”, as one Chinese trader told me, presumes that it is the Chinese who must benevolently restrain from a position of strength. In Tanzania,  a place with a similar trade order, Tanzanian shoe wholesalers resented the trade order that emerged, arguing that Chinese competition was  forcing them out of wholesale and down into retail. “They don’t want us to grow” one man said, “they don’t want us to go to China, they want us to stay here and buy from them”.  For one wholesaler selling high quality shoes, this was not just about economic competition, but also about self-identity. Me and my Tanzanian friend asked him whether he would sell cheaper shoes in order to compete with the Chinese wholesalers. “I would go up- market before going down market,” he replied solemnly. Tanzanian retailers on the other hand, praised the Chinese as offering them new opportunities to go into business. Every morning, informal traders would crowd around the Chinese wholesaler selling the cheapest shoes, cooperate to purchase a variety of shoes, and then go off to sell them around the city. The Chinese were not an economic threat, one man told me, because they remained “above” and did not compete directly with them.

The point I am making is not simply that Chinese economic activities have differential benefits, but these differential benefits produce different ideas about what China is “doing” in Africa, and an interesting question is how personal experiences converge or diverge from the stories that circulate in media and scholarly discourse on the topic. As the case of Uganda, shows, it might not even be “China-Africa” that emerge as the most relevant categories for particular situations. This does not mean they disappear, but that their salience may depend much more on other categories and alignments that emerge on the ground. How they do so, however, can not be assumed or generalized, but requires careful contextualized research in each location.

I would like to thank the SSRC for the funds for the trip, Mr. Moses Kalule and Mr. Jeff Lin for agreeing to interviews in Kampala, and AbdulRahman Salim in Dar es Salaam, for assistance in speaking to Swahilli wholesalers and retailers.

Chatelard, Solange Guo

2011 Unpacking the New “Scramble for Africa”: A Critical and Local Perspective of Chinese Activities in Zambia. In States, Regions and the Global System: Europe and Northern Asia-Pacific in Globalized       Governence Pp. 175–197.

Dittgen, Romain

2010 China in Africa Project From Isolation to Integration ? A Study of Chinese Retailers in Dakar. South Africa Institute for International Affairs. Occasional Paper, No. 57

Hung Wing Lok

2012 Chinese in Twentieth-century East Africa: Patterns of Economic Activities in Uganda (1980-Present). MA Thesis. Unpublished.

Lee, Margaret

2007 Uganda and China: Unleashing the Power of the Dragon. China in Africa: Current African Issues. 35: 26-40

Scheld, Suzanne

2010 The China Challenge: The Global Dimensions of Activism and the Informal Economy in Dakar Senegal. In Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa. Illa Lourenco-Lindell, ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillion/Zed Books.