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China’s million-migrant march into Africa

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The scramble for Africa is intensifying. In early August, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted 50 African leaders, signaling renewed interest in the continent.

These leaders understand that this is the African moment and must welcome the intensified competition over their natural resources because it improves their bargaining leverage.

The Sino-Japanese rivalry has extended to other parts of the world in a competition for natural resources, markets and political influence. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has energetically revived Japan’s moribund diplomacy by crisscrossing the globe, but he has a deep hole to climb out of. In the ongoing contest for sub-Saharan African markets and resources, China is way ahead of Japan. China’s two-way trade has rocketed from $10 billion in 2000 to $170 billion in 2013, closing in on the European Union’s $200 billion and dwarfing Japan’s $25 billion.

The Japanese government’s annual white paper on trade notes that the presence of Japanese companies in Africa is limited and thus they are “losing by default” in a region with a growing middle class, promising markets and an abundance of natural resources. Africa has a reputation for being a difficult and risky operating environment, but its stunning potential and rapid GDP growth is attracting large inflows of foreign direct investment, estimated by the African Development Bank at $80 billion this year alone; by comparison, China attracted $117 billion and Japan a paltry $2.3 billion in 2013. Sub-Saharan Africa is a rich prize, as GDP growth in 2014 is expected to average 6.5 percent, trailing only Asia. Although sub-Saharan African exports jumped from $68 billion to $400 billion between 1995 and 2012, natural resources accounted for $300 billion of the 2012 total. Given a rapidly growing population and dwindling resources, a more sustainable model is essential, but there are few signs of progress.

China’s Export-Import Bank lent $62.7 billion to African nations between 2001 and 2010, compared with the World Bank’s $50 billion. Last year, Japan pledged some $30 billion in aid to African nations over the next five years, showing some ambition. But Japan can’t match China’s financial firepower, while Beijing’s “no questions asked” soft loans make it popular with African despots and the local kleptocracy.

Earlier this year, Abe, accompanied by a business delegation, took a three-nation tour that touched down in Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia, the first visit to the continent by a Japanese premier in eight years. Ironically, while wooing leaders of the African Union, Abe gave a speech in the $200 million headquarters gifted by China.

Howard French, who reported for The New York Times in Africa, Japan and China for three decades, is now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. His latest book, “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa,” is a fascinating and fresh look at the new dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa, drawing on extensive travels and interviews.

There are numerous enlightening encounters with some of the 1 million Chinese migrants who have decided to make a go of it in Africa. French explains that this is not a state-sponsored migration, but rather the result of individual choices and entrepreneurial ambitions. The migrants are divided by class, region and linguistic differences, enjoy varying levels of success and love scorning each other and commenting scathingly about Chinese business practices. Outside China, it seems migrants savor the freedom to vent.

One of the more colorful characters French met was Mr. Hao, who bought vast tracts of farmland in rural Mozambique even though he knew little about farming and spoke none of the local languages. He is happy in this African backwater, explaining of Europe and the United States that “the people in those f-cking places are too smart. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

Like many other Chinese migrants, Hao first went to Africa as part of a state-sponsored project and later decided to return on his own, attracted by opportunity and better natural and business environments.

Hao gambled on impoverished Mozambique because he thought there would be fewer Chinese competitors who might cheat him out of his money or steal his ideas. When asked about corruption, Hao insisted to French that it is far worse in China. He plans to have his sons marry local women to secure his family’s land title, a gambit that French wryly describes as “sexual colonization.”

With 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land available at relatively low prices, Africa is ideal for agribusiness. As French writes, Africa is “in the grips of momentous and historic change, transitioning fast from its longtime status as neglected stepchild of the global economy to becoming one of its most heavily courted regions.”

“China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams,” writes French in a recent New York Times op-ed, “but as Africans are beginning to fully recognize, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife.”

China now finds itself accused of colonial-style exploitation, buying resources cheaply and selling back manufactured products. Moreover, there is growing resentment about the lack of transparency in China-funded projects, while French also suggests that the Chinese have become the ugly Americans of the 21st century.

Africans across the continent complain about the “Chinese propensity for bribery and corruption, for shoddy goods and for cutting corners,” according to French. This is often evident in construction projects, where roads and buildings quickly become dilapidated. Because they consistently underbid all competitors, provide financing and are adept at the art of greasing palms, however, Chinese firms own the infrastructure sector, a major conduit for migrants working on such projects eager to escape grim prospects back home.

Still, French is relatively optimistic about Africa’s prospects and long-term capacity to manage relations with China.

“The best chance that African states have of meaningful, sustainable development is through the maturing of democratic governance. This means moving beyond the narrow, formal exercise of electoral democracy, which already exists in many African countries, and the achievement of steadily greater accountability of the state,” he explains via email.

“This would mean, among other things, that governments would be required, via the pressure of an informed citizenry, elections and scrutiny from civil society, to make decisions more and more on the basis of something that can be likened to national interest, as opposed to the interests of a highly insulated and highly corrupt elite.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Roy Warner

    “that governments would be required, via the pressure of an informed citizenry, elections and scrutiny from civil society, to make decisions more and more on the basis of something that can be likened to national interest, as opposed to the interests of a highly insulated and highly corrupt elite.” Some Japanese also dream that an informed citizenry, elections and scrutiny from civil society might one day require the government of Japan to make decisions based on national interest rather than the interests of a highly insulated and highly corrupt hereditary political class.