China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

Howard W. French
Alfred A. Knopf, New York
ISBN: 0307956989
A Review by Nayan Chanda

When in 1492 the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus stumbled upon a Caribbean island, Europe was said to have won the equivalent of a second continent. Over the following three cen­turies, Europeans colonized the vast expanses of North and South America, eliminating through disease and war many of the original inhab­itants and filling the ranks of labor with slaves from another continent. The Americas absorbed Europe’s surplus population, supplied food and raw materials for its industrial and urban centers and markets for its manufactured products.

China could possibly have followed a similar path when Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He sailed into east Africa nearly a century earlier than the voyage of Columbus. But the admiral and his 60-strong fleet had a different mission – reconnaissance and a show of force. Rather than encourage colonization of a distant conti­nent, the imperial China of that time forbade its citizens to travel abroad. Some shipwrecked Chi­nese sailors, however, did linger in Africa and their progeny have been found. In 2005, a young Kenyan woman claiming Chinese ancestry was invited to China to take part in the 600th anniver­sary of Zheng He’s expedition. The fanfare over the ancient voyage marked a new era in China’s relations with the continent. In pursuit of a “go out” policy promoted by China’s leaders, Africa has belatedly become what the Americas once were to Europe. China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa by Howard French, a former New York Times reporter in China and Africa, is a fascinat­ing account of this striking development.

French’s childhood years were spent in Africa, where his father was a physician; his subsequent years as the New York Times Shanghai bureau chief and his extensive travels through Africa have prepared him well to undertake a task that requires perspective and language skills. Although French, now an associate pro­fessor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, provides modest notes about his secondary sources, the strength of the book lies in his wide-ranging reporting and interviews with Chinese migrants and Africans in 15 coun­tries of sub-Saharan Africa. Colorful accounts of his interviews not only provide a lively portrait of the Chinese diaspora in Africa, but also offer a new perspective on Chinese society and economy through the eyes of those who choose to make Africa their new home.

By conservative estimates, Africa now counts over a million Chinese residents. Their diverse activities – including mining, logging, petty trading and massive construction projects – have been helping to shape Africa, in the process providing China with fuel for its industrialization and wealth for its ambitious march to become the world’s leading superpower. China has adopted a modern-day barter system that brings access to Africa’s oil, gas, mining, forestry and vast agricul­tural resources in exchange for the construction of roads, railways and public buildings. Today, 20 percent of China’s oil imports, about 90 percent of its cobalt, 35 percent of its manganese and 30 percent of its tantalum – all key inputs for high-tech manufacturing – come from Africa. From $10 billion in 2000, China’s two-way trade with Africa soared to $170 billion in 2013. In the first decade of this century, China has committed an estimated $74 billion in state and private funds to Africa – far more than the World Bank. 

French takes the reader across major countries of sub-Saharan Africa to meet a wide variety of Chinese entrepreneurs, traders, doctors, street vendors, poultry farmers and even prostitutes. His attempt to find out what brought them to Africa, their many ways of making money, their relationship with Africans and how they see the government in Beijing yields fascinating insights.

Anecdotes involving Chinese-African interaction and vignettes of the lives of Chinese migrants, interspersed with his own caustic observations, offer a rich tapestry of a massive transformation that has happened largely under the radar of the rest of the world. China’s role in Africa makes the news only when there is a geopolitical clash with the West in countries such as Sudan or Zimbabwe. 


Former President Jiang Zemin’s 1996 tour of six African countries and a speech on his return to China calling on businesses to “go out” to Africa as a priority zone for expansion was the begin­ning of China’s official opening to Africa, which culminated with a 2002 summit of 53 African heads of state in Beijing. (It took the US a dozen years to mount a similar event in Washington recently.) But the main driver of China’s push into Africa has been hundreds of thousands indi­viduals who chose literally to xia hai (jump into the ocean of business) by heading to Africa. A common theme that emerges from French’s inter­views with these Chinese migrants is that most lacked opportunity at home and resented omni­present corruption, pollution and lack of freedom, including that of religion and speech. While not averse to seeking help from Chinese embassies in Africa, the migrants are very much on their own. They eat Chinese food, stay in regular touch with family back home via the China-based QQ Inter­net messaging service and where possible watch Chinese television. French dismisses as “urban legend” reports that Chinese companies are using prison labor to carry out their projects in Africa. On the contrary, he finds that Chinese in Africa show a healthy cynicism about the Com­munist Party and its governance style.

“Time and again Chinese told me they did not fully realize how oppressive things were at home until after they had left … now, they could breathe,” French writes. Ironically, the same free­doms and individual rights may not be available to Africans working for Chinese companies or on Chinese government projects.

In Mozambique French meets a swashbuck­ling, foul-mouthed entrepreneur from Henan, whom French calls a Chinese successor of the Ugly American character. Hao Shengli man­aged to secure 5,000 acres of land for a pittance through some unstated means, and planned to grow cash crops for export. Hao also has a plan to foil any future attempt by the Mozambique government to nationalize his holdings. He tells French he has five children in China (born of three wives married in succession) who would be brought to Mozambique and married locally. “Within the next ten or so years we need to raise enough money, and then if my son has a lot of offspring with local girls, my two sons, in fact, if they’ve had lots of children, well what do the children become? Are they Chinese or Mozam­bicans?” Proud of his ingenious plan of “sexual colonization,” Hao informs French with a hearty laugh that his elder son already has a live-in girl­friend. The important thing, he says, is to have children, lots of children. “That way we’ll have people who can serve in each and every occu­pation we need … There will be nothing we can’t do.” While Hao’s case may be more colorful than most, French says he has met many Chinese people in Africa who broadly resemble Hao.

In Zambia, French meets Yang Bohe, a self-taught member of China’s Lost Generation – those who missed school in their youth because of the Cultural Revolu­tion – who runs a large copper pro­cessing plant. Yang arrived in Africa in 2002 as an employee of one of China’s large construction companies. He was impressed by the abundance of copper ore in the country and ended up setting up a rudimentary copper smelter in collaboration with an Australian busi­nessman of Chinese origin. From $2,800 a ton in 2000, the price of copper climbed to $9,000 a ton by 2007 – and so did the fortunes of Yang, who earned millions of dollars supplying copper ingots to the global market. Yang avoids frater­nizing with other Chinese who come knocking at his door. “We are an Australian company,” he tells inquiring tax inspectors and policemen.

In the rundown capital of Senegal, French encounters Chen Rui, the 26-year-old mama-san of Dynasty Bar. Eight years ago, she landed in Africa at the invitation of a broker she met in Guangdong to help run a bar in Dakar. She now operates her own entertainment establishment, with four Chinese and three Senegalese girls, mainly for Chinese customers. She is unhappy with the poor economy, but has managed to bring her brother over to study French at Dakar University so that he can do business in Africa.

In Mozambique, French meets a Chinese woman from Shantou who has picked up some Portuguese and is living alone in a hamlet sell­ing food supplied by itinerant fellow Fujian trad­ers. Why did she leave China? “I had to make a living,” was her short answer. Thousands of petty traders that one encounters in all parts of Africa, selling $5 cellphones and plastic bric-a-brac, will have a similar answer. They nevertheless con­stitute a minority. Most of the Chinese migrants in Africa are laborers staying on after the end of their contract with big public works companies. China claims to have built 42 stadiums and 54 hospitals in Africa, not to speak of mining, road and railway construction projects, each involv­ing the import of thousands of Chinese workers.

Staying on with a different visa status is possi­ble because of China’s clout with the countries in which it has invested. One of the unwritten con­ditions of many official deals with African coun­tries is that the government should be lenient in granting visas to Chinese citizens. There are many who have received the government’s help and encouragement to settle in different parts of the world to do business. 

In a stereotypical comment one hears all over Africa, French quotes an African worker for a non-governmental organization complaining that “the Chinese bring all their own workers, and the few Guineans are reduced to the role of task boys. In one case we had here, a Chinese company was hired to build a bridge and they did most of their work at night, and they wouldn’t let anyone onto their site. Between the ground­breaking and inauguration ceremonies they give out no information at all, nothing.”

In a typical deal, China signed a $6 billion resource-for-infrastructure agreement with Congo under which China would build railway lines, roads, housing, hospitals and a new uni­versity in exchange for a guaranteed supply of copper and cobalt for 20 years. Often the build­ings and roads built by the Chinese companies that win contracts by virtue of having the low­est bids soon begin falling apart because of the shoddy material used; the same is true of cheap consumer goods sold by Chinese vendors. In many African capitals, Chinese vendors have taken over the retail sector, often in violation of local law. The import of cheap goods helps the poor consumer, but stunts the growth of domes­tic industry, which is unable to match the “China price.” Government protection of Chinese invest­ments often means workers are condemned to labor in hazardous conditions and are unable to use their trade union rights to fight for higher wages or safe working environments.


French wonders how Africa will cope when, by mid-century, two emerging trends will meet: the first is that Africa’s population will double to two billion, and the second is that much of Afri­ca’s known reserves of oil, iron, bauxite, copper, cobalt, uranium and gold will be largely depleted.

Africa is said to possess 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land. China, in con­trast, has 20 percent of the world’s population and 9 percent of its farmland. China’s expertise and management skill could well be used to turn Africa into a new granary for the world. But how would Africans view prosperous islands of Chi­nese farming in the midst of a teeming, impover­ished local population?

In the book’s epilogue, French observes how the Chinese role in Africa resembles traditional interpretations of imperialism. “China, for all its denials of any global ambition that could be likened to hegemony,” he notes, “is clearly compet­ing with someone and for something – global pre-eminence.” China’s expansive economic role not only enables it to showcase its “reach, power, generosity and solicitude,” but allows it to solidly plant itself in the world’s fastest-growing econ­omy and build a base for further expansion.

Despite their rapid growth in the past decade, China’s migrants in Africa are still a small num­ber in historical terms. In the second half of the 19th century alone, 60 million Europeans settled in the Americas. Those who left Europe also went for good, with a clear idea of making a new life. Things are more fluid today. Thanks to ease of travel, communications and transfer of money, the tide of migration picks up fast, but can also be reversed equally rapidly. The anger in Africa that the Chinese presence and practices are creating combined with a growing population and deple­tion of resources may not bode well for China’s long-term future in Africa.

French’s otherwise admirable book suffers from some gaps that are perhaps inevitable in writing about such a vast continent. He covers 15 of the 58 countries in Africa, but omits some of the key countries with significant Chinese involvement. For example, South Africa is left out, although it ranks first among China’s trad­ing partners in Africa, totaling $20 billion. Also missing is Sudan, which counts China as its larg­est economic partner, exporting 40 percent of its oil and receiving in exchange weapons that are embargoed by the United Nations. The red-carpet treatment that Beijing reserved during a visit in June 2011 by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, is emblematic of the realpolitik that guides Chi­nese foreign policy.

Such omissions notwithstanding, French’s trenchant but fair and engaging book is a pio­neering contribution to understanding the sig­nificance of Africa to China’s emergence on the global scene.


Nayan Chanda is editor of YaleGlobal Online and a founding member of the editorial board of Global Asia. He is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization(Yale University Press, 2007). This book review was originally published by Global Asia, Fall 2014.