China’s friendship with Africa was forged in revolutionary solidarity during the early years of the Cold War. This was the era of national liberation struggles, and China, seeing in Africa a reflection of its own humiliation by Imperial Japan and the West, offered military intelligence, weapons and training to revolutionaries across the continent.
This did not last—most African countries severed ties with China when it sided with apartheid South Africa in the Angolan Civil War—but since China’s capitalist transition began, 1 million Chinese have migrated to Africa, and accusations of China’s imperial designs on the continent have trailed closely behind them. Many of these allegations have originated in the West and extend beyond China’s actions in Africa, to include its holdings of US Treasury bills, its territorial disputes in neighboring waters, and its land and resource grabs worldwide. China is now on the defensive: “The Chinese people do not have the gene for invading others or dominating the world in their blood,” President Xi Jinping said earlier this year.
The accusations have also hit closer to home, targeting the Chinese government’s repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, where Han immigration has increased in recent years. This large-scale outward migration has stoked fears about China’s rise, many of them irrational, if not racist. But it is also clear that China’s relationship with Africa and its own borderlands is no longer one of revolutionary solidarity. Rather, it is based on the demands of sovereignty and the need to maintain economic growth.
In China’s Second Continent, Howard French, who was a New York Times bureau chief in both Africa (from 1994 to 1998) and China (from 2003 to 2008), speaks with Chinese shop owners, farmers, industrialists and corporate executives throughout West and Central Africa. Many came to work on Chinese construction projects and stayed. Some are part of China’s “Lost Generation”: those now in their 40s to 60s who grew up in the age of the iron rice bowl and lacked the skills or education to succeed once China’s transition began. Many see Africa as more stable and free than China, as well as less crowded, polluted and corrupt. Nearly all are “rough-and-tumble types,” as French writes, “all grit and no polish, hayseeds driven to quit the poor Chinese countryside and determined to make it by whatever means necessary.” As one Chinese trader tells him about working in Senegal: “This is an open country, a friendly country, a country that respects the rule of law and believes in treating everyone equally.”
Above all, these migrants are a result of China’s “go out” policy, initiated in 1999, which directed state-owned enterprises to seek business opportunities abroad. The estimated 1 million Chinese working in Africa have helped China secure key natural resources for manufacturing, food supplies for its growing population, and new export markets for its goods. Today, petty traders have cornered the import market in Senegal; Chinese companies in Sierra Leone, Congo and Zambia are capitalizing on mining industries that have been privatized in recent decades or that collapsed after civil wars; investors are snapping up farmland in Mali; and in Namibia’s Oshikango Chinatown, restaurants, hotels and bars have sprung up to service the Chinese community. China’s trade with Africa is now growing by as much as 20 percent a year. In 2012, this amount was estimated at $200 billion. Today, it surpasses China’s trade with both Europe and the United States.