“Sensing that Africa had been cast aside by the West in the wake of the Cold War,” writes Howard French in China’s Second Continent, “Beijing saw the continent as a perfect proving ground for some Chinese companies to cut their teeth in international business.” 

That Africa is rich in natural resources was a nice perk too, and as Africa develops it also becomes a new market for the world’s biggest factory that is China. Chinese investment in Africa has grown in a decade from $75 million to $2.9 billion (261).

French’s story, though, is not only about investment and infrastructure, but about immigration: “By common estimate, Africa has received a million or so of these Chinese newcomers in the space of a mere decade, during which they have rapidly penetrated every conceivable walk of life: farmers, entrepreneurs building small and medium-sized factories, and practitioners of the full range of trades, doctors, teachers, smugglers, prostitutes” (9). China’s long-term relationship with Africa depends as much on these “architects” as on the central government in Beijing.

Chinese immigration to Africa isn’t a coordinated policy. As French describes it, it’s much more like the European immigration to the new world: “Many ordinary Chinese people, even those who reside deep in the hinterland of their country, nowadays speak of [Africa] in near awe as a place of almost unlimited opportunity. Each newcomer to Africa thus has the potential to become a powerful link in a phenomenon of chain migration that draws relatives, acquaintances, girlfriends, and spouses in their wake” (6). 

Relations are not always smooth. Ghanans complain that the Chinese decide what they are going to do with little input from Ghana, whose finance ministries are ill equipped to even assess the sorts of massive, complicated deals that the Chinese strike. “The Chinese . . . are planning everything down to the letter. They will take whatever they can get from you, and if you are not prepared for it, it’s too bad for you” (189).

Africa’s population is on track to pass 2 billion by the middle of this century, 3 billion by 2100. With young populations, many countries are poised for explosive economic growth. If China adds a second continent to its own burgeoning economy, it will be the global economic powerhouse.

French, strangely, says nothing virtually about religion in Africa or China. Already China may have more Christians than any other country, and the growth of African Christianity is well known. That should be figured into any analysis of the future of Chinese-African relations, not least to inquire how entrepreneurial Chinese Christian immigrants might affect the balance in Africa’s religious hotspots. Can you say “next Christendom”?

More on: China, Africa

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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