The following excerpts are from former New York Times reporter Howard W. French’s most recent book, China’s Second Continent, which details the lives of China’s one million-plus migrants in Africa.
Modern globalization’s first great wave has now crested, and is being overtaken by a newer and potentially even more consequential tide. In this new phase, China has gone from being a vessel to becoming an increasingly transformative actor in its own right. Indeed, it is rapidly emerging as the most important agent of economic change in broad swaths of the world.
Chinese banks, construction companies, and other enterprises in ever growing variety conspicuously roam the planet nowadays in search of outlets for their money and goods, for business and markets, and for the raw materials needed to sustain China’s rapid growth. As they do so, China is increasingly writing its own rules, and reinventing globalization in its own image, gradually jettisoning many of the norms and conventions used by the United States and Europe throughout their long and hitherto largely unchallenged tutelage of the Third World.
Beijing has achieved this, in part, by engineering a kind of modern-day barter system in which developing countries pay for new railroads, highways, and airports through the guaranteed, long-term supply of hydrocarbons or minerals, thus helping Chinese companies win massive new contracts. In hundreds of other deals, China’s Export-Import Bank and other big, state-controlled “policy bank” counterparts have teamed up to offer attractive project financing that is usually tied to the use of Chinese companies, Chinese materials, and Chinese workers.
Africa, more than any other place, has been the great stage for these innovations, and the focus of extraordinary Chinese energy as a rising great power casts its gaze far and wide for opportunity, like never before in its history.
In a conversation with Li Jiong, a Chinese entrepreneur and hotelier in Monrovia, French explores what brings so many Chinese nationals to Africa.
I asked my host what had drawn him to Africa in the beginning. “Back home, I had a lot of friends who had already been to Africa,” he told me. “I didn’t know which countries were good, or where you could make money. I just knew that China was already pretty much developed.”
Li had arrived in Liberia alone in 2006, with modest savings from a variety of small businesses in his native Zhejiang province, not far from Shanghai.
“They had just chosen their new president. The country had just come out of the war, and I sensed there were lots of things that I could do. I knew the market was wide open. I knew the resources were plentiful. At that time, there was no electricity. There were no good roads, or even streets. One couldn’t drink the water. It was far from comfortable here, but I started investing anyway. I spent a lot of money renting a house. I had to deal with lots of thefts and lots of robberies, but the idea was to eat bitter and understand the country.
“I used Chinese-style expectations at first, thinking [the country’s] development could go fast, but as I got to know the place better, I became more realistic, more patient. By the third year, they started repairing the streets with World Bank and U.N. money. The lights started coming on. We figured it would take another two or three years before business really picked up, but this is a slow process. It involves government, laws, and lots of other things, not just money. The country had been at war for too long, and the people with money and education had all left. All that remained was poor people, and we had not understood how difficult it would be. You could say that we came early.”
He started out by selling air conditioners and household electronics that he imported from China, but found that the market was too small and too poor for him to make any real money that way. The idea to build a hotel came from watching the rise in the number of official Chinese projects in the country. He figured that if he could capture a regular share of the traffic of Chinese cycling through the country on short-term contracts and missions, he would do well, and the Chinese embassy encouraged him. (Now I understood why he had never bothered to translate the name of the hotel on the sign that hung above its entrance gate.)
The conversation circled back to his wife. He told me their marriage had been arranged. They had a single child back in China, a son, who was approaching high school age. His wife had arrived just a year earlier, once they felt the son was mature enough to be left in the care of extended family.
I asked if it had been difficult to live separately, to be here so long without her.
“If that had been tough, we never would have made it,” he said. “My wife is just like an employee, a worker. I must rely on my own personal strength. I must choose my own path. If I succeed, people will praise me. If I fail, it’s no big deal. I’m the one who decided that we would come here, and I committed to the long run even before I arrived.”
Did he think he had achieved success?
“No one will tell you they’ve finished succeeding,” Li replied. “But when I think about what I’ve started here, with no language, with no experience here, and now I have this wood business, I feel like I’ve done well.”
The next morning, Li overheard me complaining loudly on the telephone to Kenya Airways about my lost bags.
“Black people are not good at getting things done,” he said, when I had hung up. “Their customs were formed back when there was no telephone and no highway. It’s very easy for them to put anything that’s not immediate out of mind.”
Li had given in to the age-old expat’s game of armchair diagnostician of whatever ails Africa. To change the subject, I asked him what he thought of the country’s rival communities of Lebanese and Indians. Were they as hardworking as the Chinese? Would they lose their grip to the newcomers?
Li said that Chinese merchants had certain advantages in sourcing the manufactured goods they sold in China. “We don’t need to buy a ticket to go to China to do business. We have our people there. We know the scene best. We will get the best prices.”
Then he said something that surprised me, and took some of the edge off his earlier race talk. “I don’t believe in the idea that some nationalities automatically work harder than others. It’s all about making money work for you, and everyone is different. What I can say is that if you pay them well, even blacks can eat bitter just as much as any Chinese. If you don’t give a Chinese enough food to eat and you give him no incentive, there’s no way he’ll work hard. That’s what makes any country develop.”
Because I have grown so accustomed to a certain strain of Chinese discourse that emphasizes how distinct from others they are, and usually by clear inference this means how superior they feel, this struck me as a rare response.
“I reject this,” Li said, commenting about Chinese notions of superiority. “I know that lots of Chinese people feel this way, but that’s because they haven’t experienced anything. Being outside of the country, coming in contact with different people all the time has allowed me to understand.”
[box] Excerpted from China’s Second Continent by Howard W. French. Copyright © 2014 by Howard W. French. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. [/box]