China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa
by Serge Michel and Michel Beuret. Nation Books. US$16
China’s great experiment in Africa continues to move at its own tidal pace, seemingly indifferent to the opinions, debates, discussions, finger pointing and hand-wringing of the West.
The think-tanks continue to issue papers, the newspapers print stories and politicians make grand statements – and all the while Chinese entrepreneurs big and small travel to Africa, make money, create jobs, build and destroy.
One thing they don’t tend to do is think about the big picture because, other than in the hallowed spaces of the Great Hall of the People, there isn’t much in the way of a grand plan. It is simply a case of taking the best advantage of the many opportunities the continent has to offer.
In their book China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa, French journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret offer a series of case studies on the impact of Chinese investment in Africa. They paint a strong picture of how Chinese of all stripes are doing business across the continent – with or without the central government’s help or blessing.
In the background, of course, lurks China’s foreign policy, which doesn’t judge other governments but rather quietly goes about oiling the wheels of commerce.
Little of what is told in China Safari is truly new, but the book gives a fresh, on-the-ground look. The authors stay away from academic debate, instead making people’s experiences their subject. In clear and straightforward news-style writing, relying on plenty of practical examples, they expose the complexities generated by China’s investments in Africa.
As a rapacious consumer of resources, Beijing supports just about every regime on the continent. At a government level, China offers plenty of incentives and makes grandiose deals with its counterparts in Africa. At a local level, entrepreneurs go it alone and build fortunes from scratch by running restaurants or trading cheap goods made back home. Whatever their size and scope, Chinese businesses often pay local employees badly, with Chinese managers working, living and eating among them.
Local perceptions of the Chinese vary. In Algeria, a national housing agency uses a Chinese contractor to build new residences. The work is weak, but there is no local alternative. In Cameroon, the adjective Chinese "is synonymous with excellence, perseverance and achievement." In Nigeria, "Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs like Jacob Wood are investing for the long term in private business empires." In Congo-Brazzaville, "Chinese trawlermen are emptying the coastal waters with nets several kilometers long."
Although China was a late-starter in its search for African resources, Beijing’s approach has proved more successful than that of other nations in recent years. The authors conclude that the country’s significant (and growing) presence in Africa has rekindled interest in the continent among Western countries and governments that have long ignored it.
At the same time, Michel and Beuret appreciate that China is doing so much in Africa and using so many approaches that it would be naïve to try and define the relationship. The difficulties do not arise from a lack of information, but an excess of it. Government agendas – from geopolitical efforts to build influence to a national push to offer poor Chinese better opportunities elsewhere – live side-by-side, as do China’s well-known entrepreneurial spirit and a corporate desire to compete with the world’s largest multinationals.
At one extreme there is hard work and creativity, and at the other laziness and minimal productivity, backed up by all-pervasive government favoritism.
The authors touch on all these things and they are careful to portray the realities both in China and Africa. In a thorough study, they look at the historical context of the relationship between the nation and the continent, as well as a host of other factors, taking in the respective roles of the US, Europe, corporations and even the diplomatic complications created by Taiwan.
A safari is a journey and Michel and Beuret’s journey takes them up close and personal with the people intimately involved in the China-Africa relationship, those who use it to shape their lives as entrepreneurs, politicians or workers.