Author: Holslag, Jonathan
Date published: April 1, 2010
China's Africa Safari: On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africa. By Serge Michel and Michel Beuret. New York: Nation Books, 2009. 306 pages. $27.50.
Sometimes, pieces of journalism succeed in presenting matters more clearly than scholars can achieve via their methodological rigor and theoretical innovativeness. China Safari is definitely one such work. By describing their multiyear journey from meticulously orchestrated official meetings in Beijing to dusty oil fields in Sudan, the authors unravel the achievements and shortfalls of China's African charm offensive. They trace the underlying political and personal aspirations, place the actors in the proper perspective, connect revealing facts based on their careful discernment, and above all tell a balanced story.
The safari starts in the "Communist Versailles" of Beijing during the 2006 Sino-African summit, introducing the political ideology that accompanies China's policies. From there it proceeds to 12 African nations. In Nigeria, the authors meet a Chinese steel producer who also has a cookie factory and several other enterprises, utilizing Chinese machines and African employees. "We all do several jobs," the boss explains. "You did the same thing in Europe 50 years ago when you were still prepared to work, right?" Entering the nightlife of Lagos, expensive wine and champagne seem to facilitate networking between the Nigerian jet set and its new Chinese friends. The same kind of networking permitted a large Chinese company, the local minister of forestry among its shareholders, to strip vast swaths of the Congolese forest. In Niger, more ministers are observed turning to the Chinese to get money from the uranium deposits and to rid the region of the faltering policies of the International Monetary Fund. The crown jewels of China's new economic empire are found in Sudan. The crisis in Darfur has not precluded the Chinese from gaining control over virtually all important sectors of the economy. In Addis Ababa, China is currying favor with both the national government and the African Union, for which Beijing will build a brand-new headquarters. It is only in Angola that the Chinese locomotive starts to lose steam. While China seemed to be on its way to turn the nation into a second Sudanese success story, at least to the satisfaction of Chinese interests, the Angolan government has other ideas.
Serge Michel and Michel Beuret succeed in clarifying the complicated structure of China's engagement with Africa. They recognize the pivotal role of the national government, elucidate its many strategic ambitions, and show how its embassies are becoming sentinels of China's new mercantilism, as they screen local markets for lucrative deals and nurture close ties with African elites. But the government's efforts do not always gratify influential companies or the tens of thousands of Chinese migrant workers who often feel as much exploited as the Africans.
What also becomes clear is the thin line between the low politics of trade and the strategic rivalry that seems to emerge between China and other global powers. Obviously, there is some competition with Taiwan to win over the last few African countries that still support the Taipei government. More importantly, China's expanding economic footprint pushes European countries to the sidelines. The authors properly highlight how Africans feel that Europeans have let them down. This attitude encompasses both the politically dishonest who seek to sustain their networks of patronage and ordinary citizens who see Europe as being absent when it comes to improving public infrastructure. Michel and Beuret trace the subtle indications of a new great game with the United States. Both sides try to secure their interests, and given the lack of communication and coordination, the competition will likely lead to continued distrust and proxy wars. The reports of Chinese nationals using United Nations peacekeeping missions, mercenaries, or private guards to protect their assets in Africa are certainly worth examination.
Thus far, Beijing has had an easy ride. It could capitalize on the disinterest of the West and make quick and visible progress by pursuing "checkbook diplomacy." The authors warn that China in fact faces a tougher challenge. It has won over the minds of the elites, but the latter certainly exercises opportunities to strike hard bargains. Chinese companies have been allowed to exploit a portion of Africa's natural resources, but local leaders inevitably raise the stakes for new concessions and contracts. Even more problematic is that China has only partly won over the hearts of ordinary citizens. There is a lot of enthusiasm expressed when a new road opens, but sinophobia is on the rise. Better than any other recent work, China Safari gives an impression of these mixed feelings. It reveals the accounts of villagers who believe that Chinese workers steal their cattle, merchants who complain about being outbid by the proliferating Chinese shops, or African workers who feel mistreated by Chinese employers. "They treat us like slaves. When we make a mistake, we get smacked with a shovel," a Congolese worker testified. It would require a major effort to process these subjective reports into a thorough academic analysis, but Michel and Beuret have succeeded in presenting the diverse opinions in a balanced manner to support their conclusion that the tide is changing. The authors leave for readers to conclude whether the Chinese will be able to deal constructively with such growing resistance.
This book does not pretend to offer all the details and insights related to China's Africa. The authors want to give an impression and, supported by Paolo Woods's revealing photography, they achieve this remarkably. China Safari quotes the right people, visits the right places, and above all asks the right questions. It will definitely stimulate discussion regarding the impact of China on Africa's future development, and it also creates inroads for closer scrutiny of new developments in Beijing's strategy to secure new assets.
Reviewed by Jonathan Holslag, director of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.