Howard French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa is a bit cliche. Rather than a scholarly book it’s more an observational travelogue, and it suffers somewhat from the fact that it is focused on Chinese who live in Africa, but are never of it. Chinese are Chinese, and those who migrate to Africa have more commonalities than most. So French’s attempts to spin out distinct experiences was a bit stretched. Basically, the same thing is happening over and over across the African continent.
When I say this that it is cliche, I’m alluding to the fact that for many Chinese presence in Africa is rather well known. But the reality is not everyone knows about it. So I was happy to see The New York Times put this issue front and center, Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?
There are twists which are important to remember. First, China’s working age population has been declining since 2012. This is going to put a crimp in any “imperial” ambitions. Second, this Chinese “empire” is not going to be an explicitly political one, but rather one of influence, control, and tough soft power.
That being said, we should’t underestimate the will and need of the Chinese to have their “time in the sun.” Fifteen years ago Ross Terrill wrote The New Chinese Empire. In it be observed that for much of Chinese history there has long been a division between a moralistic/ideological camp and a more nationalist realpolitik element. He traces this division back to antiquity, with Confucianism and Legalism as the prototypes (I’m not sure I believe this). But Terrill observed that Deng Xiaoping and the leaders who he cultivated and promoted to succeed him were generally much more nakedly nationalistic than Mao ever was.
Just something to keep in mind as we look to the future….