After Tiananmen Square, New Lives On A New Continent
Tell Me More
National Public Radio
Michel Martin, Host
After the democracy protests were crushed in 1989, many thought China would turn inward. Instead, a million Chinese citizens moved to Africa. Howard French discusses his book China’s Second Continent.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re going to start the program today by taking note of a difficult moment in history. Twenty-five years ago today, the Chinese army attacked demonstrators who had been occupying Tiananmen Square, protesting for more democracy and freedom. The crackdown brought international condemnation. Some observers believed it would lead the communist country to become increasingly inward-looking and isolated. It turned out that did not happen. Today, China stands as a major global power, and one part of the world in which it clearly rivals the U.S. as an influence on politics and the economy is Africa. Thousands of Chinese companies have established themselves in Africa over the last two decades. China-Africa trade has surged from $10 billion in 2000 to $200 billion last year, far surpassing the U.S. and any European country. China’s top leaders make multiple trips to the continent every year. But, as author Howard French tells us in his new book, just as important as those high-level visits are the people who are rarely discussed. And they are the million or so Chinese expatriates who aren’t just passing through, but are staying and moving into all walks of life. That’s who the former New York Times bureau chief spent time with as he prepared his latest book, “China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa.” And Howard French is with us now. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.
HOWARD FRENCH: It’s great to be with you again…
…MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Howard French. We’re talking about his new book, “China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire In Africa.” The former New York Times bureau chief conducted interviews in Mandarin, French and Portuguese, among other languages, to, kind of, get to the ground level of how China is influencing the continent. One of the characters that struck a chord with me was Hao Shengli, whom you met in Mozambique. Tell us a little bit about his story, if you would. I was struck by the fact that he wanted his sons to marry local women, but I didn’t get the sense that this was a love-match he was seeking, here.
FRENCH: Hao was interesting because, unlike most of the people I profile, he was not a working-class person. He had started up several businesses in China that had done reasonably well. He had some savings. He set off to the Middle East – tried to do business there. He failed. He comes back to China. And he goes to a trade fair and meets some people in Guangzhou who tell him that there’s all kinds of opportunity in Africa. And so he then begins to fixate on Africa. And he ends up in Mozambique on the theory that, as a Portuguese speaking country, they’ll be very few Chinese people there. He spoke no Portuguese, but he figured, at least, he wouldn’t have any cutthroat Chinese competitors. And so he goes to Mozambique. He doesn’t do well in the capital. He discovers, to his disgust, that there are a lot of Chinese people there, in fact. And so he sets off for the countryside. And he ends up finagling his way into buying a very nice piece of irrigated, very rich farmland. And he gets into these relationships with the local people. And their relationship becomes ever more testy, and so he’s worrying. Even though he’s got a long-term lease, he’s wondering if the villagers won’t find a way to contest it, or the local government will take it back from him. And he settles upon a scheme, which absolutely astounded me, of bringing his teenage sons from China to settle there with him – and to have children by local women, in whose names he could place the property and control it indirectly through these people, who, as Mozambican citizens, would legally have the right to own land forever. And so that’s the scene that I stumble upon in this rural place.
MARTIN: It was interesting to me how much racism you personally encountered over the course of your travels. I mean, just the kind of day-to-day, casual reminders of distance that is certainly not polite in this country anymore. I’m thinking about when you went to this hotel in Liberia. And then you went to this room to drop off your things and wash up, and there was no towel there. And then when you told your host this, he summoned a young Chinese man who worked for him and told him to fetch me one. He says, we don’t usually give them out because most Chinese bring their own. They wouldn’t want to use one that a black person might have used. I mean, put this in some context for me. I mean, do you think that this is, kind of, growing pains, and that at some point will people have moved beyond that? What’s your sense?
FRENCH: Everywhere I went, the local Chinese person referred to the people, in whose midst they had come to settle, as black people. You know, they would say, the blacks, the blacks, the blacks, the blacks. They wouldn’t say the Ghanaians, or the Tanzanians, or the Zambians, or the this or the that. It was just, the blacks. And this refusal, or reluctance, to allow any kind of finer identity – to render them totally anonymous as just simply black, as if that was the only pertinent detail about them, was very telling for me. That whether or not this is a passing phase, I can’t really say. But for the time being, the Africans are just, essentially, serving as a backdrop for Chinese processes – somebody that will be useful for them – or a place that will be useful for them for the time being along the way, as they proceed up the ladder of hierarchies, if you will, of civilizations of nations…
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