Investment May 2010

The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

Well-governed states—where the people have a real say in choosing their leaders, where national priorities are openly discussed, and where legal institutions are strong—will undoubtedly benefit in lasting ways from Chinese commercial partnerships. But commercial partnerships alone seem unlikely to lead to good governance or enduring prosperity. A see-no-evil approach to governance would leave many countries with depleted resource bases and stunted political institutions, even as their population continues to grow rapidly.

Africans’ attitudes toward China’s recent initiatives on their continent are perhaps inevitably riddled with ambivalence. Many African intellectuals bridle at Western criticism of China’s African full-court press. The West, they say, has long patronized their continent, and since the end of the Cold War, has subjected it to outright neglect. And all of that is true. But the question remains: How does their continent overcome a pattern of extractive foreign engagement—beginning with its first contact with Europe, when gold or slaves were acquired in exchange for cloth and trinkets—that is still discernible today?

This question, which one hears almost everywhere, was addressed most powerfully by the Congolese lawyer I met in Lubumbashi. He received me in his office in his downtown home, where he bathes in water collected from an old parabolic satellite dish, and where he says the mail gets delivered once or twice a year, after he pays a bribe to the post office.

I asked him if the arrival of the Chinese was a new and great opportunity for the continent, as some have said. “The problem is not who is the latest buyer of our commodities,” he replied. “The problem is to determine what is Africa’s place in the future of the global economy, and up to now, we have seen very little that is new. China is taking the place of the West: they take our raw materials and they sell finished goods to the world What Africans are getting in exchange, whether it is roads or schools or finished goods, doesn’t really matter. We remain under the same old schema: our cobalt goes off to China in the form of dusty ore and returns here in the form of expensive batteries.”

Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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