China in Africa; Africa in China8 min read

Ilaria Maria Sala reviews two books on China’s global reach and appeal

Nearly two decades after the first Forum in China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) took place in Beijing in 2000 – and many years into China’s renewed commitment to expanding abroad both economically and politically – Sino-African relations has become one of the hottest topics in Chinese studies. Initially, the bulk of studies were general overviews, often trying to analyze the relationship China had with the whole continent in one fell swoop. Now, increasingly fascinating case studies are coming to press, providing sharper analytical tools and making a larger body of knowledge available to scholars.

Two new books from University of Chicago Press offer an in-depth look at two highly relevant aspects of this political and economic relationship: The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace by Hong Kong anthropologist Gordon Mathews, and The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa by labor scholar Ching Kwan Lee. The first is an ethnographic study of the experience of African traders living in Guangzhou, at various levels of legality – zooming in on how their day-to-day life in China shapes African perceptions of China and of the Chinese authorities, and how their present difficulties may affect future ties. The second book, on the other hand, is based on Ching Kwan Lee’s rather extraordinary experience in Zambia’s copper mines, where she researched Chinese foreign direct investment in the extraction industry, comparing it to that in mines run by Indian and international mining concerns.

In both volumes, African voices are more frequently heard than Chinese ones, proving yet again that access to Chinese sources is less easily available, not just to journalists but also to scholars. In Mathews’ work, this is the case even though his co-writers, Linessa Dan and Yang Yang, are Chinese. CK Lee is a Hong Kong Chinese scholar, but she too writes of her difficulties in obtaining access to a wide range of Chinese sources.

China’s obsession with control, and the strictness of its visa policies, make a rosy, cosmopolitan future an impossibility”

Mathews’ interest in what has been called “low-end globalization” started in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions. This beehive-like building full of small hotels, hostels, dormitories, restaurants, shops and money-changers is found in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of Hong Kong’s shopping and tourism districts. But Chungking Mansions is also an informal center of Chinese-African trade. Many African nationals have chosen the convenience and affordability of Chungking Mansions as their base, as a stop-over on their way to Guangdong and a cheap location to stock goods purchased in China to be exported to Africa, from electronics to textiles.

In his volume Ghetto at the Centre of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, published in 2011, Mathews interviewed traders from all over the world who congregated in Tsim Sha Tsui in their quest to bring cheap Chinese-made electronics and second hand goods to their home countries. Pursuing his investigation further, in The World in Guangzhou he follows some of them to Guangzhou, where a much stricter visa regime clashes with the inevitable anarchy of this intense commercial exchange based on speed of production, delivery and shipment. One of Mathews’ premises is that as southern China, and Guangdong Province in particular, has become the manufacturing capital of the world, Guangzhou could stand the chance of becoming the next truly cosmopolitan metropolis, a true heir to New York or London.

Xiaobei, a neighborhood in Guangzhou populated by a relatively high number of African, Indian and Arab traders, is the hub in the hub. (Precise statistics are unavailable, but the hundreds of non-Chinese residents wax and wane according to the rhythms of law-enforcement campaigns.) Here, Middle Eastern restaurants and African coffee shops function as unofficial information exchange centers. There is even a Chungking Mansions-like building, Tianxiu, even if this too appears unable to function properly due to asphyxiating government pressures. Africans unable to secure all the permits they need end up having to trust local partners, who inevitably have the legal upper hand should anything go wrong.

The three researchers of the book conducted interviews with traders who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions, who must travel by bus to avoid detection, or who had to flee the authorities after having their residency permit applications rejected. It is clear that China’s obsession with control, and the strictness of its visa policies, make a rosy, cosmopolitan future an impossibility.

The situation in Zambia’s mines, meanwhile, as explained in The Specter of Global China, brings us to an entirely different reality: one where Chinese investors are the outsiders, trying to negotiate an unfamiliar terrain and regulatory framework, while also balancing the political and economic demands of their headquarters in China.

CK Lee’s research is enlightening when describing the different set of priorities many Chinese state-owned mines have to keep in mind. A first, cursory look shows that non-Chinese foreign mines had been often perceived by laborers as having relatively higher pay and better working conditions. Chinese mines were consistently faulted by local populations for low pay. Faced with economic downturns, however, non-Chinese concerns operating under stricter profit imperatives were faster in shutting their mines and leaving the country, offering no work guarantees. Chinese state-owned mines, on the other hand – which are not run purely on an economic rationale – are part of a larger relationship that Beijing is setting up with its African governmental counterparts. For them, immediate monetary profit is only one part of the equation in what Lee terms a “collective asceticism” approach  – that is, the willingness to “eat bitter” for the greater cause of the company, and China’s, enduring success abroad.

The ‘going out’ approach encouraged by Beijing cannot be separated from China’s determination to increase the reach of its power internationally”

Lee illustrates in detail how important it is to maintain a clear distinction between state-owned, provincial state-owned, and private capital when it comes to analyzing Chinese investments in Africa, since these three sources of investments are profoundly different in their attitudes and aims. Unlike state-owned capital, private Chinese capital’s operations are not too dissimilar from classic foreign investment, defined by “individual careerism” where profit is the key motive. “The uniqueness of Chinese investment has to do with ‘state’ capital,” Lee writes, “not the migrant entrepreneurs or private companies from China.” She notes how the political aims of this presence do not necessarily translate into the neo-colonialist attitude China is often accused of, but “compel [Chinese state capital] to be more open to political negotiation and concession.”

While the fieldwork is fascinating, some of Lee’s conclusions seem to be partially invalidated by rapid changes on the ground and increased assertiveness from the Chinese authorities. Lee writes that China’s foray into Africa cannot be called colonial because this would require a military presence on the continent. This military presence was not yet established when Lee was doing her research, but it has already become part of the landscape: in Djibouti, with China’s first overseas military base, but also with military commitments on differing scales in many other African countries. Irrespective of the type of anarchic competition or decentralized improvisation that scholars of the Chinese economy have grown used to seeing at play inside China, and now by China abroad, the overarching “going out” approach encouraged by Beijing cannot be separated from China’s determination to increase the reach of its power internationally.

The desire to counter an excessively alarmist narrative on Chinese investment in Africa is actually the weakest point of the volume. While it is crucial to remind readers that, in spite of its visibility, China is still not the leading investor in Africa (trailing behind the UK, the US and France), the level of Chinese ambition and its political investments in the African continent are more than just attention-grabbing headlines. And as Sri Lanka has learned, China will waive defaulted debt through land control, seizing the new Hambantota port which it had invested in, in the most visible example of what has been dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy.”

The optimism of both of these studies about China’s willingness to proceed trustworthily in Africa might not be quite sustained by recent developments. Yet this notwithstanding, both are highly informative and valuable books about a relationship between China and Africa that – whichever continent it plays out in – is defined by a complexity of moving parts that must account for individuals, business interests and competing political agendas. ∎

Ching Kwan Lee, The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa (University of Chicago Press, January 2018)
Gordon Mathews, with Linessa Dan Lin and Yang Yang, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace (University of Chicago Press, November 2017)
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