China’s penetration of the African continent is large, having invested almost $300 BN from 2015 to 2018, in roads, dams, airports, hospitals, schools, stadiums and power plants as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative to extend its influence and control around the globe. China is Africa’s largest trading partner and Xi Jinping has vowed to invest another $60 BN in the continent. No matter that this has loaded African nations with$130 BN of debt; the continent is now inextricably linked to the Middle Kingdom. Chinese firms are manufacturing millions of shoes in Ethiopia, pumping oil in Angola and investing heavily in agriculture.
In addition to this massive state effort, over 1 MM Chinese have immigrated to Africa in the last couple of decades, setting up shops, buying farms, running businesses, all to do what immigrants have done for 100s of years around the world – give their families opportunities and a better life. An estimated 10,000 chinese run business on the continent. Like the Lebanese, South Asians, Arabs and Europeans before them, this wave of Chinese immigrants is likely to influence the continent in unexpected ways; their influence may end up being greater that the official policies of the Chinese government. Imagine the cross pollination going on between the the Chinese here in Africa and the informal African traders working in China (The neighborhood where Africans live in Guangzhou is known as Chocolate City by locals.).
I had dinner in Tarkwa, a mining town in the West of Ghana one evening at a large, new hotel built and run by solo Chinese entrepreneurs. It was in an out of the way location on a large and well tended piece of land and had that somewhat peculiar design sensibility that you see in Asia: a large marble clad foyer, banners in Mandarin in several spots, artwork right out of Costco. Some Christmas decorations still up which seemed weirdly to fit right in. The staff were all Ghanaian – I saw a Chinese manager hovering in the background – and the food was the kind of mainstream fare you would find in Oakland’s Chinatown.
And I wondered about the path of the funds needed to pay for its construction. Likely private money hustled offshore via Hong Kong to avoid currency restrictions, hard to imagine the return on investment would be positive. But that isn’t the point – this is about establishing a foothold in a new country. Like restaurants and shops run by immigrants all over the U.S. whose returns are minimal, whose work is crushing and which employ the entire family, this is the first step in making a life in a new land.
I’ve toured a number of construction sites with clients here and anytime I see well formed and finished concrete it is a Chinese subcontractor that has done the work. They’ve poured a lot of the stuff over the last 30 years.
In some ways, the Chinese are playing the role that the Soviets and Americans did in the ’50s and ’60s, when they went out and built massive public works projects (e.g. the Aswan Dam on the Nile in Egypt or the dam on the Volte River here in Ghana.) Nature was wild and had to be subdued – we have a
bulldozer that will do the trick. Africa needs infrastructure and China is happy to deliver. And colonization by European powers in the 17 and 1800s was similarly about resource extraction and economic gain.
America and the Soviet Union were active in influencing governments in emerging markets, using them as proxies in the Cold War. To date, the Chinese have shied away from this kind of activity but this could change over time; they built their first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa (The French, Japanese and Americans have bases there too.) and control deepwater ports in several countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Geopolitical conflicts are ultimately driven by economics and power, even if clothed in noble ideology; we are likely to see a complex and lumpy interaction with China for a fairly long time.
While shopping to outfit my apartment at a Lebanese run hypermarket, I saw a stack of Carbolic Soap, which took my back to living in India in the mid ’80s. I had to buy a bar. The stuff is inexpensive and is made with phenols derived from coal – carbolic acid gives the soap a reddish color – and has a medicinal / antiseptic smell and makes me think of English boarding school stories from early last century. Or maybe reform school (Not actually much difference between these two.) Tin mugs of hot cocoa. Marmite spread on toast, overcooked vegetables served with bully beef. A game of rugger in the rain, then a cold shower. Scratchy sweaters and ill fitting blazers. Collins Boys Annual. Canings when out of line.