Review: China Safari–On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa

5 Star, Country/Regional, Culture, Research, Economics, Information Operations, Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
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5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, Earnest, New Insights, a Great Contribution

February 22, 2010

Serge Michel, Michel Beuret, Paolo Woods (Photos)

Of the modest number of books focused on China in Africa, this is one of the two best, and both are unique–if you buy only one, at least read my summary of the other, China into Africa: Trade, Aid, and Influence Whereas this book is direct journalism with wonderful color photos and direct ground-truth stories, China Into Africa is a best in class collection of academic essays.

Sixteen full pages of color photos in the middle of the book were unexpected and a complete delight.

On balance between the two books, this one taught me more and provided insights I could not get elsewhere to include the clear understanding, documented across multiple encounters by the authors, that the Chinese consider any Chinese business area or housing area of, by, and for their Chinese workers, to be sovereign territory of China immune to indigenous inspection or intervention.

Highpoints for me:

+ Africa is undergoing a huge transformation, and in combination, the infusion of Chinese infrastructure with the discovery of new energy fields and the growing need of all for what Africa has, is creating a perfect environment for a wealth explosion, and the US is missing it.

+ US has given up in Africa, in large part because the US Government other than the military does not have the resources, the human capital, the area knowledge, or the innate interest to actually do something strategic. The Chinese, in contrast, are unifying and pacifying Africa with infrastructure and commerce, while gaining direct access to natural resources that they can take possession of at half the market value by controlling the supply chain and no doubt lying about how much they are extracting.

+ Chinese presence in Africa is vertically and horizontally integrated, to include relatively thorough exploitation of what I have named the eight tribes of intelligence (academic, citizen-civil sector, commercial, government, law enforcement, media, military, and non-governmental), the Chinese appear to be way ahead of the US and all others in the Information Operations (IO) domain.

+ The Chinese are introducing simple robust technologies that work and that can be understood by indigenous workers accustomed to 1950's and 1960's technologies. Chinese machines that do equivalent work to Western machines are four times cheaper

+ China handles indigenous requests for Chinese visas strategically–they quickly recognize the local movers and shakers and give them red carpet treatment, unlike Europeans and US where the consular office has no clue and treats everybody badly

+ Chinese study every Minister they need, then assign a Ministerial-level contact from China to visit, cultivate, and then keep in touch–this is so far ahead of the US light-weight approach it makes me want to cry

Some of my flyleaf notes:

+ 900 Chinese companies active across Africa

+ 750,000 Chinese immigrants in South Africa ALONE

+ Cameroon is processing 700,000 visa requests in its Beijing Embassy

+ 300 million Chinese emigrants to Africa is a stated long-term goal

+ Core Chinese approach is a win-win package deal that trades infrastructure and unconditional loans for resource futures–they are approaching each nation strategically and far superior to US and European incoherence. West focuses on humanitarian and other broad issues, Chinese focus on business and longer term win

+ Chinese are beating the West on price and performance every time, to the point that Western firms are starting to bid Chinese subcontractors.

+ Africa and Chinese appear to share a view of democracy as being where everyone decides and no one works

+ Chinese get more out of everything, to include penny pinching, working all facilities and machines 24/7 with shifts, and completely avoiding “distractions” of local engagement outside of business to business dealings

+ NGOs are viewed by the Chinese in Africa as Western tools seeking to harass and set back the Chinese

+ Chinese laborers can earn five times in Africa what they can in China–$500 a month versus $100 a month

+ China is consuming 32% of the world's rice, 47% of the world's cement, 33% of the world's cigarettes, and 10% of the world's lumber but growing rapidly

+ 91,000 Chinese tourists visited Egypt in 2007

+ Chinese goods in Africa sell for one quarter to one fifth what the African's own products sell for

+ China close to #1 in small arms sales in Africa

+ China using private security firms, up to 5,000 individuals (probably Chinese) guarding one pipeline

+ Chinese farmers in Sudan growing vegetables for sale to the large Chinese population there, making ten times what they could at home

+ Darfur is the size of France, oil there, China poised to own Sudan, which is growing 9-13% a year

+ Ethiopia has China's biggest Embassy after India

+ Washington's China watchers fall into two camps according to the authors, the Panda Huggers and the Dragon Slayers. It is clear to me as a reader and intelligence professional that neither group has a strategic analytic model or any sense of what US should be doing and why, in Africa

+ Land mines and minefields do not slow down Chinese work. They use bulldozers to set off the mines, if a worker dies their family gets a $44,000 windfall and everyone is happy

+ Chinese created economic zones in Africa that appear to be phantom zones and a tax avoidance scheme, but Africa does not have a regional means of studying and then challenging Chinese moves of this sort

+ In Zambia Chinese treat local workers the way Israelis treat the Palestinians

+  The major regional downside is Chinese deforestation and over-fishing.  Bribery appears to negate whatever NGO and national constraints may be in place.

The major downside of China in Africa that came up over and over was the total shut out of local workers who gain no employment, no training, no future.

I found this book fascinating, and give it five stars for the hard work of doing ground truth face to face across multiple continents, and the photos, and the deeper personal insights than provided by the academic work. My notes do not do this book justice, if I had to recommend only one of the two, this would be the one.

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