Leaving China in Pursuit of the African Dream

Photo by Shawn Killebrew/VICE News

The economic growth that has taken China to second place in the world by size of gross domestic product after the United States has been astounding — and its numbers are staggering in Africa too. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner. By 2012, its trade with Africa was double the United States’.

Western media tend to inflate the rhetoric surrounding China’s rise in Africa. Headlines are often resentful and sometimes border on fear-mongering: China is “winning” Africa from the West. The United States must “catch up” to China if it hopes to maintain economic, security and cultural relevance in Africa. A monolithic “China” sees Africa as a place to get rich quick, and doesn’t care much about the consequences.

But behind these hyperbolic headlines there are people, actual Chinese moving to Africa — one million over the past 15 years according to the rough but generally accepted estimate. Some come to work for large Chinese companies that mine copper or cobalt. Others come to build those roads and railways. Many come to open small businesses: restaurants, pharmacies, furniture and electronics stores.

“Big projects completed by big, government-owned companies dominate the headlines about the advancing Chinese agenda in Africa,” wrote Howard French, a longtime New York Times correspondent in both China and Africa, in China’s Second Continent. “But history teaches us that very often reality is more meaningfully shaped by the deeds of countless smaller actors, most of them for all intents and purposes anonymous.”

Read the full article at VICE, and watch the full documentary, Chinafication of Africa, which I helped produce, on VICE HBO on April 22nd.