As I wandered through the Central Library in downtown Sacramento, I selected my first non-fiction entry in my project to read all of the books on the New York Tims list of Notable Books for 2014. Here’s the Amazon blurb about Howard French’s China’s Second Continent:
An exciting, hugely revealing account of China’s burgeoning presence in Africa—a developing empire already shaping, and reshaping, the future of millions of people.
A prizewinning foreign correspondent and former New York Times bureau chief in Shanghai and in West and Central Africa, Howard French is uniquely positioned to tell the story of China in Africa. Through meticulous on-the-ground reporting—conducted in Mandarin, French, and Portuguese, among other languages—French crafts a layered investigation of astonishing depth and breadth as he engages not only with policy-shaping moguls and diplomats, but also with the ordinary men and women navigating the street-level realities of cooperation, prejudice, corruption, and opportunity forged by this seismic geopolitical development. With incisiveness and empathy, French reveals the human face of China’s economic, political, and human presence across the African continent—and in doing so reveals what is at stake for everyone involved.
We meet a broad spectrum of China’s dogged emigrant population, from those singlehandedly reshaping African infrastructure, commerce, and even environment (a self-made tycoon who harnessed Zambia’s now-booming copper trade; a timber entrepreneur determined to harvest the entirety of Liberia’s old-growth redwoods), to those just barely scraping by (a sibling pair running small businesses despite total illiteracy; a karaoke bar owner–cum–brothel madam), still convinced that Africa affords them better opportunities than their homeland. And we encounter an equally panoramic array of African responses: a citizens’ backlash in Senegal against a “Trojan horse” Chinese construction project (a tower complex to be built over a beloved soccer field, which locals thought would lead to overbearing Chinese pressure on their economy); a Zambian political candidate who, having protested China’s intrusiveness during the previous election and lost, now turns accommodating; the ascendant middle class of an industrial boomtown; African mine workers bitterly condemning their foreign employers, citing inadequate safety precautions and wages a fraction of their immigrant counterparts’.
French’s nuanced portraits reveal the paradigms forming around this new world order, from the all-too-familiar echoes of colonial ambition—exploitation of resources and labor; cut-rate infrastructure projects; dubious treaties—to new frontiers of cultural and economic exchange, where dichotomies of suspicion and trust, assimilation and isolation, idealism and disillusionment are in dynamic flux.
Part intrepid travelogue, part cultural census, part industrial and political exposé, French’s keenly observed account ultimately offers a fresh perspective on the most pressing unknowns of modern Sino-African relations: why China is making the incursions it is, just how extensive its cultural and economic inroads are, what Africa’s role in the equation is, and just what the ramifications for both parties—and the watching world—will be in the foreseeable future.
I can’t quote you any one star reviews because it doesn’t have any, but I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. It’s about to get one.
When I was in college, I was fascinated with politics and foreign relations. That fascination continues to this day. I said back in my college days that I wanted to learn something about every country in the world. Truth is that I wanted to do more than just learn something, I wanted to learn enough to be able to process news and participate in intelligent conversations about any country in the world because you never knew when something might happen in some far-flung local that mattered.
Over my lifetime I have typically found that the best books about foreign countries are written by journalists who have spent a lot of time in those countries. They read better than books by academics and typically include really interesting anecdotes and a variety of experiences because most journalists don’t just sit in one place and write stories. They get out and meet people. All sorts of people. And then write books about their experiences that are typically pretty informative, interesting, and easy to read.
So, here’s a book that seems like it’ll hit all of my hot buttons. It’s about Africa, a little covered and understood region of the world. It’s going to cover a number of countries on that continent and also address an important issue of today — China’s growing influence in the world. And, it’s written by a journalist who spent a lot of time in Africa over the years.
And, it was a piece of crap. My second book that I did not complete and here’s why. Each chapter follows the same pattern. The chapter about Senegal — author travels across horrible roads, briefly recounts Senegal’s recent history, sees poverty everywhere and natives struggling, and meets with Chinese immigrants who are making tons of money and not helping the local population except in sham ways, government officials are inept and corrupt, and the Chinese don’t mind taking advantage of that. All in the name of money and extracting Africa’s vast natural resources to benefit China’s growing economy. Chapter about Liberia — the exact same thing. Chapter about Zambia — the exact same thing. Chapter about … well I’ve forgotten which countries the fourth and fifth chapters were about, but they followed the same pattern and contributed nothing more to the development of the idea.
I don’t know, call me silly, but I’d like to see a story, even non-fiction, evolve and grow as it progresses. This didn’t. I got it after a few chapters and couldn’t take it anymore.
I’ve moved on to my next book which is my first e-book checked out of a library. I won’t tell you yet what the book is, but it may be my third incomplete book in a row. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s a subject I have read a lot on already and it’s kind of boring as a result.