Listen to the story.
Marco Werman: “No Africans allowed after 5PM.” That was the policy at a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. According to the Kenyan newspaper, The Nation, this restaurant’s managers didn’t want Africans they “didn’t know” to come in after 5 because of security concerns. A manager named Esther Zhao is quoted in the story, saying “You never know who is Al-Shabaab and who isn’t.” Al-Shabaab, of course, is an extremist group active in Kenya and in neighboring Somalia. We’ve got Howard French on the line with us. He’s the author of China’s Second Continent, about Chinese involvement in Africa. This story from Nairobi got a lot of attention on social media and now the owner of the Chinese restaurant has been arrested. What is going on here?
Howard French: The first point to be made is that you’ve seen between one and two million Chinese people move to Africa in the last 15 years or so. These are people from all walks of life but most especially people from working classes to lower middle classes in China, people who’ve had very little previous knowledge of and certainly no previous experience of Africa. They come to Africa bringing a lot of normal baggage of prejudice and stereotype about the African continent. I don’t think that this is primarily about terrorism. My guess is that that is mostly an excuse. There is terrorism in east Africa, there is a history of Al-Shabaab, etc. My guess is that this is mostly about crime.
Werman: This snapshot of the Chinese in Africa, is this the kind of story that you encountered in your own reporting?
French: Yes. This is the subset of the kind of Chinese attitudes that exist there and it’s important to say that the entire range that one would expect from Chinese attitudes and experiences--Chinese people who come fresh to the African continent and who establish reasonably healthy relationships on the ground with African partners and African employees, etc. and Chinese people who live, set themselves up in isolated settings, who tend to cater deliberately to either Chinese or to other non-African clientele and who harbor really prejudicial ideas about Africans.
Werman: There’s the element of prejudice and also in between the lines I feel that there’s kind of a general sense of entitlement among the Chinese who are in Africa. Am I wrong about that?
French: No, you’re not wrong at all and there’s a really special irony here. So, China has cultivated this notion largely based on reality, but it’s played it up extensively for nationalism and for propaganda purposes over a very long time, that China suffered what it calls a century of humiliation which ended with the Communist revolution in 1949, meaning at the hands of Western imperialists. One of the most famous images of Chinese propaganda of the century of imperialism is during a Western concessions phase, where Britain, France, Germany, and other countries owned and controlled concessional zones in China where they were in charge and had extra territoriality. One of the most famous images is a sign, which some people say is apocryphal but nonetheless is very common in this propaganda, that says “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” So, now you have the Chinese arriving in an African setting, replicating to some extent the same sort of behavior, at least the same sort of attitudes. The point to be taken away from this is that there’s a certain universal quality to racists and that people in unequal situations, meaning a strong party like China and a weak party like Africa, one being much richer and unified and the other being much poorer and balkanized among 54 different countries, introduces or raises the possibility of certain obvious outcomes--privilege, patronization, and paternalism and even racism.
Werman: Among Chinese, the sense that they’re in Africa, it’s their gold rush, it’s their moment to be taken advantage of, what is the feeling among Chinese business people that you’ve met in Africa recently? Is that excitement still happening or is it fading?
French: No, the gold rush phase is still very much on. I think that large numbers of Chinese are still flowing in to Africa; newcomers seeking business opportunities. There’s a whole lore in China where Africa has attained this image of this El Dorado, a place where with very little experience and just a little capital, you can start up your own company, you can attain land, you can engage very profitably in trade and strike it rich quickly.
Werman: Howard French, author of China’s Second Continent. Great to speak with you, thanks.
French: Thank you Marco.