It Takes More than a Million Migrants to Build a Continental Empire

Reprinted in an abridged version as Seven Myths About Chinese Migrants in Africa, 7 Transnational Corporations Review 480-493 (2015).

52 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2015 Last revised: 4 Jan 2016

Date Written: April 26, 2015

Abstract

Rich in facts, poor in logic. This phrase is perhaps the most telling price tag for China’s Second Continent, a book authored by Howard French on Chinese migrants in Africa. In it, the author argues that Chinese migration to Africa exhibits imperial patterns of the past and that it is likely to repeat those patterns in the future. Written in a limpid and elegant style, graced with interesting interviews, fascinating stories, vivid descriptions and profound insights, China’s Second Continent is quite an informative book, which is in itself a good reason to read it. No doubt the book would have been much better if it had done away with its main thesis and the author’s lame attempts to prove it. This review essay goes over the way in which the author built his argument.

Howard French’s thesis is fatally flawed on two levels. On a general level, the evidence presented by the author of China’s Second Continent does not prove his thesis. It has failed to establish that Chinese migrants dominate local populations, or that Africans have lost or are losing the ability to resist. It has also failed to provide clear historical precedents for the author’s prediction that the ‘unquestionably peaceful’ migration of Chinese nationals to Africa will, without militarism, be the cause of imperialism. On the contrary, several counterexamples defy this prediction. Neither is the evidence internally consistent or broadly representative of the multifaceted relationships between Africans and Chinese migrants. In essence, the book’s methodology is ill-suited to its own purposes while the hearsay and the anecdotes on which it heavily relies are not generalizable to a wider and future universe.

On a basic level, the problem with French’s thesis is definitional. His notion of ‘migration’ is undefined and racist; his definition of ‘imperialism’ is ambiguous and unscientific. Despite the absence of a common understanding of who is a ‘migrant’, the author does not define this vital notion; instead, his is based (contrary to normal practice) on race, not nationality. Furthermore, since – in French’s vision of things – ‘imperialism’ can happen in any way, it will happen, anyway. It is obvious that French’s definition of ‘imperialism’ is meaningless, which implies that his ‘prediction’ is not scientific. It cannot be empirically tested (or refuted, for that matter) and, consequently, people should not regret that the Chinese migrants in Africa will become ‘imperialists’ in the world imagined by French.

Suggested Citation

Zongwe, Dunia, It Takes More than a Million Migrants to Build a Continental Empire (April 26, 2015). Reprinted in an abridged version as Seven Myths About Chinese Migrants in Africa, 7 Transnational Corporations Review 480-493 (2015).. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2599119 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2599119

Dunia Zongwe (Contact Author)

Walter Sisulu University ( email )

Nelson Mandela Drive
Mthatha
South Africa

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