What China really wants in Africa

By Asia Times Online 14 June 2012

The simple resources-for-infrastructure narrative used to explain China's engagement in Africa is less compelling than suspicions the continent is being readied as a home for a 300-500 million overflow of China's population. The main trigger given for the exodus – environmental degradation – is a less likely than another reason: the individuals imbued with ambition through China's "one-child" policy. Africa offers Chinese entrepreneurs an unprecedented chance to thrive. By CEDRIC MUHAMMAD.

While a cottage industry of “China-in-Africa” experts has emerged over the past five years, on balance their explanations of why a magnetic pull exists between the two continents is unsatisfactory. Certainly no one denies an array of state-to-state economic and geopolitical incentives recognised by both sides. After all, the simplified resources-for-infrastructure win-win is obvious.
Yet neither of those benefits – Africa’s gain of badly-needed dams, roads, pipelines and bridges and China’s receipt of desperately-needed oil and minerals – is as compelling as the widely-rumoured and highly plausible determination that China’s mainland can only sustain 700 million persons. Therefore at least 300 million to 500 million of its current 1.2 billion population must go elsewhere. The “elsewhere” is Africa, if we are to believe French authors Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, who quote an anonymous Chinese scientist in their book China Safari.
I am among those who accept the “only 700 million can stay/300 million must leave” hypothesis, but I find the explanation for this sorely inadequate. The reason provided for the necessary exodus of 300 million out of China is environmental degradation and in particular water scarcity – so many rivers have been polluted in China that the resource no longer exists in ample supply to satisfy the needs of a desperate Chinese population.
While lack of water is certainly a major issue (see California; Syria-Turkey; and Darfur disputes for proof) the Earth is still a very large place. Why Africa would be the destination of choice for hundreds of millions of persons fleeing a country plagued by simultaneous drought and flood, is not answered by the environmental degradation theory.
As serious as China’s population pressures and environmental woes are, there must still be a more compelling internal and external force driving individuals out of China. There must exist an irresistible motivation shaped by circumstance that draws and drives an enormous mass of Chinese into Africa.
We believe that force can be found coming from an unsuspecting source – the Chinese “one-child” policy.
Though Mao Zedong did state that “revolution plus production can solve the problem of feeding the population” and thought that China’s large population was more asset than liability, that thinking was replaced by efforts at social engineering that the Chinese government now credits with preventing 400 million births, thus keeping the Chinese population from otherwise reaching a level of 1.7 million today.
But people don’t neatly fit into the cardinal or ordinal nature of numbers, nor does their dynamism accept the rigid confines of static public policy. There have been real and unpredictable consequences on the thinking of generations of Chinese families and children living under these regulations – consequences that are now spilling over into Africa.
The pattern of history shows that people vote with their feet as much as they do by ballot and there are many illustrative examples which shed light on the Chinese “one-child” experience. One of the best available is the analogy painted by McGill University professor and economist Reuven Brenner, who years ago likened the experience of Jews living in Europe with what Chinese endure today, writing in an article “China: A Neurotic Prosperity”:
“What can be the point of reference to predict consequences of China’s current childbearing pattern, adjusted over the last decades to one-kid or you’re-out-of-your-apartment policy? To make any reliable analyses, one needs at least two points, so as to draw a straight line as a first approximation.
“Fortunately for observers, though unfortunately for those who had to adjust to such social engineering, there is not much new under the sun. There has been a government in the past who passed similar regulations. The year was 1726. The place, Austria.
“The Viennese court, under anti-Semitic pressures, fearing a large increase in Jewish population – a fear that by itself suggests that the Jewish birth rate at the time was relatively high – introduced a regulation. Only the eldest son of a Jewish family could marry. The younger boys could not. This regulation introduced into the Austrian empire, including Bohemia, Moravia, parts of what became later Germany, and Alsace, led to the instant migration of young Jewish generation to Eastern Europe, to Poland, to Rumania. Whereas within the Austrian Empire the Jewish birth rates dropped, in Eastern Europe they did not.
“How did Jewish parents, who stayed, adapt to the regulation? As one would expect: they had less children, invested more in their education and health, and probably spoiled them much more than would have been otherwise the case. One can speculate that this regulation was the origins of the myth of the neurotic Jewish mothers, and the by now tradition of driving Jewish kids to excellence – true, occasionally, to neurotic excellence.
“Will Chinese mothers and kids react in a similar fashion? At least this point of reference suggests a positive answer. Thus one unintended consequence of the one-child regulation will be prosperity driven by kids who will grow up to be very ambitious entrepreneurs.”
There are two intriguing features in this portion of Brenner’s thesis that resonate with us. The first is a comparison of regulatory 18th-century Europe with family planning policies of 20th-century China. The second is the possibility that entrepreneurship may be a more pronounced tendency of children living under such policies.
The regulations on the Jewish birth rate are not a perfect analogy, but are useful to our understanding of the Chinese experience under “one-child” policy, because they illustrate an incentive for Chinese to migrate elsewhere in pursuit of a greater quality of life and in order to broaden their personal and professional network which has been confined – in a familial context.
Africa represents a land of opportunity for the Chinese migrant. And history shows it is often strong kinship-based ethnic groups whose economic opportunities are more limited at “home” who become the “stranger-traders” abroad, for better or worse. This has certainly happened in parts of Africa where the Chinese represent a valuable link to manufactured goods and novel services unavailable in agrarian and peasant-like societies in Africa.
It is a link that the Jewish community played not only when they migrated into Eastern Europe as Brenner describes but also by the thousands who migrated from Alsace into the American South servicing the Mississippi Delta plantation economy as dry goods peddlers.
Far more important than the quality of the state-to-state negotiation between China and African governments covered ad nauseum by the chattering class, is the on-the-ground navigation of a swarm of Chinese entrepreneurs – running away from an old reality as much as they are chasing a new one. DM

This edited article is used courtesy of Asia Times Online, who retain copyright.

Photo: Residents crowd in a swimming pool to escape the summer heat during a hot weather spell in Daying county of Suining, Sichuan province in this file picture taken July 4, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer


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