I’ll be reading and posting a lot about China in Namibia soon, because it’s an issue that has come up in the news a lot lately. Xenophobia seems to be on the rise, while the newspapers and some politicians seem to be quite happy to encourage it. So this week I’ll cheat and write a few words about a book that is technically non-academic, but should still be on the top of anyone’s reading list on the topic.

Title: China’s Second Continent: how a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Author: Howard W. French

One-sentence summary: French travels across the continent and speaks to ordinary Chinese migrants on the ground – farmers, traders, businesspeople. This contrast to the many other books on the topic of China in Africa, which focus on the state, allows for a lot of insight and a fresh perspective. Book info here.

The Book

Ok, so like I said above this is not technically an academic (peer-reviewed) publication, but it’s close enough: French teaches at Columbia University, plus he spent years in West Africa and China, and speaks like a billion languages (which probably was a key factor in being able to talk to so many folks the way he does)

French travels to about a dozen countries speaking to Chinese migrants. He asks them about what drove them to move to Africa, how their experience has been, and how they perceive their hosts. He ties these conversations into the larger picture for the given country he is in. This means the book is very informative: reading it you’ll learn both about the official relationships between China and a variety of African states, some of their history, as well as the experiences of Chinese migrants — which were very interesting. (Not always pretty, though. Africans often think that Chinese are racist towards blacks, and several people he interviews sadly confirm this stereotype.)

Chinese in Namibia

Anyways, French does come to Namibia, where he visits both Chinatown in Windhoek as well as the community of Chinese traders in Oshikango. I don’t want to delve into this too much, but it’s absolutely fascinating to read how Chinese in Namibia (or at least the people he spoke to) think about our country.

Namibian entrepreneurs will be interested in one of the factors in the success of a leading figure in the Oshikango community:

He told us of arriving nearly two decades earlier with 50,000 Chinese renminbi (about $8,000 nowadays) in capital that he had borrowed from friends… “I didn’t mind taking on debt because I knew how to do business. And after a single year here, I was rich.

I asked him whether the Chinese government was helping businesses like his in this frontier export zone. He laughed, saying that Chinese state banks constantly offered easy money to finance trade. “The credit requirements are ridiculously easy. you hardly have to document anything,” he said.

Meanwhile Namibian small businesses and entrepreneurs often struggle to access financing for their ventures. Even before its descent into scandal, it was widely known that the SME bank was not doing enough to provide credit to truly small and medium businesses. It’s true that this Chinese man saw an opportunity at the border when Angola was still experiencing conflict, and took this chance when many others didn’t. But I wonder how many Namibian banks would have given a young Namibian entrepreneur with no collateral a loan to operate a trading business right next to a neighboring country involved in a civil war?

The issue of Chinese migrants in Namibia is a complex one. The overarching question is whether the China-Namibia relationship will be a net benefit for Namibia. How similar (how different) are the modern Chinese interests from the Germans and South Africans that came before? Many Namibians have the view that no matter what foreign interest it is, they lose out. At least one interviewee agrees.

I asked Hou if Namibia would develop, to which he answered a confident yes. When I asked whether its native citizens would get rich, too, Hou paused, picking at the garlic cucumbers and salted peanuts before us, and then shook his head. “It’s difficult for them. I don’t think so. It hasn’t happened after all these years, so I don’t see them getting rich.”




(This is a post from the Sunday Scholarship series, where I summarise academic articles into something a bit more easy to read. Overview here, other posts here.)