'China Safari' drills down to heart of China-Africa partnership

Africa: a land of dictators, famines, wars and epidemics; a continent doomed to failure. This, at least, is the image that's been ingrained into the American psyche.

Not so, say authors Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, for China. In Africa, where the West sees endless misery, the Chinese see opportunity and are well on their way to seizing it. In China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africa, the pair of Swiss journalists take us on a journey to the heart of this Sino-African partnership, one, they argue, that is transforming the African continent to a degree not seen since decolonization.

The book, which includes a 16-page insert by photojournalist Paolo Woods, is the result of two years of on-the-ground reporting from 12 African countries and China. From the forests of Congo-Brazzaville to the uranium mines of Niger, the story of China's expansion is much the same. Ambitious entrepreneurs break ground, while the Chinese government signs massive contracts to build direly needed infrastructure, often with imported Chinese labor. In return, China gets access to African markets and concessions to the natural resources it craves as a rising global power: timber, copper, uranium, cobalt, coltan, gold and, above all, oil.

It's a relationship that works in part because of Africa's disillusion with the West, bent on human rights, democracy and haunted by the ghosts of colonization. In China, Africa has a partner that does not patronize, that turns a blind eye to internal politics and is ready to build anything at an unbeatable price. As the authors quote one Western diplomat in Brazzaville, "God bless the Chinese. They build roads and dams, and frankly we don't have what it takes to do those things anymore."

While Michel and Beuret are optimistic that China's presence will ultimately benefit Africa, China Safari is by no means Beijing propaganda. The authors expose the dark side of the Sino-Africa partnership — everything from cheap Chinese imports driving local goods out of markets to Beijing's cavorting with repressive regimes, such as that of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, and profiting by selling them weapons.

Throughout the book, stories of Chinese bosses mistreating African workers are rife, as are tales that demonstrate an insurmountable rift between cultures. Most notable is the recurring stereotype that Africans are poor because they are lazy. "It's not surprising in this place," says Jacob Wood, a Chinese development magnate in Nigeria. "When they want to eat, they just climb a tree and pick a mango."

Scholars, in recent years, have engaged in intense debate about the virtues and vices of the Sino-African project, much of which is rehashed in China Safari. At times, the authors' analysis seems a bit stylized: their brief and snarky criticism of the International Monetary Fund's operations in Africa, for example, is — if not entirely untrue — rather hollow. In part because of the timing of the book (the original version, in French, was published last June when global commodity prices were still near record highs), they also fail to consider the effect that the subsequent plunge in the cost of raw materials will have on Sino-African business relationships that are all but defined by them.

Where China Safari is most successful is in its close-up encounters with the characters that expose the nuances of the China-Africa partnership — from tycoons such as Wood, so well-esteemed by Nigerian authorities he's been allowed to register his fleet of SUVs as police vehicles, to Peng Shu Lin, a 36-year-old laborer leaving China for the first time because better pay awaits in Africa.

Through a witty narrative that at times becomes a first-person travelogue, the authors entertain while educating, revealing in the process the absurdities that come with reporting on the ground in Africa.

Ultimately, from their time spent traipsing across the African continent, Michel and Beuret reach two main conclusions. Whatever its intentions, China, unlike the West, has done something invaluable in showing Africa that it is not "condemned to everlasting stagnation." China, they write, has "offered Africa a future — or at least a vision of the future — that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago."

Yet the real story, they say, is not about Africa, but China's ambition to take a new "Great Leap Forward," in a contest for influence, military access and resources against America and its European allies. Africa, the authors say, was merely an obvious place to start, "in which the Chinese dragon might sharpen its teeth before taking on the big boys."

If this is the case, then China Safari— an admirable contribution to a story with broad geopolitical implications — may only be a preview.

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist who has reported from Italy, Kenya, Tanzania and Washington, D.C.