Africa's Chinese Tragedy
Star Raft: China's Encounter with Africa, by Philip Snow, New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 228 pages, $19.95
The history of the world is written almost exclusively in terms of the spread of Western civilization, particularly its ideas about culture, politics, and the economy. Philip Snow deeply regrets this fact. He sets out in his new book to correct it. Star Raft celebrates every encounter, good, bad, and indifferent, between China and sub-Saharan Africa, while denigrating the Western impact. Though intended as anti-Western inquisition, it inadvertently gives the reader an instructive look at what Africa, and the world, would be like if Europe did not exist.
Star Raft takes its name from a Ming Dynasty expedition to the east coast of Africa in the fifteenth century. Led by Zheng He, the Chinese Columbus, this was a colossal enterprise, consisting of 62 galleons, more than 100 auxiliary vessels, and perhaps 40,000 men. It was sent by the Ming Emperor Yong Le not to conquer or explore, nor even to trade or convert Africans to the Chinese way of life, but rather to gain the "symbolic acquiescence" of African princes to his claim to be ruler of the entire world. Once they had, by gifts or guile or force of arms, obtained this, the Chinese left. Five centuries passed.
When the Chinese came again in the early 1950s it was to stay. The People's Republic of China built large, permanent embassies throughout Africa and set about propagating its new political creed. Their goal was to convert Africa and the rest of the Third World to communism, because (as Mao Zedong taught) the First World would then follow. If they were successful, Africa and Asia would be the "countryside" from which the "cities" of Europe and North America could be encircled and strangled.
This missionary impulse, so foreign to the Chinese spirit (they were used to simply letting their high culture draw adherents like a flame draws moths), led Beijing to actively undermine Western rule by supporting communist guerrilla movements. The Chinese, in their radical phase, contributed to the destruction of colonial economies and the radicalization of local politics, making it impossible for departing Europeans to leave in place stable, democratic regimes. Snow details Beijing's support of such radical groups as the Pan-Africanist Congress in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and ZANU, Robert Mugabe's group, in Zimbabwe.
Later, in the '60s and '70s, when most of Africa had achieved independence, China turned to economic aid. Since China itself was an underdeveloped country, most of the aid was funneled into a few showcase projects. They built a railroad connecting Tanzania and Zambia and a stadium in Zimbabwe. There were setbacks during the late '60s, as the Cultural Revolution spread overseas to China's embassies and aid projects, but on the whole Beijing's efforts won for it much good will.
One country that was disturbed by Beijing's growing influence on the continent was the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. Snow, who dislikes the Nationalist regime for its failure "to free China from the subtler grip of Western finance and Western culture," parodies the ROC's diplomatic efforts to counter the PRC's African campaign. "Sympathetic African leaders were invited to Taiwan…[and warned by Chiang Kai-shek] that they should never let Communists get a foothold in their countries." Snow writes, "Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the president of the Ivory Coast, who came out emphatically for Taiwan, was hailed as the " 'leader of the leaders.'" Snow does not deem it worthy of mention that the Ivory Coast is the only African country outside of South Africa that can be judged an economic success, so unhappy is he with that country for continuing to fraternize with Western surrogates.
Snow's real bête noire is the West, whose continued economic success and political influence he resents. Africa "has not been able to free itself from Western influence," he complains. "Most of Africa's states continue to be economically feeble and sustained by constant transfusions of European and American aid. Some of its most anti-Western governments have felt obliged to drop their rhetoric and follow the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund.…Various non-Western peoples are likely…to question the disproportionate share of the world's decision-making power and resources which we…continue to enjoy." Elsewhere he goes even further, speaking in terms of the Third World "destroying our supremacy" and predicting the day when South Africa is "a black-ruled state, rich, powerful and equipped with the nuclear arsenal which the defeated white minority will probably leave behind."
Snow, in short, simply weeps liberal guilt over the long dominance of the West in the rest of the world. He welcomes Europe's (and America's) decline as a necessary atonement for sins of colonialism, imperialism, and wealth.
In fact, however, Europeans did much good in Africa during the age of imperialism when the continent was under their colonial rule. In the words of John K. Fairbank, a Harvard professor and self-described liberal: "The first corrective that comes out of recent scholarship is a reappraisal of imperialism. Hobson, Lenin, and others at the turn of the century were in the thrall of materialistic interpretations of history served by the new science of economics.…More subtle effects, like modernization, technology transfer, the buildup of infrastructure and the spirit of nationalism were not of equal concern. In fact the record is now seen as very mixed. Imperialism might be truly exploitive in some circumstances but in others more like a crude form of development. Sometimes it was even materially good for you."
The impression one gets from reading Star Raft is that Snow would like Africa (and China) to eschew everything Western, a category that to him includes such things as "Western" financial systems, "Western" capitalism, and "Western" democracy. Compound interest, the rule of law, and the law of supply and demand are Western discoveries, to be sure, but they are not any more culture-bound than Newtonian physics is. By stigmatizing as "Western" the innovations that make possible economic development and human freedom, Snow denigrates some of the finest achievements of the human mind, achievements that even the Chinese Communist Party is now beginning to recognize and adopt as its own.
Snow mostly overlooks the ironies that riddle China's involvement with Africa. It is ironic, for example, that to the extent that African nations adopted China's earlier brand of radically isolationist communism, they postponed their real day of political and economic independence. It is an even crueler joke of history that, in the backwaters of Africa, Maoist ideas that have been abandoned in China still hold sway. While China opens its doors to Kentucky Fried Chicken and students on Chinese campuses agitate for Western-style freedoms, the Pan-African Congress still confuses communism and nationalism, and FRELIMO still governs Mozambique with an iron hand. Such is China's legacy in Africa, and it is not one of which to be proud.
Steven W. Mosher, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Insitute in Southern California, is currently a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Africa's Chinese Tragedy".