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What We’re Reading: March 6, 2018

  • Last updated: March 6
  • Total word count: 1072 words

Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa 

By Howard W. French

Many observers have noted China’s growing presence in Africa. Ascertaining the true extent of that presence, however, is somewhat more complicated. I picked up this book with the hope of getting a solid grounding that would clear the way for more in-depth reading on this topic. While the book contains useful information, it fell somewhat short in providing the contextual foundation that I was looking for.

To be fair, Howard W. French is both knowledgeable and experienced on the subject. He lived in Africa for a number of years while writing for The Washington Post and The New York Times, and he was a war correspondent in Liberia in the 1990s during its devastating civil war. His approach in “China’s Second Continent” was to travel to a number of countries where China has a presence – usually including but not limited to infrastructure investment – and to witness the scale of the projects while conducting a number interviews with both locals and Chinese immigrants.

Such anecdotal evidence is, without a doubt, useful: There is something that a frank discussion with a Zambian laborer at a Chinese business can capture that no statistic can. The book’s weakness, however, is that it relies almost entirely on these personal anecdotes to tell the story, rather than stepping back and setting the stage so the reader understands the broader context in which these experiences are occurring. As a result, the book reads more like a collection of short travel stories than a true study of China’s involvement on the continent.

While each chapter focuses on French’s experiences in a different country, the story he tells about each becomes somewhat repetitive by the end of the book. Some locals are wary of Chinese involvement; others think the capital being brought in is better than the alternative. Some Africans see China’s involvement as neocolonial, extracting as many resources as possible while the going is good; others recognize the failure of African countries to negotiate a better deal for their citizens. Chinese immigrants are sometimes portrayed as exploiting black labor and uncaring about their adopted country, but at other times as simply business-driven and focused on finding economic opportunity in a new land.

While French’s book fails to sketch a comprehensive picture of this topic, it is not without value. One theme that comes up repeatedly in his conversations with Chinese immigrants is how politically free they consider Africa to be compared with China. Many recount what they considered an oppressive business climate that is inexorably intertwined with a corrupt political system. Some are former small-business owners who found it increasingly difficult to do business in such an environment and saw no future for themselves at home. Of course, this isn’t exactly unique to modern-day Chinese expats – immigrants throughout history have been driven from their homelands for similar reasons. But there is insight to be gained from conversations with Chinese nationals who feel at least somewhat more at liberty to discuss what they consider to be the shortcomings of their government and political system, acknowledging that when they are at home, such conversations would be dangerous.

Xander Snyder, analyst


Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World 

By Kwasi Kwarteng

I was interested in reading this book because of the United Kingdom’s growing interest in the world outside the European Union following Brexit. While the book is not about U.K. relations with all its former colonies, nor relations with the most important former British colonies, it teaches a lot about imperial governance and foreign policy.

Kwasi Kwarteng is a native of Ghana and a Conservative member of Parliament. (It’s helpful to be aware of the author’s background, considering his nuanced comments on the war in Iraq and the last British administration in Hong Kong.) The book focuses on six case studies in the history of the British empire: Iraq, Kashmir, Burma (now Myanmar), Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong. Kwarteng analyzes the way London established control over these places and the way Britain exited each territory. He looks at existing British influence and the consequences of the imperial exit.

The author examines how an empire can fall, underscoring the significance of artificial boundaries that tied together tribes that usually had little in common. While under British authority, these places were peaceful, but once the empire left, ethnic and religious conflict erupted as a natural consequence of the differences between the people in the new states and their lack of knowledge about how to govern themselves.

Regarding governance, Kwarteng calls British representatives in the provinces “the most idealistic group of administrators in the history of mankind.” He comments on the way the British empire established, for the first time in those provinces, the framework for the application of the rule of law and created the roots of governance. Abstractively, the process involved the implementation of British foreign policy through local politicians and, ultimately, through the personal power of the administrator.

Since Kwarteng writes only of the “odd territories” and doesn’t touch the “white dominions” of the empire – those in the Americas and Australia – he discusses the political and policy deficiencies in each case. Each province had different cultural values and a different geography, which meant the British empire developed a unique approach toward each territory it controlled rather than one coherent policy.

The “Ghosts of Empire” focuses on details – those in the act of governance, but also details of the way foreign policy is conducted, based on Britain’s specific interests at the time. The U.K., for centuries the pre-eminent superpower, often failed to exit these areas in a way that ensured they remained under the influence of London and, more important, peaceful. This book doesn’t talk about the impact on the U.K. of the world it once ruled; rather it reviews the British impact on the world. From a geopolitical perspective, it talks about how a superpower influences, over the long term, the fate of the global system – even when it made mistakes along the way.

Antonia Colibasanu, senior analyst