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New York Times Shanghai Bureau Chief shares global perspective with Carleton

<e was a moment in Tuesday evening’s talk, “Africa-China Relations,” in which Howard French tried to describe his book, “A Continent for the Taking.” The words that came out – memoir, journalism, political science, travelogue – give an idea of the eclecticism of French’s interests and the span of material he covered during his visit this week to Carleton College.

French, the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, visited Carleton on Monday and Tuesday, meeting with numerous students and faculty and giving two talks. The first of these, “Disappearing Shanghai,” was a discussion of French’s photography of neighborhoods in Shanghai, while the second, “Africa-China Relations,” took a geopolitical and economic look at the relationship between Africa and China.

“We tend to think of globalization as a recent phenomenon…as if it started in the Clinton Administration,” said French in his “Disappearing Shanghai” talk, “Arriving in Shanghai changed my way of thinking of globalization.” He went on to point out the city’s history as a sort of international frontier, where Western powers raced to develop a trade presence in the 1800s, and where today traditional neighborhoods are being destroyed to make way for the development of skyscrapers as China asserts itself in the realm of international business at an unprecedented rate.

Shanghai, then, provides a perfect backdrop for French’s own global life, which has led him to journalism assignments in the Caribbean, West Africa, Japan, and China. His exhibited photography, which depicts scenes of everyday life in Shanghai’s hidden neighborhoods, touches on the underlying factor that motivates his international trekking.

“I relish more than anything else trying to understand people,” French said. To this end of, quite literally, understanding people, he has mastered seven languages. As part of this mission of communication, French’s job reporting for the New York Times takes him on assignments all across China to cover not only business and politics, but to “identify social trends and what’s driving this change.” He explained, “When we succeed, we bring China to life.”

This was certainly one of the aims of French’s talk, particularly “Africa-China Relations,” where he asked the audience to re-imagine their conception of Chinese economic development.

“The average person hears China is rising fast,” he explained. “A lot of it might be very poorly informed on a very fine level…but also take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by fifty or a hundred.” He outlined the impetus behind Chinese growth, first pointing to the massive bulk of population in a country with over one hundred million-person cities, yet also noting China’s willingness to invest in places that the United States and Europe have traditionally ignored.

French, basing himself on the speculations of author Kerry Brown, suggested that China may, as a result of its rapid growth, emerge as a tremendously dominant world power in the next twenty years, or else, ridden by flaws in its social structure, collapse. While French doubted the absolute validity of either outcome, he directed the audience’s attention to the global testing ground of China’s growth.

“I think that it is important to look at Africa because signs of Chinese domination are already emerging there,” he said. In recent years, a number of African nations have been offered business agreements with China or given aid contracts to Chinese companies. Most notably, Nigeria recently signed a $50 billion agreement allowing China access to its oil.

“Africa has been treated in a neglectful and condescending way by the West for a long time, and it was looking for new partners,” French said. “Africa is not going to wait [for China to succeed or fail].” As far as Africa’s interests are concerned, he suggested, it is more appealing to open itself to new forms of exploitation than to continue being neglected. French, though, expressed his concern with China’s involvement in Africa.

“Although I favor Chinese involvement in Africa, I also fear that [with] this approach in a place with craven corruption…certain countries may be setting themselves up for another round of disasters.” The issue, French argued, is that China’s approach to economic growth as a cure-all may not lead to sustainable development, leaving Africa stripped of resources in fifty years with no potential of further economic growth.

“We have a very strong interest, as human beings, to find ways to engage and care about this,” French said. For French, who describes himself as a human being rather than a representative of any country, this seemed natural, and the audience seemed to adopt some of his sensibilities.

As he had throughout the rest of his visit, French proved a savvy commentator and inspirational voice for the Carleton community. Earlier in the day, he provided some suggestions for those interested in pursuing something akin to his own global career, which displayed its worth in the large breadth of his talks.

“Constantly challenge your assumptions about the world,” he said, “Understand the importance of foreign languages as an indispensable entry point into other peoples’ experience. Travel widely, even outside of areas that you’re naturally inclined to, and read things from other cultures as much as possible.”

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