Re-reading The Star Raft

October 25, 2012

Philip Snow’s The Star Raft is not often cited in today’s China-Africa literature, but it remains the most enjoyable volume in it. Snow is an engaging narrator without being superficial; his prose is erudite and unmistakably “posh” (he is the son of a peer, after all!), yet plain. He relies on a wealth of references that are nonetheless discreetly tucked away (few academics dare write in this way any more). At the same time, he has a clear sympathy for China (a very different China than that of today) that always avoids being dogmatic or breathless in the way some commentary today is. And Snow is emphatic about his “overriding concern with human exchange” (p. xvii), as much of today’s literature is not.

I am re-reading the book for a class I am co-teaching, and am struck by the prescience of the preface, written in 1987 — except on the subject of South Africa:

…[R]ight up to the mid-1970s […] observers predicted the arrival of Chinese warships in the ports of […] the East African coast. […] Today, in the late 1980s, it is difficult to remember that the alarm was once so great. […] Europe and the United States have come to regard [China] as an amiable semi-ally in their confrontation with the Soviet camp. Africa […] has not found strength or unity, and it has not been able to free itself from Western influence. Most of its states continue to be economically feeble and sustained by constant transfusions of European and American aid. […] Neither China nor Africa seems likely, in the near future, to disturb the West’s repose.

But the quiet may be misleading. […] the process of modernization in which [China] is engaged will enable it, in the end, to assert its will far more effectively […] Africa may not always be weak. The continent may look a very different place, for example, when the apartheid regime in South Africa finally collapses and is replaced by a black-ruled state, rich, powerful and equipped with the nuclear arsenal which the defeated white minority will probably leave behind. And as African countries slowly become more stable and more prosperous, their leaders can be expected to grow increasingly impatient with the continent’s unhappy state of disunity and dependence on Western funds and advice. […]

We are going to have to accept the fact that the various non-Western peoples are likely to come together with increasing frequency: that they are likely, more and more, to question the disproportionate share of the world’s decision-making power and resources which we — and the Soviet Union — continue to enjoy. […] From this point of view we shall be well advised to follow with some interest the expansion of contacts between all parts of the Third World. Will Brazil step up its growing economic role in Africa? Will the Arab states live up to the pledges they have made to use their oil wealth to give a political lead to the poorer developing countries? […]

The Third World peoples will certainly have little hope of destroying our supremacy unless they can make a success of working together — not just as governments or companies but as individuals too.