Much of the literature on China in Africa, including work on Chinese migrants, invokes the specter of colonialism or imperialism in some “neo” form. One of the recent and highly publicized books on Chinese in Africa goes as far as to call Africa “China’s Second Continent”, the subtitle making reference to a million migrants building a new empire in Africa (French 2015). These arguments reflect a mostly Western tendency to both target (and often demonize) China and to evaluate China’s activities on the continent as a reflection of the West’s own not-so-distant histories of colonialism in Africa. The current crisis with the Islamic State and other militant Islamic groups aside, China seems to have become the primary worry of the West in large part because of perceptions that China threatens to disrupt the global power balance and the reality that China has already unseated Western states as Africa’s most valuable international partner in trade and investment. Examining the thousands of Chinese people in Africa with this sort of colonial lens is misleading and obfuscates the facts surrounding these phenomena.
It is important to place the million in context. The population of Africa is around 1.1 billion. The number of internally displaced Africans within Africa was approximately 12.5 million at the end of 2013, while the number of internal migrants in China is around 260 million, and the number of Chinese living overseas globally is likely over 35 million. There are much higher numbers of Chinese in other countries, including the US. An interactive map created by the Migration Policy Institute shows that both the raw and relative numbers of Chinese to other countries are much higher than those to Africa. So why all the fuss?
While few would see the vast numbers of Chinese migrants to the US as agents of the Chinese state, this is exactly how Chinese migrants to Africa are often framed. Concerns about China’s growing global economic influence and their increased engagement in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South no doubt plays a role in the perception of Chinese migrants on the African continent. However, research on Chinese migrants reveals that relations between these migrants and the official representatives of the Chinese state – the Chinese consulates and embassies – in Africa are strained at best. The author’s interviews with Chinese ambassadors and other Chinese diplomatic staff over the past decade or so indicate that they are, for the most part, embarrassed by the many Chinese migrants in Africa whom they see as low class and uneducated. The myriad problems they must deal with, from crime and corruption (where Chinese migrants are often both victims and perpetrators) including issues related to irregular migration status, trafficking, labor, trade and tariffs, and the environment are viewed with frustration and shame. In a 2008 interview conducted by the author, one Chinese ambassador to a southern African country confided, “They are my biggest headache.” In short, there is no love lost between Chinese migrants and their official counterparts in Africa, and Chinese migrants in Africa can hardly be seen as state agents.
It is true that of the million or so Chinese in Africa, perhaps as many as one-third or more, of them are temporary labor migrants, working for and sponsored by Chinese (and in some cases, African) companies on fixed-term contracts of usually 1-3 years. In some countries, these form the vast majority of all Chinese migration; Postel, for example, found that 95% of all Chinese entering Zambia in 2012 fell into this category (Postel 2015). Labor migrants form a very specific category of migrant and they create a very specific set of issues for China-Africa relations.
Most Chinese labor contractors are employed by Chinese state-owned companies in construction and resource extraction projects; many of these projects are made possible by Chinese loans made to African countries. While an increasing number of studies has shown that there is a great deal of localization of labor on Chinese projects (Corkin and Burke 2006, Sautman and Yan 2015), the very idea of Chinese workers taking jobs from African workers in the context of high unemployment is troubling. Widely circulated images of Chinese workers pushing wheelbarrows on construction projects raises eyebrows and African labor unions have raised concerns about the numbers of low-skilled Chinese workers in Africa as well as the poor labor conditions for African workers on Chinese projects (Baah and Jauch 2009). While the figures vary from country to country, a proportion of Chinese temporary labor migrants are more skilled, and include managers, semi-skilled supervisors, Chinese “chefs”, and translators; in US terms they would probably be referred to as “expatriates” (Postel 2015). A small number of them sometimes decide to stay on in their African host country becoming independent migrants and often starting their own small businesses, typically in retail or light manufacturing (Chatelard 2011); they move from temporary labor migrant into the second category of economic migrants.
This second group of Chinese migrants in Africa, probably between one-half to two-thirds of the million, is comprised of independent and typically unskilled migrants. The most distinctive feature of this group is their diversity. While the vast majority of all late 19th and 20th century Chinese migrants to the Western countries were from one of three coastal provinces (Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Fujian), today’s Chinese migrants to the world are from all over China (Huynh et. al. 2010). There are specific trajectories from locations in China to specific African countries; for example, southern Africa seems to draw most of its Chinese migrants from one province: Fujian. McNamee and his colleagues found that nearly half of the Chinese traders in South Africa and almost three quarters of the Chinese in Lesotho were from Fujian (McNamee et. a.l 2012/2013). However, the same study also indicates that Chinese traders in southern Africa had their origins in nineteen different provinces of China (Ibid.). Chinese migrants to Africa include both educated and uneducated (although the majority would probably be classified as unskilled), professionals and peasants, as well as both rural and urban; and while men still make up the majority of the migrants, increasing numbers of single women and families can also be found in some countries.
Reception of these migrants varies from place to place, depending on local conditions, including political climate, economic health of a region, and social dynamics. For example, my research in southern Africa indicates that while Chinese in South Africa face crime and corruption, for the most part they seem to have little trouble being absorbed into the dynamic economic activities of the cities or establishing niche economic activities in small towns and rural areas. That South Africa is one of the only African countries with a small community of ethnic Chinese – 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Chinese South Africans – certainly contributes to greater general acceptance of Chinese migrants in the country. In Lesotho, on the other hand, the increasing numbers of Chinese engaged in retail trading activities – where they make up the vast majority of foreigners in a country with no history of in-migration and a struggling economy – have on several occasions faced violence and xenophobia (Park 2013). Given that there are now Chinese migrants in nearly all of Africa’s 54 nations it is not possible to generalize about migrant reception across the continent.
Despite growing anti-immigration movements in most Western countries, most of the migration literature is fairly clear that historically migration was a principal factor in economic and social development and that new migration is essential for rapid and sustained growth. In most countries, migrants contribute to local economies, add jobs, and expand the tax base. While is it still too early to measure economic impacts, Chinese migrants in Africa have undoubtedly created jobs, transferred skills, and modeled different ways of doing business. Most of these are on a small and local scale and sometimes come with their own set of problems; for example, in South Africa, many Chinese migrants prefer to hire other (African) migrants rather than South Africans (Park and Rugunanan 2009). Often, these small-scale job creation efforts are missed. But with thousands and thousands of small shops throughout the continent as well as hundreds of small and medium-sized factories, each creating a few jobs, these impacts are being felt by local communities. Beyond job creation, the local availability of inexpensive consumer goods has meant that street hawkers and small vendors selling on street corners can afford to purchase these items to sell to end consumers; as much of this falls under informal economic activity, these impacts are also often missed.
A million Chinese in Africa, spread across 54 countries, working as temporary labor migrants or simply seeking better economic opportunities and exploring their options (just like those Chinese migrants in the US, Australia, or anywhere else in world) are undoubtedly starting to make their presence felt. These economic impacts have yet to be fully measured in part because of the relative newness of the phenomenon and in part because much of their influences are on informal sectors – from their sales to street hawkers to their employment of other (possibly illegal) migrants. Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly multiplier effects of these thousands and thousands of Chinese migrant traders and their social and economic activities in Africa. While announcements of large Chinese state loans, state-led investments, SOE activities, and official trade often claim the headlines pertaining to the “China-in-Africa” story, there are numerous smaller stories and engagement at grassroots level that are no less relevant. I would go so far as to argue that these face-to-face encounters will ultimately have longer-lasting impacts on African societies.
Finally, rather than viewing these migrants and their activities with a “neo-colonial” framing or in stark, dichotomous black/white, good/bad terms, examining them as a small part of contemporary Chinese global migration and linking them to the rapid changes and developments (and mobility) in China and to their specific receiving countries provides more useful (and less value-laden) context to help us better understand the “million Chinese in Africa”, their reception, and their preliminary impacts on the continent.