As China Cracks Down On Organized Crime, Prostitutes Migrate To Africa

Written by Dana Sanchez

Sub-Saharan Africa has become a destination for Chinese sex workers as China cracks down on organized crime and African purchasing power grows, according to a new Princeton University study of migration trends, Quartz reported.

Basile Ndjio, an anthropology professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon, may be the only academic studying the phenomenon.

He’s on a research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, tracking migration trends of prostitutes from China in countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana.

In an upcoming paper for the academic journal Urban Studies, Ndjio describes Africa as the “new El Dorado for the prostitution business” and claims that there is an estimated 13,500 to 18,500 Chinese sex workers on the continent, according to Quartz.

It’s uncertain whether Chinese sex labor migration to Africa is forced or voluntary.

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, 2013 marked a turning point in Cbina’s battle against criminal networks, Forbes reported. The central government sees organized crime as a national security threat, said Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

China has as many as 10 million sex workers working in massage parlors, bathhouses and karaoke bars, according to Quartz.

“Throughout 2014, anti-crime campaigns were very prominent ranging from anti-drugs, anti-prostitution to anti-triads and anti-terrorism,” Lo told Forbes. “Xi is very keen to mop up everything in China.”

A major problem in Beijing’s fight against organized crime is the difficultly to control it at local and provincial levels.

The influx of Chinese prostitutes is a continent-wide phenomenon, Ndjio said, according to Quartz.

China has significant or increasing human trafficking volumes, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report 2015.

Ndjio’s research in Cameroon found that most Chinese sex workers are rural women that move abroad to work as waitresses and secretaries, only to be trafficked on their arrival by pimps demanding sex work to repay plane tickets and visas.

In Kampala, locals point to Chinese brothels and massage parlors popping up across the city.

Ndjio told Quartz he became aware of the phenomenon of prostitutes migrating from China to Africa while working as a casino dealer to put himself through school in Cameroon. Dealing blackjack and poker to Chinese expats, he was able to penetrate the cliquish, guarded world of Chinese living in Africa and go behind the curtain. He learned that “Shanghai beauties” – as they are known in Cameroon – congregated in the back rooms of Chinese hotels, restaurants and lounges.

Ndjio has authored two of the only studies on Chinese sex migration to Africa, according to Quartz. You can check them out here.

ChartBin lists the legal status of prostitution by country. Prostitution is legal in 77 countries globally and illegal in 109, with five countries having no laws for prostitution, according to Chartbin.

In Africa, prostitution is legal in eight countries including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Mali, Namibia, Senegal and Zambia. It’s illegal but tolerated or rarely enforced in DRC, Malawi and Tunisia.

Chinese prostitutes first arrived in sub-Saharan Africa during the Cold War period (1947 to 1991), according to Ndjio. They served migrant workers almost exclusively who were working on China-funded construction projects.

The current phase starting in the early 2000s saw migrant sex workers arriving with the influx of cheap Chinese goods and services into Africa. Their service began to extend to locals.

In Cameroon, Chinese prostitutes compete with local women, Quartz reported.

Just as Zambian chicken farmers and clothing retailers in Lesotho resent the 1 million Chinese who have relocated to Africa since 2001, Nadjio says, so too do local prostitutes balk at Chinese women selling sexual exoticism at cut rates.


In several highly publicized cases, Chinese sex workers refused to be rescued from prostitution, choosing instead to stay in Africa, according to some accounts. Some sex workers moved to wealthier countries such as Nigeria and Ghana to earn more.

In China’s first operation to rescue women trafficked to Africa, Chinese police flew to DRC where they found 11 Chinese women who had been promised decent jobs in Paris by traffickers. The women ended up working in a Chinese-owned karaoke bar in Kinshasa, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, TimesLive reported in 2011.

After a joint raid by Chinese and Congolese police, the women decided to stay in the country, saying the money was better than in China.