Changing Trends In Chinese Immigrating To Africa For Business Opportunities

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Written by Dana Sanchez

China has for decades sent migrant workers to Africa on government-sponsored projects. Most returned home when the contract was up. These days, Chinese arrivals mostly enter Africa as private citizens pursuing private business ventures, China.org reported.

They’re gradually replacing Lebanese and Indian merchant migrants of previous generations, and as economic growth slows across the continent and back home in China, Chinese migrants face new challenges.

Chinese merchant migrants in Africa have an advantage over their predecessors, according to China.org. Mostly from rural areas, they are highly adaptable in Africa, able to live and do business in inhospitable conditions:

Paradoxically, this is also their greatest disadvantage. Being able to adapt, merchant migrants frequently find themselves clashing with local merchants who often cannot compete with the “China shops” with direct access to Chinese manufacturers. This has led to increased anti-Chinese sentiments, even violent crimes against them.

As more Chinese merchant migrants succeed, some have also become very adept in exploiting the high levels of corruption that are all too common in African countries.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, some Chinese merchant migrants have been accused of maintaining poor and unsafe labor standards, environmental vandalism, dispossessing powerless landholders and flouting local laws through bribes to local officials. This has led to significant backlash against them.

There are no reliable estimates on the number of Chinese migrants in Africa, according to China File. Experts believe the population is somewhere between 1 million and 2 million people.

To the ordinary African, China is an enigma, said Sam Blay, a member of the South China International Economic Arbitration and Trade and an Australian law academic at the Sydney City School of Law.

Africans find it hard to understand what the Chinese migrants want, Blay said in a China.org report:

Most Africans do not associate China with the significant loans and impressive infrastructure aid programs. They associate China with the merchant migrants who live and trade in their communities. Hence, Chinese merchant migrants have unwittingly become unofficial ambassadors for China in Africa, and they have an excellent potential to enhance Sino-African relations.

However, the reality of international “human relations” is that people’s perceptions of foreign countries very often reflects dealings with their nationals, unrelated to official programs. The result is that in the case of Africa, tensions between Chinese merchant migrants and local communities have the potential to overshadow the positive impact of Chinese official programs.

The earliest confirmed Chinese migrants to Africa arrived with the Dutch East
India Company to South Africa. Small numbers of convicts and
company slaves arrived in the mid- to late-17th century, according to The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

These days, most Chinese migrants don’t enter established wage labor markets in existing communities. Instead they set up their own business, mostly retail or wholesale Chinese goods, Chinese restaurants and Chinese traditional medicine clinics.

Late Zambian President Michael Sata was an outspoken critic of China and the Chinese migrants to his country, China File reported. He accused the Chinese of paying slave wages at Chinese-owned mines prior to his 2011 election, and suggested China wanted to conquer Africa. “The Chinese are not here as investors, they are here as invaders,” he famously said.

As president, Sata’s views evolved towards China and he became one of its more enthusiastic African partners. Still, Zambia has maintained a reputation as a focal point of Sinophobia in Africa.

In 2013, Ghana expelled 4,500 Chinese for illegal mining, China.org reported. More recently there were protests against Chinese businesses in Malawi, Namibia, Senegal and Tanzania.

New Chinatowns in Africa’s major urban centers are one result of the massive influx of Chinese migrants, African Exponent reported. Cities like Nairobi and Lagos have specific neighborhoods with Chinese business clusters anchored by offices for China-owned construction firms, small import-export firms, and supporting businesses ranging from hotels and restaurants that provide tastes from China to markets for displaying products:

In many ways, these emerging Chinatowns in Africa reflect a global trend of Chinese communities’ strict focus on commercial success in host countries. But while they add to economic vitality of their respective locales, Chinatowns also become a source of social isolation for their overwhelmingly foreign residents.

One example of a new African Chinatown is Cyrildene Chinatown, a quiet middle-class suburb of Johannesburg that was once predominantly Jewish. Its Chinatown is a one-street commercial zone, only emerging in the last few years. It quickly displaced a century-old downtown Chinatown to become the most concentrated area of Chinese in Southern Africa, according to Xiaochen Su, a Chinese-American political economist.

Few of the businesses have proper English signs and few people understand English or any other local language, Xiaochen said in a guest column in African Exponent. They are not in any hurry to make the place more accommodating, he added:

Socially and culturally, the Chinese there remain perceived as foreign, and at times hostile given their economic success not enjoyed by locals.

Mysteriousness of the economically successful Chinese fuels African political leaders’ anti-Chinese sensationalism. Fearing populist retribution, the Chinese understandably put a massive distance between themselves and Africans.