20 African Countries With The Most Chinese Migrants, And Why These Statistics Are Problematic

Written by Dana Sanchez

Large numbers of Chinese migrants have accompanied the growing flow of Chinese goods and money to Africa, but exactly how many people, no one knows for sure, according to Hannah Postel.

A migration researcher at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC., Postel spent a year in Zambia studying Chinese migration trends on a Fulbright research grant. She wrote about it in a Dec. 19 report for African Arguments.

“We may have been massively overestimating the number of Chinese migrants in Africa,” the report began.

Estimates range from 250,000 to 2 million Chinese migrants in Africa, “but experts agree that these approximations are anything from ‘speculative’ to ‘very problematic,'” Postel said. “While it is clear that the number of Chinese migrants in Africa has increased, especially over the last decade, all estimates are at best informed guesses.”

In many countries, even general statistics on migration are incomplete, out of date or nonexistent, according to the U.N. Many African countries lack the infrastructure to produce high quality data and Chinese consular data is also poor.

Postel compiled a database of unpublished immigration permit data, manually transcribing and analyzing details from more than 25,000 permits to better understand the make-up and number of Chinese nationals in the country.

Before her study, the number of Chinese in Zambia had been commonly accepted as 80,000. That’s what it had been pegged by late Zambian President Michael Sata during his first presidential bid in 2006. Postel said her count of the Chinese population based on her data does not even come close.

Her evidence suggests that there were likely 13,000 Chinese nationals in Zambia at the end of 2014 (with an upper bound of 23,000). “My empirical approximation is strengthened by Zambia Deputy Minister of Home Affairs’ March 2015 estimate that there were approximately 20,000 Chinese nationals resident in Zambia,” she said.

The huge discrepancy between 80,000 and 13,000, is important, Postel said. “Statistics are political. Inaccurate claims about the Chinese migrant population in Zambia have contributed to xenophobic election rhetoric and occasional outbreaks of violence.”

Inflated population estimates fuel fears, for example, that Chinese migrants are “building a new empire in Africa,” she said.

Postel is calling for other countries to strengthen their immigration data.

Some of the data below on Chinese migration dates from as far back as 1999 to 2016: 20 African Countries With The Most Chinese Migrants.