Giving a voice to China’s least known migrants in Africa

26 April 2012

There are an estimated one million Chinese citizens in Africa. While most attention is focused on those working on large-scale infrastructure and mining projects, there are large numbers of Chinese migrants spread across the continent making a living as traders in rural areas and urban marketplaces. They forged their own pathways in Africa and seem entirely divorced from the policies normally associated with China’s African interests. Yet the experiences of these traders could weigh heavily on the future of Chinese–African relations.

A new report by the South African Brenthurst Foundation, gives a voice to this least known and often misunderstood group of Chinese migrants and seeks to breakdown the monolithic picture of “China in Africa” that is all too often presented in the international media.

Africa in their words - A Study of Chinese Traders in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Angola shows that while there are distinct differences in the experiences, aspirations and perceptions of Chinese shop owners and traders in these five countries, there are some striking commonalities too. The majority of nearly 200 traders interviewed were poor, relatively unskilled migrants with a fierce determination to make a living even in the toughest environments. They succeeded in business by providing poor Africans with previously unobtainable retail goods at affordable prices but they remained socially isolated, making little effort to integrate into the local community. The vast majority of traders planned to return to China at some point or use Africa as a stepping stone to another country. Very few migrants saw Africa as home.

The report warns that:

Almost without exception, Chinese traders seal themselves in cocoons, completely cut off from local communities. Their experience suggests that, at least for now, it is pointless to even speculate on the prospects for deeper integration of Chinese migrants into African society. In some countries, just halting the rise of mutual suspicion and tension could prove a colossal task.

In many ways, the Chinese traders in Africa are from a similar social and economic background to the migrant workers employed in the construction sites, factories and farms of Japan and Singapore, as detailed in CLB’s own research reports on these countries. They all believed they could make a better living abroad than at home and were willing to work long hours and endure considerable hardship in order to achieve their goals. One thing they did not expect but which is a common complaint of all three groups however is the complete lack of support and assistance from Chinese embassy and consular officials in those countries when things go wrong. The Chinese government made a big show of concern when several Chinese workers were kidnapped in Sudan recently but generally the attitude of Chinese missions abroad is that migrants are on their own. As more and more Chinese workers seek employment and business opportunities abroad however, this is a stance that clearly will have to change.

Africa in their words - A Study of Chinese Traders in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Angola is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Terence McNamee.

The Brenthurst Foundation was established in 2004 with the aim of strengthening Africa’s economic growth and development by creating new initiatives and stimulating debate and discussion among academics and policy makers on the key issues affecting the African continent.

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