Why Africa needs to bash Chinese migrants less - you wouldn't think it but we're more alike than we know

There is an invasion of the continent, the story goes. Yet in just 10 years, some 200,000 Africans migrated to a single Chinese city.

CHINESE missionaries in South Africa are stepping in to help Chinese migrants who, because of language barriers, cultural differences and high crime rates in the local society, have been living in isolation. 

This tendency to cluster together has however been one of the factors responsible for the growing negative perception of Chinese individuals in Africa. From conservationists who issue blanket statements blaming every single Chinese migrant for the loss of wildlife, to business owners who bemoan the loss of trade, to those who are inundated with the fear of a Chinese “invasion”, the Chinese are singled out for everything that goes wrong. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise in many African countries, and in some places, has often spiralled out of control with attacks on Chinese-owned businesses and individuals. But a paper by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIA) on Chinese migration in Africa recently brought these issues to the fore, challenging the root of this xenophobia with solid arguments that also revealed striking cultural and political similarities between the Chinese and Africans. 

The numbers

For some, the anti-Chinese sentiment is driven by the idea of a foreign community taking over the continent in sheer numbers. But even those numbers are themselves hard to determine; SAIA’s report placed the total number of Chinese in Africa at between 580,000 to over 800,000, but that was in 2009. An estimate by journalist and author Howard French in his book China’s Second Continent, advanced the figure of those that have moved to Africa in the last two decades to over a million.

But even with this higher estimate, consider that in another part of the world, between 1990 and 2013, some 2.2 million Chinese migrants moved to a single country—the United States. Additionally, in 2009 France had 400,000 Chinese, Japan 600,000 and there were approximately 900,000 Chinese living in Canada. Suddenly, the notion that Africa is a target being flooded with Chinese nationals does not seem too dramatic. 

Additionally, when dealing with their numbers, the report also highlighted that some local African media companies would inflate the figures for a more dramatic effect, for example in both Namibia and Zambia the local press reported upwards of 40,000 Chinese in each of those countries, when the real numbers range from 4,000 to 6,000. 

The numbers of Chinese in an area may also seem hyperbolised because of an inability to distinguish a Chinese national from other East Asians. (Yet even Africans have trouble picking each other out in a crowd, as this story shows). 

So while some may be concerned at the high numbers of the Chinese in Africa, the broader migration picture needs to be kept in mind, particularly when contemplating the fact that while there are approximately 200,000 - 400,000 Chinese living in South Africa (the African country with by far the largest Chinese population), in just 10 years some 200,000 Africans migrated to a single Chinese city - Guangzhou. 

The loss of business

For those whose anti-Chinese sentiment is driven by perceived loss of business, many Chinese migrants come to Africa to earn a living—but many also return. A huge proportion of Chinese migrants are in fact temporary labour, most of these migrants stay for the duration of their contracts (typically one to three years) and then make their way back.

These migrants are the individuals who rouse anger towards Chinese firms who plump for them, along with or rather than, local labour - on a continent that already has high unemployment rates. The firms justify these practices with productivity arguments - that it would be virtually impossible to work effectively with locals within tight time constraints considering the vast language and cultural barriers. 

However, the Chinese are not the only foreigners working under wage contracts - and those who do are paid much less and live more frugally than Western expats doing comparable work. 

In 1992, Africa employed 100,000 developed country expats at a cost of $4 billion per year, about $40,000 per individual or nearly $800 per week. Even currently, Chinese wages are not nearly as high. Chinese employees (including managers, engineers, and skilled craftsmen) of one construction firm in Angola for example receive $500 a month, live two to three to a room, and cook for themselves.

Copy cat

For those migrants that stay, it is true that when more businesses open up, there is competition and a potential loss of trade. It is also true of the case of any people opening a business, yet for the Chinese the perception of them is often through a “predatory” lens: that they are looking to exploit the local situation.

Some further observations are made, and questioned, of the Chinese presence in Africa. 

First, it is fact that Chinese-made “African” products are swamping markets, but many local groups have domestically exploited and engaged in copying each other’s artefacts for decades. For example in Kenya, you will often find that the vendors of “Maasai” products at local tourism markets and fairs are not the famed Maasai in any shape or form, despite sometimes donning Maasai dress. 

When it comes to “stealing” or competing for markets, political scientist Barry Sautman noted that worldwide, Chinese exports compete with African exports almost solely in textiles and clothing and China, in fact the Asian country supplies African firms with most of the cloth they need to compete in their main market, the United States. 

For the individual, an interesting observation by SAIA is that migrants concerned often do not enter the established wage labour market, but set up their own business, most commonly retail or wholesale of Chinese goods, Chinese food or Chinese traditional medicine. This partly explains the proliferation of China towns across the world. 

While the Chinese wholesale centres, through household goods brought to Africa by Chinese, and Africans, do inhibit light industry and may harm the poor as potential producers, they also do have some benefits. 

In Johannesburg, the wholesale centres have provided local and regional consumers which have created a lot of employment. They also provide affordable goods which the SAIA stated was a contributing factor to a “very favourable perception of China, simply because they can now buy a broader range of affordable consumer goods.” 

This is with the exception of the Copperbelt, where the Chinese have a particularly bad and largely deserved, many argue, reputation associated with the working conditions at the Chinese-operated mine. But for perspective, analysts say this is the action of a few individuals and not the entire Chinese migrant community.

Western discourse

Western discourse, media and sometimes African governments themselves have all had a role to play in the perpetuating of anti-Chinese sentiment that has proliferated in Africa. 

Western sentiment has played on the perception that China’s relationship with the continent proliferates corruption, supports illiberal regimes and exploitative practices, but it also neglects to mention its own policies and agreements which demonstrate the West’s support of authoritarianism, the perpetuation of poverty through liberal trade agreements and the negative effects of the structural adjustment programmes. 

Yet these perceptions of China have stuck, and now trickle down to influence local perceptions of the Chinese individual. This type of hostility is little else but racism, and, should it not be nabbed in its infancy, will make the clash of cultures all the more severe. 

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