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[Migration] The ‘One million Chinese in Africa’ / ‘300k Africans in China’ narratives

More often than not, African presence in China is seen/understood through a ‘Western’ lens. This lens tends to reflect EuroAmerican anxieties/perspectives around migration upon diasporic Africans in Asia. It sometimes feels as if there was only one (Eurocentric!) way of making sense of people on the move (migrants!). To problematise these Eurocentric narratives of migration has been a major task/target of my research and one of the main aims of this blog. Simplistic/reductionist narratives about Africans in China have their flipside story in how Chinese migrants in Africa are represented by media and some scholars. Below, you’ll find an important critical reflection of how ‘Western’ media/scholars often misrepresent Chinese presence in the continent by elaborating simplistic arguments about ‘neo-colonialism’, and by conflating individual Chinese entrepreneurialism with the ‘Chinese government’ attempt to build an Empire in Africa. In fact, much of what is out there (in media) about Chinese in Africa rearticulates (often regurgitates) the old ‘China threat’ and ‘Yellow peril’ tropes.

‘One Million Chinese in Africa’, by Yoon Jung Park

In fact, much of the literature on China in Africa, including work on Chinese migrants, invokes the specter of colonialism or imperialism in some “neo” form. One of the recent and highly publicized books on Chinese in Africa goes as far as to call Africa “China’s Second Continent”, the subtitle making reference to a million migrants building a new empire in Africa (French 2015). These arguments reflect a mostly Western tendency to both target (and often demonize) China and to evaluate China’s activities on the continent as a reflection of the West’s own not-so-distant histories of colonialism in Africa. The current crisis with the Islamic State and other militant Islamic groups aside, China seems to have become the primary worry of the West in large part because of perceptions that China threatens to disrupt the global power balance and the reality that China has already unseated Western states as Africa’s most valuable international partner in trade and investment. Examining the thousands of Chinese people in Africa with this sort of colonial lens is misleading and obfuscates the facts surrounding these phenomena.

It is important to place the million in context. The population of Africa is around 1.1 billion. The number of internally displaced Africans within Africa was approximately 12.5 million at the end of 2013, while the number of internal migrants in China is around 260 million, and the number of Chinese living overseas globally is likely over 35 million. There are much higher numbers of Chinese in other countries, including the US. An interactive map created by the Migration Policy Institute shows that both the raw and relative numbers of Chinese to other countries are much higher than those to Africa. So why all the fuss?

While few would see the vast numbers of Chinese migrants to the US as agents of the Chinese state, this is exactly how Chinese migrants to Africa are often framed. Concerns about China’s growing global economic influence and their increased engagement in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South no doubt plays a role in the perception of Chinese migrants on the African continent. However, research on Chinese migrants reveals that relations between these migrants and the official representatives of the Chinese state – the Chinese consulates and embassies – in Africa are strained at best. The author’s interviews with Chinese ambassadors and other Chinese diplomatic staff over the past decade or so indicate that they are, for the most part, embarrassed by the many Chinese migrants in Africa whom they see as low class and uneducated. The myriad problems they must deal with, from crime and corruption (where Chinese migrants are often both victims and perpetrators) including issues related to irregular migration status, trafficking, labor, trade and tariffs, and the environment are viewed with frustration and shame. In a 2008 interview conducted by the author, one Chinese ambassador to a southern African country confided: “They are my biggest headache”. In short, there is no love lost between Chinese migrants and their official counterparts in Africa, and Chinese migrants in Africa can hardly be seen as state agents… [KEEP READING HERE]


Yoon Jung Park is a freelance researcher, convener of the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network, and adjunct professor of African Studies at Georgetown University. She has also held positions at Howard University, University of Johannesburg, Rhodes University, and the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research interests include Chinese migration/migrants in Africa; migration, race/ethnicity, and identity; and racism and xenophobia. She is author of “A Matter of Honour. Being Chinese in South Africa” and dozens of articles and reports on Chinese people – both migrants and citizens – in Africa. She is currently working on a book on Chinese migrants in Africa.

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