E.g., 06/15/2024
E.g., 06/15/2024
China and Africa: Stronger Economic Ties Mean More Migration

China and Africa: Stronger Economic Ties Mean More Migration

As host of this year's Summer Olympics, China and its growing influence in the world have received much media attention. China's business and trade ties to Africa are among the topics that have come under scrutiny, with some questioning whether China is monopolizing Africa's oil, gas, and mineral resources and in the process supporting governments the West has tried to isolate and "colonizing" the continent.

Since China first established diplomatic ties with some African countries nearly 50 years ago, Chinese-African trade and Chinese presence on the continent has increased exponentially.

In October 2000, the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting brought together ministers from China and 44 African countries, representatives from the African and Chinese business communities, and regional and international organizations. This meeting, according to the forum, "charted the direction for the development of a new, stable and long-term partnership."

The third ministerial meeting, in November 2006, was the largest diplomatic forum in modern Chinese history with representatives from 48 African countries. Among the goals outlined: more high-level dialogue, trade, development assistance for Africa, cultural exchanges, and tourism.

Economic cooperation is clearly working. In 2007, Chinese companies invested a total of US$1 billion in Africa, and two-way trade reached US$73.31 billion, a sevenfold increase since 2000, when the forum was established. Also in 2007, more than 234,000 Chinese traveled to African countries.

These closer ties have precipitated a new wave of migration between the two regions — from China to Africa and from Africa to China —that is only expected to grow as economic ties become stronger.

China-Africa Migration in Perspective

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the first Chinese ships sailed to Africa. Among the most famous Chinese mariners was Zheng He, who landed on the East African coast and brought back exotic goods as well as animals.

According to legend, one of two Chinese trade vessels sank near the island of Lamu. Survivors are believed to have settled in Kenya and married local Kenyan women. In 2005, Chinese experts "confirmed" a Kenyan girl's Chinese ancestry, and the Chinese government gave her a scholarship to study medicine in China.

The most well-known Chinese population in Africa is the South African Chinese who date back to the 17th century. The first wave of Chinese immigrants to South Africa was small (only 17 Chinese names were on a convict list dated the year 1724) and consisted largely of convicts and ex-convicts banished from Indonesia to South Africa under Dutch colonial rule.

The Dutch were unable to convince the Dutch East India Company to bring Chinese to South Africa in larger numbers to fill a labor shortage, so Chinese presence remained limited. Chinese convicts who did come over were considered "black" and largely treated as slaves, although some free Chinese did come of their own accord. Those who became free often returned to Asia.

The second small wave of Chinese migration to South Africa occurred when the British took over the South African colony in the early 19th century. The British imported small numbers of Chinese workers to work in public infrastructure and agriculture.

However, there is very little scholarly or empirical research on recent Chinese migration to Africa. Even less data exists on the increasing number of African migrants in China.

The BBC reports the Chinese presence in South Africa to be as large as 200,000. Some Chinese South Africans are descendents of migrant workers who arrived in the late 19th century to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg.

The majority of the current South African Chinese community immigrated from Taiwan — which maintained diplomatic relations with South Africa during apartheid — during the 1980s and 1990s. Many became entrepreneurs. In recent years there have also been increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants from mainland China.

Other long-standing Chinese populations in Africa can be found in Reunion and Madagascar, islands off the southeastern coast of Africa, and Mauritania in western Africa.

Both modern Chinese-African relations and immigration trends have their roots in Chinese international policy under former Chairman Mao Zedong. China's first official bilateral agreement with African countries took place in 1956 with Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, and Guinea, and focused primarily on trade relations.

By the 1960s, 19 African countries had official ties to Beijing. To help cement new diplomatic relations, Mao sent a number of Chinese to the continent in the 1960s, as well as 150,000 technicians between the 1950s and 1970s, to work in agriculture, technology, and infrastructure. Most returned to China after completing their contracts.

In northern Namibia, small Taiwanese businesses emerged as early as the 1970s, and Chinese textile firms were established in the Newcastle region of South Africa and Lesotho around the same time. These businesses established networks that current entrepreneurs still tap into when arriving in Africa.

Current immigration trends are linked more directly to China's liberalized migration and economic policies in the late 1970s, which permitted Chinese to leave the country and allowed for foreign investment.

Official estimates of the number of Chinese in Africa vary dramatically. Political scientist Sasha Gong reports official numbers to be only 100,000 Chinese workers in Africa — or 15 percent of the total overseas Chinese workforce. About 35 percent of those in Africa work in manufacturing and about 30 percent in construction, with the number of manufacturing jobs decreasing and construction jobs increasing over the past five years. Gong acknowledges that the official number is likely only a fraction of the whole.

An Ohio University database estimates the total number of Chinese in Africa at 137,000, the same figure Taiwan's government provided in 2001 (Taiwan's estimate in 2004 was 154,000).

Political scientist Emmanuel Ma Mung estimates the number to be between 270,000 and 520,000, with between 70,000 and 80,000 contract migrants. However, Xinhua, China's official news agency, estimates the total population to be significantly larger — as many as 750,000 Chinese working or living "for extended periods" on the continent.

In Angola, 2,500 Chinese work for Chinese companies financed by an oil-backed loan China granted to the Angolan government. University of Nairobi economist Francis M. Mwega anticipated a total of 30,000 Chinese workers for the project.

Political scientist Barry Sautman compiled press reports that estimate 1,000 to 3,000 Chinese in Cameroon, 5,000 in Lesotho, and as many as 50,000 in Nigeria (all estimates are for 2005). According to the Southern African Migration Project at Queens University, as of 2006 there were as many as 40,000 Chinese in Namibia on work visas and residence permits.

In a 2007 New York Times article, Chad Chamber of Commerce Director Renaud Dinguemnaial estimated an "influx of at least 40,000 Chinese in coming years" to Chad.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of increased migration between the two regions is the rising number of weekly flights between China and Africa. In 2007, Chinese airlines began launching one flight per week between Beijing and Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

Currently, three Chinese air companies offer routes to Africa: China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, and Hainan Airlines, which offers nonstop flights from Beijing to Cairo three times per week and a route from Beijing to Johannesburg via Guangzhou twice per week.

In July 2008, Emirates airline also began offering six flights per week to Guanghzhou, with connections in Dubai for those coming from Cape Town, Lagos, Cairo, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

Trends in Chinese Immigration to Africa

Modern Chinese immigrants to Africa can be divided into roughly four different categories: temporary labor migrants linked to Chinese development work in Africa, small-time entrepreneurs, in-transit migrants, and agricultural workers. There is also rising tourist traffic to the continent.

The largest of these four categories is undoubtedly temporary labor migration. Official Chinese government sources indicate 800 Chinese companies operating in 49 countries throughout Africa, where they work in infrastructure, public works, oil, and mining operations. These companies often rely heavily on Chinese migrant labor although they also hire Africans. Migrants generally stay for the duration of the contract and return to China.

Entrepreneurs are also a growing presence. Numerous international newspapers report Chinese setting up restaurants and selling a variety of goods, from ice cream to bicycles to clothing and electronics, in a variety of African countries. Such entrepreneurs come both directly from mainland China, as well as from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various other Chinese migrant communities — notably France, Italy, and Spain.

According to research and press reports, these entrepreneurs tend to cluster in one part of a city, catering to locals and possibly planting the seeds of future Chinatowns (which in Europe, North America, and Oceania/Asia are home to both Chinese immigrants and businesses). In Dakar, Senegal, Chinese shops line the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, and in Kampala, Uganda, a "baby Chinatown" (so named by Chinese journalism students this spring) is emerging on Williams Street.

In 2002-2003, geographers Jorgen Carling and Heidi Hauben examined Chinese entrepreneurs in Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of West Africa. The wave of Chinese entrepreneurs began in 1995, when the first Chinese shop opened.

Carling and Hauben found that newcomers often opened their own shops after working for another entrepreneur. Competition among an increasing number of Chinese shop owners, which also occurred in Eastern European countries in the 1990s, caused shop owners to drop their prices, expand their presence to other areas of the country, and, in some cases, leave for countries like Angola and Mozambique, where fewer Chinese meant less competition.

Africa is also drawing more and more workers from rural China. In a 2007 speech, Li Ruogu, the head of China's Export-Import Bank, urged poor farmers to move to Africa, promising to support migration with investment, project development, and help with the sale of products. "There's no harm in allowing [Chinese] farmers to leave the country to become farm owners [in Africa]," he observed in a BBC interview in 2007.

According to Liu Jianjun of the China-Africa Business Council, a Chinese firm that primarily seeks to identify agricultural business ventures in Africa, several thousand Chinese farmers have already taken advantage of this opportunity. His organization has helped thousands of farmers from Baoding in Hebei Province find work in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and Senegal over the past few years.

The group of migrants hardest to document are Chinese migrants in transit to other regions, often Europe or even North America. These migrants generally enter on legal tourist or business visas, then overstay.

Because of their informal status, it is very difficult to estimate the total number of in-transit migrants. Some, according to Ma Mung, are able to find work with Chinese compatriots while in Africa — becoming street vendors, delivery men, fritter-sellers, etc. — and others even eventually legally establish themselves, finding full-time work as entrepreneurs or tradesmen.

Generally speaking, Chinese migrants to Africa still come from long-standing points of origin, namely Southern provinces such as Guangdon, Fujian, and Zhejiang, according to Ma Mung. Since the 1990s, however, those from cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai have migrated, in particular entrepreneurs. The number of migrants from the Dongbei region, Lianing, and Hubei in central China has also increased.

According to Gong, (both official and unofficial) Chinese migrants use four methods to travel to Africa.

The first method is through government-to-government agreements, which send professionals and laborers for training; few migrants use this route.

The majority of temporary migrants use a second method: government-licensed private employment agencies that find and recruit workers. These agencies help workers obtain proper visas and travel documents.

Most workers hired by agencies end up working in government-run projects such as railway and highway construction, oil fields, and mines. By the end of 2005, there were 1,609 such licensed agencies throughout China, most operating out of Beijng, Sandong, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai according to Gong.

A third method comprises informal social networks, such as relatives or other personal connections, and illegal or semilegal unlicensed employment agencies. Such agencies often charge very high fees — sometimes as much as a year's earnings — and often make false promises to potential migrants about wages and benefits.

Those who cannot obtain legal means go through "snakeheads," or human smugglers. Although there is little information available on specific routes through Africa, smugglers have been known to charge as much as $25,000 per person for Chinese going to Europe and $30,000 to smuggle Chinese to the United States.

Trends in African Migration to China

Despite scarce reliable statistics on African migration to China, few doubt the trend is growing. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, J. Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there will "..certainly…[be] an increase in [African] migration in the direction of China, because China is offering opportunities to increase life chances, skills, and income."

Unlike Chinese migrants to Africa, African immigrants to China tend to be highly educated. The three main types of African migrants to China are businessmen, students, and English teachers.

Perhaps the largest group of Africans in China is businessmen. A Nigerian Embassy spokesman estimated that Nigerians possibly make up the largest group of Africans in China, with about 2,000 to 3,000 Nigerians in Guangdong in 2006. Most businessmen only stay temporarily.

Although accurate data is difficult to come by, Sautman estimates there are about 10,000 Africans — mostly businessmen — in Guangzhou alone. However, a report in the Guangzhou Daily estimates as many as 100,000 Africans in Guangzhou, a number that the newspaper reports has been increasing at an annual rate of 30 to 40 percent since 2003. One district of 10 square kilometers in Guangzhou, Hongqioa, has earned the nicknames "Chocolate City" and "Little Africa" among local Chinese, according to one Guangzhou newspaper report.

Estimates of the number of Africans living in larger cities — Beijing and Shanghai, for example — have risen from hundreds to thousands over the past 10 years, according to Sautman. Many of these businessmen are interested in buying cheap Chinese goods they can sell in African markets. Others come to China to facilitate trade in raw materials, primarily oil and minerals.

Students are another significant migrant group. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, China has provided more than 17,000 scholarships to students from 50 African countries since the 1950s. According to ministry statistics, 3,737 African students studied in China in 2006, 40 percent more than in 2005.

Despite these increases, however, African students only constitute 2.3 percent of the total student body at Chinese universities. At the 2006 Africa-China Summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised to increase the number of scholarships 20-fold, from 200 to 4,000 annually.

An increasing number of African English instructors, most of whom come from anglophone African countries such as Ghana and Kenya, teach in Chinese schools, according to Tongkeh Fowale, a consultant and teacher living in China who has published articles on African migration to China for American Chronicle.

Perhaps the smallest group of Africans is composed of entrepreneurs who work in informal markets and deal drugs. However, they frequently receive the most press coverage in local Chinese media outlets, and they are the number-one target of Chinese law enforcement, according to Fowale.

As more Africans become educated in Chinese language and culture, more are likely to migrate to China. Currently, more than 120 schools in 16 African countries offer Chinese-language courses, and six Beijing-sponsored Confucian Institutes offer Chinese language and culture courses.


As the economies of China and African countries become more integrated, the movement of students, business people, and temporary workers will grow.

However, history shows that permanent settlement brings integration challenges. For instance, Chinese in South Africa faced discriminatory laws throughout the 20th century. They did not get the right to vote until after apartheid ended in 1994.

In addition, African countries have a history of cracking down on foreigners deemed an economic threat to natives, most notably the expulsion of Asian Indians from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s and the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

African countries could also opt to limit immigration from China. Although Cape Verde was considering such a measure at the time of Carling and Hauben's paper, published in 2004, the Cape Verdean government now sees the Chinese shops as a benefit to the local economy.

With more Africans living and working in China, China most likely will have to confront integration issues. Already, as noted earlier, Africans in China receive disproportionately negative media attention.

Perhaps African and Chinese leaders could recognize such obstacles and place migration issues on the agenda of future ministerial meetings, allowing them to build on the progress they have made in other economic and social areas.


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