As Migration and Trade Increase between China and Africa, Traders at Both Ends Often Face Precarity
Strengthening economic and political ties between Africa and China have led to increased migration between the two regions. Much of this movement has been driven by China’s booming economy and escalating China-Africa trade, which reached U.S. $192 billion in 2019. Yet many of the migrant entrepreneurs and traders who contribute to these deep economic bonds live in precarious positions in Africa and China alike, under illegal status or reliant on dubious and informal networks.
While accurate data are scarce, an estimated 500,000 African migrants live in China, which is Africa’s largest trading partner. Many of them reside in the country’s South and run their own businesses. They often navigate complex, restrictive, and changing migration policies in China, some of which were designed to minimize their presence. This situation has become more pronounced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted heightened xenophobia and surveillance particularly of African traders in Guangzhou. The scarcity of immigration assistance in China has posed a challenge for Africans and other foreign-born residents looking to secure residence permits, renew visas, or amend their status in other ways. This contributes to many migrants falling out of legal status, often after overstaying their temporary visas and then having to rely on informal or illicit networks to remain in the country.
At the same time and in the other direction, the presence of Chinese traders in Africa has also been increasing, and large segments of this population similarly have been residing in legal gray areas. Estimates vary, but researchers have posited that between 1 million and 2 million people from China live across the continent. As with estimates of Africans in China, these numbers are rough and not fully reliable because of missing, incomplete, or outdated data. On the whole, Chinese migrants in Africa are growing in number and diverse in characteristics. Many work as merchants, shopkeepers, and in other retail occupations. Chinese-owned small shops that sell basic household goods, often made in China, are a common sight across much of Africa.
Chinese migration to Africa mainly flourished following Beijing’s late-1990s “go out” policy and amid the recent Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. China’s investments and infrastructure projects have contributed to increasing migration flows from China to Africa, first to bring workers for government projects and later in trade, as some Chinese workers decided to remain in Africa after their contracts finished. But corruption and the lack of clear immigration laws in many African countries contribute to a situation in which Chinese traders, workers, tourists, and others sometimes overstay their visa, secure residence permits illicitly, or in other ways circumvent immigration rules, at times with the help of African brokers and government officials.
While there are no reliable estimates on the number of migrants in either region who benefit from such informal arrangements, whether by remaining illegally or securing legal status through unofficial means, there is reason to believe the figures are significant. Regardless of the country, economic interests of both Africans and Chinese are powerful motivators to migrate.
Relying in part on interviews conducted by the author over a number of years in China, Senegal, and Namibia, this article explores how African traders in China and Chinese traders in Africa navigate visa regimes and migration rules in their respective host countries. While situations vary dramatically, economic migrants on both sides contend with ambiguous status. Given the important and growing prominence of Sino-African relations, the experiences of traders and other economic migrants in these two regions are notable and likely to continue to evolve.
Africans in China: Trapped by Changing Immigration Policies
Growing trade relations have spurred many African traders to explore Chinese markets. African traders from countries across the continent have long travelled to China to buy products to resell in their home countries. But a growing number of traders and other migrants have sought to settle in China in recent years, particularly since the early 2000s, when the number of flights between China and various African hubs increased. The presence of Africans in the country has mirrored that of all migrants in China, who have been attracted by the country’s rapid economic growth.
Traders who travel back and forth are often granted short business visas known since 2013 as M visas, which usually allow for a 30-day stay. Those looking to conduct business may also apply for and be granted temporary study or tourist visas (even though education or tourism is not the main purpose of their trip) to circumvent requirements for different types of visas. During their stay, they may buy products to resell at home, set up shipping networks, make contacts with owners of Chinese factories and wholesalers, and develop inroads with other African traders in China, among other business opportunities. Often, in interviews with the author, Africans reported overstaying their temporary visa or traveling elsewhere—including to Hong Kong, Macau, or nearby countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines that allow visa-free travel for many Africans—to renew their visa and re-enter China. Unlike study visas, tourist visas are easier to renew or obtain from these places to re-enter China.
A number of African traders have become long-term residents in China, though limited publicly available data make it difficult to determine precisely how many. They and their families often live on renewable one-year visas. Quite a few have become very wealthy. Some of these more well-established traders have developed connections with local officials and attend trade fairs, exhibitions, and other prominent business events.
Still, the condition of African traders in China highlights the difficulties of obtaining long-term visas that would provide certainty for them and their businesses. African traders interviewed by the author all had short stay permits lasting from two weeks to one year at most. Sometimes these temporary permits were renewable, but this was not always the case, even though some of the traders ran their own companies.
Changing Immigration Policies
China’s foreign-born population has grown significantly. China’s 2010 census counted nearly 594,000 foreign-born residents of all nationalities in China; this number reached nearly 846,000 in the 2020 census. The situation has tested Chinese immigration policies and the government has raised concerns about managing migration, particularly from certain groups it has deemed undesirable.
Chinese officials have generally resisted greater transparency and more open immigration policies that would allow the foreign born, including African traders, to extend their visas for longer terms. Policies have been based on the country’s 1985 immigration law, which was primarily meant to safeguard public security, social cohesion, and stability. On several occasions, aspects of the law have been adjusted to tighten entry regulations for foreign nationals travelling to China. This was the case prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when visa policies were stiffened in order to control China’s borders, better manage immigration, and stem increasing numbers of arrivals. Similar policies were applied during the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. These situations led many Africans to go back to their origin countries or remain in neighboring states until policies loosened up.
Despite these restrictions, Chinese officials have expressed concern about the growing number of foreign born living in China. Authorities often crack down on unauthorized immigrants, and tensions also exist between native and foreign-born residents.
Chinese officials have sought reforms to the system. A new migration law came into force in 2013 that built on the 1985 law’s focus on public security and social stability and underscored the distinction between immigrants and the native born. This law, called the Exit and Entry Administration Law (EEAL), targets illegal entry, residence, and employment. It is primarily meant to control immigrants’ presence in China, tighten visa and residence permit rules, impose higher fines for immigration offenses, and detain immigrants set to be deported. These changes have led to tighter controls and crackdowns of African migrants in Guangzhou.
More recently, in 2019, China issued a new migration policy intending to attract foreign talent. The law has provided easier pathways for high-skilled migrants such as academics, high-earning foreign residents, entrepreneurs, and well-educated people of Chinese ethnicity. This law has not had significant impact on the experiences of African migrants, but it is an indication of China’s interest in amending its policies to attract certain individuals.
Chinese Migrants in Senegal: Using Intermediaries to Navigate Visa Systems
Migration between Africa and China has been a two-way street. A representative case is Senegal, where the Chinese migrant population has grown markedly since the two countries renewed diplomatic ties in 2005, following the West African country’s policies switching allegiance from Taiwan to China. As of 2012, there were believed to be around 1,500 Chinese nationals in Senegal, but this number has certainly grown since then as Chinese companies have been involved in infrastructure projects, setting up shops, and other businesses.
Many Chinese newcomers arrive in the capital, Dakar, to join a relative with a pre-existing business. Before arrival, their relatives may seek assistance and pay Senegalese agents to facilitate the visa process. These intermediaries have often written letters of invitation on behalf of migrants and contacted Senegal’s Ministry of the Interior to facilitate their travel. The Interior Ministry often interviews the intermediary to learn more about their Chinese counterparts and determine whether to approve the trip on the basis of its purpose. If satisfied, the ministry issues an approval letter notifying the embassy in China to proceed with the process. Senegal’s embassy in Beijing facilitates business visas for Chinese entrepreneurs seeking long-term investment opportunities.
“All the visa process is negotiated with money between Chinese, Senegalese brokers, officials at the Ministry of Interior, and the Senegalese embassy in Beijing” one Senegalese broker told the author. Most visas allow for stays of between one and three months, the interviewee added.
Many Chinese migrants have ended up in Dakar’s Centenaire neighborhood where there are dozens—if not hundreds—of Chinese-owned shops. The earliest of these shops were established in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when many of the neighborhood’s Senegalese households faced socioeconomic difficulties. A number of Chinese shopkeepers told the author that they did not own the business at which they worked and that they came to Dakar because relatives or friends recruited them to work in the shops, arranged and paid for their trips, and provided food and accommodation on the shop premises or nearby. For those who went back, their salaries were not paid until they returned to China, guaranteeing that shop owners recouped the money they spent to bring employees from China. Very few of the workers would return to China, however. More often, they have stayed in Senegal to run other shops and restaurants later opened by relatives.
Shopkeepers and business owners said their long-term stay in Senegal was based on their opportunity to open more shops, restaurants, and other businesses, as well as their ability to stay in the country legally, which was often facilitated by Senegalese brokers or agents. Many overstayed their temporary visa and did not have legal status, making it difficult to apply for a new visa. Here again they turned to brokers to facilitate their new visa applications through the Senegalese bureaucracy, at times including by paying bribes. Many said they would consider staying, but were also open to exploring other countries where legal residence was easier to obtain or where there were more business opportunities in sectors such as hospitality, retail, and agriculture, which comprise important market shares, face low competition, and where there is demand for affordable “made in China” products. It is not uncommon for Chinese migrants to move between African countries, based in part on difficulty of obtaining visas.
Chinese in Namibia: Bribery as a Route to Circumvent the Rules
Elsewhere on the continent, efforts to skirt immigration rules are more explicit. According to official UN figures, approximately 3,000 Chinese migrants lived in Namibia as of 2020—far less than neighboring South Africa, which hosts Africa’s largest Chinese population, but still sizeable for a country of fewer than 3 million people. The true number of Chinese migrants is likely to be higher.
Following the early presence of Taiwanese migrants in Namibia, there has been a growing population of mainland Chinese nationals from Fujian, Liaoning, and Shandong provinces, and Shanghai. This is the case in many Southern African countries, where Chinese migrants are involved in trade and other business activities. Many Chinese traders live in the capital, Windhoek, but they have also moved to small towns such as Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, and Oshikango, at the border with Angola, where their businesses face minimal competition. Moving to smaller towns has at times also allowed migrants to avoid immigration controls, a strategy also seen in other African countries.
While some arrived through family links, others came through Chinese companies operating in Namibia. Migrants told the author that, as with Senegal, family already in Namibia helped arrange their travel, usually to secure a short-term tourist visa. Travel agencies in China were also involved in this process.
Once in Namibia, migrants who wanted to remain said they tried to change their tourist visa into a business visa. Bribery can be one strategy to achieve this and also to remain in the country after their visa expired. According to shop owners, every month or two Namibian immigration officers raided Chinese shops to check workers’ immigration status. Under the threat of being detained and deported, Chinese shop owners said they paid bribes ranging between N$20,000 and N$30,000 (approximately U.S. $1,400 to $2,200) to remain in the country, and later sought assistance from immigration services to secure legal status.
Different Continents, Similar Circumstances
While there are significant differences between the challenges facing Chinese migrants in Africa and African migrants in China, these traders share a lack of certainty about the often-makeshift rules governing their status. In China, short visa limits, unpredictable changes in migration laws, and difficulties transferring to long-term status have left many Africans in a state of limbo that has encouraged them to explore ways of remaining in the country at times in violation of the rules. In Senegal and Namibia, meanwhile, Chinese migrants have sometimes circumvented official systems by relying on family networks, brokers, and other intermediaries, as well as turning to bribery. The situations in these countries are representative of conditions faced by Chinese migrants in Africa writ large.
Governments on both sides will need to respond to cases of corrupt officials who can be bought off by migrants who do not qualify for visas, and will also need to work to be more transparent and predictable in implementing migration policies. In China, reforms could include issuing long-stay permits to certain immigrants with proven business purposes.
Going forward, migration of traders and others between Africa and China is only likely to increase as the two regions further cement their deepening economic ties. Governments would do well to ensure that the movement of people who contribute to this trade is facilitated by effective and efficient policies, rather than informal networks and under-the-table intermediaries.
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