Home / Analysis / Going east: African migrants head for China

Chinese market.

After a decade-long push into Africa in search of resources, the Chinese government is still struggling with an image problem - and so are its migrants.

The stories are familiar: in Sierra Leone, African labourers complain that their eastern foremen overwork them; Ghana has deported hundreds of Chinese for illegally mining gold; in Zambia, a series of worker controversies in a Chinese-owned coal mine culminated in the killing of a manager and the seizure of the operations by the government; and across African markets, eastern traders are regarded with suspicion for undercutting locals.

As economic and diplomatic ties between China and Africa go from strength to strength, cultural differences have been thrown into sharp relief. And it’s not just on the African side that tensions are emerging. A similar phenomenon is visible back in China as more Africans head east in search of their fortune.

Up to 1 million Chinese are estimated to currently call Africa home, but data on the number of Africans in China are scarce. Local media estimate that anything from 20,000 to 200,000 Africans traders are now living in Guangzhou alone - a town in the south of the country which is so popular with migrants from countries such as Nigeria, Congo and Tanzania that it has been controversially dubbed the ‘Chocolate City’.

Most come to buy wholesale goods ranging from stock cubes to electrical goods, which they sell back home and in the West. The relationship is a purely economic one and cultural tensions run higher here than almost anywhere in the country. Much like the Chinese in Africa, migrants in Guangzhou tend to live in enclaves and have little social association with locals. Taxi drivers often shun African customers and openly decry the local girls who date African men. In one of the worst run-ins to date, a Nigerian man died in police custody in 2012, prompting protests by Africans across the city.

“In Guangzhou, the Chinese don’t want to be associated with Africans spatially or emotionally,” says Elle Wang, a PhD candidate at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, whose research focuses on the city. “There’s a lot of mistrust and tension emerging.”

Locals say that the number of Africans in the area has actually declined since the global financial crisis diminished the demand for the products they export, but police are also cracking down on foreigners who have either overstayed their visas or are working in the city without the right paperwork. Many Africans are moving to nearby cities such as Yiwu, where officials are more sympathetic.

But tensions are not limited to the less-educated traders living and working in those cities. Across mainland China highly qualified African businesspeople and students still complain about treatment which ranges from good natured ignorance to outright racism.

Vimbayi Kajese is a Zimbabwean who studied for a masters degree in China and went on to be the first black woman on the country’s English-speaking news. She says she found adjusting to life in China hard when she first visited as an undergraduate from the US. At that time, she recalls being “the only black person” living in a small town outside of Beijing and says jokingly that she “caused a lot of car crashes”. Like many other Africans she was subjected to incessant attention. “Some days I would get really upset because if I wanted to jog in the park I would have a whole entourage following me. On a bus people will lift their children up and point at you,” she says. “You earn celebrity status for all the wrong reasons, so I would not leave the house unless I was wearing sunglasses and my hair was covered.”

Much of that might be construed as curiosity as opposed to malice but “it is cruel to be subjected to that day in day out,” she argues.

Her language skills helped her integrate, Ms Kajese says, but others who cannot communicate well with locals find it harder. Erick Komolo, a Kenyan who came to Hong Kong to study for a PhD in law, is one of those. He travels extensively in mainland China and says that “it is obvious that racial minorities like myself feel that sense of being a guest, and that manifests itself in some form of racial tension”.

Lack of communication breeds misunderstanding and Mr Komolo says that while university campuses are multi-racial and enlightened, the experience elsewhere is different. He finds “the level of attention is racist”, saying that the incessant picture-taking Africans are exposed to is “insulting” because “you don’t want pictures taken of you just because of your skin colour, do you?”

In one of his worst experiences of discrimination, he says that he was recently held by security in Shanghai airport, despite having passed through checks with all the correct documentation. “They didn't give me any explanation of why they were doing that. They kept on going around with my passport, calling the police. I couldn’t understand it,” he recalls. “We were two black people who were stopped.”

But as it happens, students like Mr Komolo are exactly the tool Chinese and African governments are hoping to use to boost ties and understanding between their regions. There are already around 12,000 Africans studying in China with the support of the Chinese government, and it is ramping up the initiative. Last year, the government laid out plans to enrol 30,000 Africans on short-term professional training programmes between 2013 and 2015. At the same time it will bring 18,000 African students to its universities, making it one of the few countries in the world currently increasing the number of full scholarships for Africans, according to Kenneth King, professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. The numbers, he says conservatively, “are getting serious”. Meanwhile, China’s government is supporting 33 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and eastern culture at top African universities.

“There is a discourse in the West about how China doesn’t do anything but exploit Africa, grab land, bring its own labour, and that there’s no training by the Chinese. But in the last few years China has set up African cultural study centres and has taken seriously the diplomacy of African students. The training they provide is very significant,” Professor King says.

Many of those students come to China without local language skills, so communication can still be a problem outside of university campuses, observers say. Some argue that they need to be better prepared with lessons before they arrive in China. But in general Professor King believes that this foreign policy tool is helping build stronger cross-cultural ties as trade flows between the regions continue their upward ascent. “The treatment of students today is significantly different from the experience they had if they were studying before or during the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “The majority are positive in their experience and the ties that are built are very important.”

Indeed, many of the African students either visiting or based in China go home with the hope of helping to build the relationship between the regions. Zahara Baitie is a student at Yale University, but spent a year furthering her study of Mandarin in Beijing. In the future, she hopes to use that skill back home in Ghana, where tensions between locals and Chinese immigrants are simmering.

“There are a lot of issues in terms of misunderstandings and all these cultural barriers, and there is a lot going wrong in terms of the business contracts that are signed,” Ms Baitie says. “At some point I hope to work in the legal system or in the policy world to try to ease Sino-African relations. We could minimise a lot of these issues.”

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