Sino-African Migration: Challenging Narratives of African Mobility and Chinese Motives

Migration between China and Africa predates the independence of many African states, but China’s flourishing economy in recent decades and African countries’ pre-existing Chinese communities and lenient visa policies have attracted many more migrants, particularly traders. With an estimated 500,000 Africans in China, between 1 to 2 million Chinese migrants in Africa, and the growing prominence of Sino-African relations, the experiences of immigrants in both regions will continue to evolve. However, Chinese motives and involvement in Africa belie something more sinister. At least that is what western narratives are publicizing.  

These narratives, ironically, portray Chinese activities on the continent as predatory and neo-colonial. A product of colonial nostalgia, the image of a land-grabbing and empire-building stereotype has been cultivated out of fears of a growing Chinese influence and labels of a politically insecure continent desperate to build its failing infrastructure. These descriptions do not fit the history of Chinese development in Africa, African states’ own agency, and the experiences of migrants in both places.

Challenging narratives of African mobility and Chinese motives empowers prudent observers to see through the politicization of Sino-African relations and discover a set of complex interactions underlying present and future exchanges.

Trends in Sino-African Migration: China to Africa

Africa is the least settled continent in terms of Chinese migrants despite their existence in Africa for over a century. Since the end of the Opium Wars in the 1840s and 50s, China has been a migrant-sending country. The earliest confirmed Chinese migrants to Africa arrived with the Dutch East India company in the Cape, now South Africa, explaining why Johannesburg is home to the largest population of Chinese migrants.

Modern migration, however, has its roots in Chinese geopolitics under former chairman Mao Zedong. In the late 1950s, the China-Africa policy was to foster anti-colonial and post-colonial solidarity with newly independent African countries, which would soon recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Now, trends tend to reflect China’s economic reforms and open-door policy of the late 1970s, namely the de-collectivization of agriculture, opening to foreign investment, and lifting protectionist policies.

Similarly, the Chinese “Go out” policy initiated in 1999 followed by the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 led to rising trade and investment across Africa, further facilitating migration. In fact, Chinese migrants can arrive in 27 out of 54 African countries without a visa.

The exact number of Chinese migrants in Africa is unknown due to various factors, including lenient visa policies, poor trafficking mechanisms, corruption that allow for irregular migration, and potential inflated numbers coming from anti-Chinese sentiment. However, the coastal provinces of China, particularly Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Fujian, have been the biggest migrant-sending regions with some areas placing cultural value on the rite of odyssey, where people travel overseas and eventually return successfully. The largest Chinese diaspora can be found in South Africa, with others in Nigeria, Angola, and Tanzania.

The migrants in these countries arrived through various means. Some, such as professionals working on development projects and diplomats, come through government-to-government arrangements. Increasingly, the Chinese come via government-licensed private employment agencies that find and recruit workers. The remaining travel via informal social networks such as family reunification; those unable to obtain the legal means to move migrate through “snakeheads” or smugglers.

Of these migrants, temporary labor migrants are the largest and work within infrastructure, public works, oil, and mining operations. There is contention, however, surrounding Chinese employment on the continent in view of the already high levels of unemployment in Africa. Other migrants include small business entrepreneurs, agriculture workers, and transit migrants, who use African countries as a stop on their way to North America or Europe.

Trends in Sino-African Migration: Africa to China

In recent years, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean has become the poster child for African mobility, which reinforced the perception of African migration as a South to North movement mainly using dilapidated life rafts and boats. African migration is much more than this. Africa has and continues to experience important migratory movements, both voluntary and forced. While there are an estimated 16.3 million migrants and close to 13.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), there is also cross-border migration that represents an important livelihood and coping strategy to ecological and economic downturns. Migration decisions are influenced by real or perceived opportunities for a better life, higher income, greater security, better quality of education and healthcare at the destinations, such as China.

In fact, China-Africa trade reached USD 192 billion in 2019 and spurred even greater migration. An estimated 500,000 African migrants live in China, many of which are merchants. Traders who travel back and forth are granted short business visas known as M visas, which allow a 30-day stay. However, some also apply for study or tourist visas to circumvent the requirements for other visas.

Most Africans are located in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, and Beijing. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province, the richest province in China, also known as “the world’s factory” — more Africans are found here than anywhere else. They often buy cheap, manufactured goods and resell them in Africa for a profit. Whereas in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, Africans who settle here are usually individuals from Portuguese-speaking countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Guinea Bissau. And like their Chinese counterparts, succeeding abroad is a cultural expectation for many African migrants. Yet, the opportunities resulting from immigration are often accompanied by a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Chinese and African Exclusion

In the past year, COVID-19 prevention measures have been imposed by most countries around the world.  While the resulting racial tensions did not originate at the outbreak, the pandemic has made these more pronounced in both Africa and China as several restrictive migration policies and practices have been introduced.

In Guangzhou, at the beginning of April 2020, a racially-motivated compulsory quarantine was imposed on many African people, which left some African expats in the city being forcefully evicted and homeless in the host country. This exposed the anti-Blackness present in Chinese society, which was only exacerbated by the new 2013 law, the Exit and Entry Administration Law that targets illegal entry, residence, and employment. In contrast, in 2019, China passed a new policy to attract foreign talent and provide easier pathways for highly skilled migrants of Chinese ancestry. In parallel, the reception afforded to Chinese migrants in Africa has also not always been welcoming either.

South Africa’s lower threshold of entry, unlike countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia, has made the country very attractive for Chinese migrants with limited skill and capital. Yet like in these countries, Chinese exclusion has always been present. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904 in South Africa differs from its American (1882), Canadian (1885), and Australian counterparts, in that it excluded all new Chinese laborers from entering the country. Further, those already present in the country had to register and risked being barred entry if they left. While this act was abolished, the three distinct communities of Chinese migrants — Chinese South Africans or indigenous Chinese, Taiwanese and Taiwanese South Africans, and Chinese immigrants from the PRC, are all treated differently and continue to face discrimination in other African countries.

The Future of Sino-African Relations

In the coming decades, many aspects of migration will continue to diversify: sending areas within China and Africa, the types of migrants, motivating factors, as well as migration patterns and paths. Whether migrants remain in their host countries depends largely on broader issues of China and Africa’s immigration policies towards the other, Sino-African relations, as well as other social, economic, and political climates in the particular nation or province. However, what is certain is that migration between the two began prior to Chinese investment in Africa and African migration extends beyond asylum seeking in Europe. Challenging false misconceptions about Chinese motives and African mobility is not only critical to engaging in thoughtful, fact-based discussions, but also in contextualizing the future of Sino-African relations, which according to estimates is projected to be one of the most rewarding partnerships.

Image Source: WIKIPEDIA

Subscribe to us to receive our China Focus Newsletters!

The following two tabs change content below.

Kyilah Terry

Kyilah Terry earned a B.A. in International Area Studies from UCLA in 2019 and an M.A. in International Relations with a concentration in migration diplomacy and asylum policy from Georgetown University in 2021. As a former research assistant at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), and the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), her research focuses on forced displacement and migration management with a regional focus in Europe and Africa. Currently, she works as a policy associate at Masa Group, an immigration consulting firm, and as a research analyst at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Start typing and press Enter to search