Chinese Migrants in Africa as New Agents of Development? An Analytical Framework


Migration from China to Africa has intensified of late on the back of initiatives by the Chinese government. Despite being a significant issue, there has been no systematic attempt to assess the economic, social and political impacts of it. This paper begins by setting out broad analytical dimensions covering the motivations to migrate and wider processes of development. The paper then assesses available data on migration trends, which are marked by speculation. Two further sections cover the policies of China towards internationalisation and Africa and the economic and sociopolitical dimensions, respectively. Economically, many large-scale Chinese firms operate in key resource sectors, but for most Africans, the Chinese presence is marked by traders in the markets. Socially, the Chinese have been welcomed in Africa although integration has been limited. However, tensions have arisen in some countries and have been exploited by African politicians.


Les flux migratoires de la Chine vers l’Afrique se sont intensifiés récemment suite à une série d’initiatives du gouvernement chinois. En dépit du fait que ceux-ci constituent un aspect important des relations Chine-Afrique, il n’y a eu jusqu’à maintenant aucune tentative d’évaluer systématiquement leurs impacts économiques, sociaux et politiques. Cet article établit, dans un premier temps, les dimensions analytiques générales concernant les motivations qui incitent à émigrer et les processus de développement. Dans un deuxième temps, l’article évalue les données disponibles sur ces tendances migratoires, en notant que celles-ci sont souvent très spéculatives. L’article se penche ensuite sur les politiques chinoises de l’internationalisation et de l’Afrique, ainsi que leurs dimensions économiques et socio-politiques respectivement. Économiquement, beaucoup de grandes entreprises chinoises investissent dans les secteurs clés de ressources naturelles en Afrique, mais pour la plupart des Africains la présence chinoise se manifeste par l’existence de petits commerçants sur les marchés locaux. Au plan social, les Chinois ont été bien accueillis en Afrique, même si leur intégration reste limitée. Cependant, des tensions ont surgi dans certains pays, et ont été exploitées par des hommes politiques africains.

Introduction: Chinese Migration and African Development?

How are the supposed harbingers of development – Chinese migrants – affected by their encounters with the foreign recipients of such development? (Nyiri, 2006, p. 86)

From the turn of the millennium, China has stepped up diplomatic and commercial links with Africa, culminating in the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Beijing in 2006. This growing connectedness has seen a wave of economic migration to Africa by state-influenced construction teams and mining and oil workers, as well as private traders (Broadman, 2007) who are arguably among the new shapers of development in Africa. And indications are that the Chinese are set to increase investment across the continent (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China (PRC), 2006), leading to further migration.

However, the extent of this recent migration of Chinese to the continent is based on wild speculation and has unleashed a vociferous political debate in some countries. The first of these issues is important, because although Africa is still the least settled continent in terms of Chinese migrants, the generally small size of local economies means that relatively few new entrants to a market can have disproportionate effects. So, our first task dealt within section 2 is to look into the existing data for more details, and by questioning some of its assumptions raise issues for a more robust analytical framework. The second issue of the politicisation of Chinese migration has seen, for example, the warning of the leaders of Nigeria and South Africa against a creeping neoimperialism (McGreal, 2007; Trofimov, 2007). However, we do not know whether this reflects the actual tensions between the Africans and Chinese. So, it is imperative for us to determine the factors shaping the integration of Chinese migrants, and in turn how this contributes to or undermines the development prospects for Africa. In the absence of rigorous primary research on this issue, the paper sets out an analytical framework for assessing these factors, which draws together economic, political and social dynamics.

The wider context for this paper is the linkage between ‘South–South’ cooperation and development. In understanding the implications of migration on African development, we follow Hart's (2001) distinction between ‘big D’ development defined as a project of intervention in the ‘third world’ that emerged in the context of decolonisation and the Cold War, and ‘little d’ development or the development of capitalism as a geographically uneven, profoundly contradictory set of historical processes. Drawing upon the work of Karl Polanyi, Hart (2001) shows how the two D/d developments are interconnected and mutually constituting. We see Chinese flows of aid, trade, investment and people as tying together D/d development, with low interest government loans supporting commercial ventures and other forms of ‘soft power’ encouraging good economic relations between China and specific African states (Taylor, 2007). This indicates that we do not support the idea of a centralized ‘Beijing consensus’ where all actions of Chinese firms and individual overseas are orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Rather the proliferation of semiprivate and private Chinese firms in Africa points to the need to differentiate between different economic actors and their developmental potentials.

Politically, the state has provided development studies with its key agent of development, while the rationality that underpinned the modern project of development justified the top-down character of its associated interventions. In terms of China–Africa development relations, we see a strong bilateralism, based on high-level diplomacy stretching back over 50 years whereby Chinese state policy has been a key determinant in the nature and scale of migration to Africa (Snow, 1988). We address this in section 3. However, as the reforms in China state policy towards emigration has relaxed, many of the migrants in Africa are there independently of any state direction (Ho, 2008). As a result of this cleavage between official channels and more informal ones, Alden (2007, p. 128) is right to note that ‘The behaviour of thousands of newly settled Chinese businessmen and the conduct of the African communities in which they live and work will matter as much as the diplomacy and concessions made at the government level’. So, our framework for understanding migration and development must also be attentive to the interactions at the ‘everyday’ level; we develop this in section 4. Finally, in the conclusion, we suggest further research and policy implications for the understanding and management of such flows and outcomes.

Dubious Data

As we have mentioned, one of the key problems is that the data are speculative. Here, we present the available data as shown in Table 1, and discuss its assumptions and accuracy. First, the data show sizeable and long-standing migrant communities in South Africa and Mauritius as well as Reunion and Madagascar, which date back to the colonial period as well as an expansion of Hong Kong and Taiwanese migrants in the 1980s (Li, 2005). Second, the data also show rapid increases over the past 7 years, which coincides with the growth of Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and trade with various African countries. In 2001, the Ohio University database estimated the total number of Chinese in Africa as 137 000, the same figure that Taiwan's government provided for that year. Mung (2008) estimates the current number of Chinese to be between 270 000 and 510 000, whereas the Xinhua press agency recently estimated that there may be as many as 750 000 Chinese working or living for extended periods in Africa (French and Polgreen, 2007), although it is not clear how this figure was arrived at. Below the continental level, the most notable growth is found in those countries with significant oil resources, notably Nigeria and Sudan. Angolan data are patchy, but Campos and Vines (2008) report official data that in 2006 there were 15 000 Chinese with visas in Angola rising to 22 000 by 2007, which is supported by another major study of Angola (Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS), 2007).

Table 1 Estimates for Chinese in selected African countries

Third, the final column shows sizeable ranges between 100 and 400 per cent, indicating the poorness of the data. How can we account for such discrepancies? Ma (2002, p. 12) notes that ‘few nations have kept reliable statistics on them and the term ‘Chinese overseas’ is extremely difficult to define’ (see also Poston et al, 1994, p. 633). From the receiving country perspective, the problems with data highlight the weakness of African population data collection (Gould, 1995). Even South Africa with one of the better data collection systems has estimates varying between 100 000 and 400 000. Moreover, the more speculative estimates may overinflate numbers so as to make the Chinese ‘threat’ appear greater than it is. Besides, the weaknesses in official data collection is the whole question of undocumented migrants that purposefully evade state surveillance (Mung, 2008), which would lead to an underestimation of overall numbers.

There is also a wider set of issues pertaining to how migrants view themselves, how they are viewed by sending and receiving states and how differences within groups are manifested. The term ‘Overseas Chinese’ has been used loosely by many scholars. There are numerous Chinese terms equivalent to the English use of Overseas Chinese, ranging from Huaqiao or Huayi as Chinese citizens or ethnic Chinese residing overseas, and Haiwai Huaren , a more literal translation of Overseas Chinese and more commonly used by PRC.Footnote 1 Moreover, ‘the Chinese’ are very different both culturally and linguistically. Often speaking different languages, let alone identifying as a coherent group, Chinese in Africa have flexible identities and generate greater or lesser senses of community among themselves depending on a range of factors (Wilhelm, 2006; Hsu, 2007; Ho, 2008). Clans and associations organised along the lines of dialect groups further exacerbated the problem. In Madagascar, for example, since the 19th century, the Cantonese adopted political tactics to ward off any Hakka living in the same administrative area, such as dominating the position of congregation heads (Live, 2005). Further complicating this in some countries is where recent migrants enter an arena of the third or fourth generation families that have strived for decades to make a living. For the long established Chinese communities in the somewhat exceptional case of South Africa, there are interesting dynamics around maintaining a Chinese identity in the face of hostility and the state's attempts to racially categorise people (Park, 2008). Here, Chinese communities have sought to carve out a political space and make policy demands.

Perhaps more accurate estimates could come from the Chinese communities in each African country, especially the growing number of formal organisations, such as business associations and chambers of commerce. This is certainly something that needs exploring on a case-by-case basis that is beyond the scope of this paper. However, preliminary data from Ghana shows quite wide estimates with some business leaders claiming around 20 000 and the Chinese Embassy and other businessmen citing 6000, which tallies with Sautman and Hairong's figures in Table 1.

This paucity of data highlights three further issues that need to be considered in any study of the Chinese in Africa. First, history matters in terms of understanding the periodisation of migration and its relationships to geopolitical forces. Although migration in general has largely been shaped by the demands of the capitalist world economy, such structural analyses can conceal important ways in which capitalism works through the exploitation of difference, particularly race and gender (Silvey, 2004). So, although Mung (2008) is right to see parallels between late nineteenth century Chinese contract labour migration to Africa organised by the colonial empires and contemporary labour recruitment, there are clearly important differences in terms of the decentralised coordination of recent migration, the nature of the Chinese and African states then and now and the ideologies of development that underpin such movements (Nyiri, 2006). In turn, this shapes the second issue in which we must be much sharper around the social and geographical characteristics of migrants, especially differences within the Overseas Chinese (Xiang, 2005). Third, and related to the earlier issue, is the question of context. As diasporas are bound by ethnic sameness, however fictitious, but dwell in multiple places, it is difficult to speak of a singular diasporic identity. So, a further issue for investigation is how space and place affect the nature of the Chinese migrant community and their developmental activities/potential.

In the rest of the paper, we take these challenges highlighted by the poor data and seek to elaborate at a meso-theoretical level how we might understand what Mung (2008, pp. 105–106) terms the ‘triangular’ perspective in which ‘the Chinese diaspora does not only relate to China, but also interact with the society where it has settled’. In order to examine the geopolitical and economic contexts, the next section examines China's development and its changing stance on FDI and emigration. Then we examine the nature of the Chinese diaspora, and how its institutions function to link it to its place of settlement and other localities.

Chinese Policy and the Overseas Chinese in Africa

If we are to understand the developmental implications of recent Chinese migration to Africa, we need to understand the motivations for migration and differentiate between the types of migrants. The flow of Chinese migrants to various continents was for a long time determined by China's emigration policies and changing geopolitical relations. Recently, and especially in the case of Africa, migration has moved to being largely independent of state action, despite an overarching discourse from the Chinese state, which treats migrants in a positive light compared to earlier periods. This section focuses on Chinese emigration policies and their impacts on the scale and types of migration flows to Africa.

As far back as the eighteenth century, the Chinese state had policies opposing migrants leaving China (Shen, 2006). It was after the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s that China was forced by the colonial powers to reduce restrictions on Chinese emigration, which saw the beginning of large-scale movements of Chinese overseas in the form of the ‘coolie trade’ (Chang, 1968; Park, 2006). Most of these labour contracts were highly regulated, and workers were sent back after their contracts expired, much like many of today's labour contractors. However, this ‘coolie trade’ is over-represented as the paradigm of Chinese migration. There were also small, but enterprising groups of independent traders that serviced Chinese labour migrants and undertook small-scale export (Pan, 2005).

In 1949, when the PRC was formed, there was a reversal of policy, and emigration was officially ended while the Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan to form the Republic of China (ROC). Taiwan is important for the Africa migration story for three reasons. First, it is one of the most significant parts of the Chinese diaspora, around 22 million, and many Taiwanese firms operate in Africa (Pickles and Woods, 1989). Second, political tensions between supporters of the PRC and ROC still exist among diaspora communities. Third, the PRC has pursued its ‘One China’ Policy since the formation of Taiwan and gives favourable aid terms to African countries, which support its claims to Taiwan.

During the Cold War, geopolitical strategy was played out in Africa with China challenging the major superpowers through its conspicuous targeting of aid (Brautigam, 1998). Between the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s (with the exception of the Cultural Revolution), at least 150 000 Chinese technical assistants were dispatched to Africa (ECOWAS-SWAC/OECD, 2006). Although the numbers of aid workers was not huge and many stayed only temporarily, a significant number of workers stayed on (Hsu, 2007) to engage in commercial activities. At the same time, the perception of Overseas Chinese shifted from being seen as traitors to the new vanguards of Third World nationalism (Thuno, 2001), and migrants were now freer to engage in tangible activities linking them to home in the form of remittances and charity (Young and Shih, 2003).

Besides, these geopolitical concerns for the PRC were an increased number of migrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s, mainly to South Africa. In general, these migrants were either middle-income professionals or entrepreneurs. A ‘political outcast solidarity’ saw South Africa and Taiwan maintaining economic and political relations (Pickles and Woods, 1989) when other states severed them. During the 1980s in South Africa, some 300 to 400 Taiwanese industrialists were set up in peripheral regions. At the peak, there were between 30 000 and 40 000 Taiwanese living in South Africa (Wilhelm, 2006). In 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) also had a big impact in East and Southern Africa (Kaplinsky and Morris, 2006) and was used by Taiwanese firms to reimport into the United States.

The most recent phase of migration has come in the aftermath of China's economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s, which has seen a further weakening of the state's role in emigration. The economic reforms include the total or partial privatisation of the state owned enterprises (SOEs), and a concerted internationalisation strategy has seen overseas investment increase (UN, 2007). On top of this, there has been a ‘neutralisation’ of emigration legislation (Biao, 2003) seeking to disentangle outward movement from geopolitical and ideological concerns. It is now much easier for Chinese business people and tourists, to travel outside China. Finally, there has been a significant deregulation of labour recruitment and a growth in private labour contractors in populous provinces, such as Sichuan, Hubei and Henan (Wong, 2006). It is estimated that 82 000 workers were dispatched to Africa in 2005, two-thirds of whom were in construction. Against this, the booming economy created massive demands for raw materials and a glut of cheap Chinese manufactures requiring markets. This has seen a wave of economic migration to Africa by major state-influenced construction teams and mining and oil workers, as well as private traders (Broadman, 2007).

Social, Economic and Political Organisation of the Chinese Diaspora in Africa

In order to understand the developmental potential of Chinese migrants, we need to understand their motivations and relations to African populations in a way that treats neither as homogenous nor predetermined. We start this section with Kaplinsky's (2008) framework for analysing the different channels of transmission for China's impact on Africa and the differential effects on groups within countries that helps explain the relations between Chinese and Africans and the reactions of the latter. Six key channels stand out: trade links, investment flows, aid, institutions of global governance, flows of people and environmental spillovers.

In each of these channels of interaction, there is a mix of complementary and competitive impacts. For example, with regard to trade, China may both provide cheap inputs and consumer goods to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and be a market for SSA's exports. On the other hand, imports from China can readily displace local producers. Less well recognised than the complementary/competitive access is the distinction between direct and indirect impacts. Indirect impacts occur in third country markets and institutions. For example, China's trade with the United States may open or foreclose the opportunities for SSA economies to export into that market (Table 2). As in the case of the complementary/competitive access, the direct and indirect impacts can be gauged either at the country level, or at the intranational level. The key element of these interactions is the ‘for whom’ component. Countries may be affected differentially, but these effects are not just felt at the national and economy-wide level. To explain more deeply the transmission mechanisms, we turn to the sectors and organisation of Chinese businesses.

Table 2 A framework for assessing the impact of China on SSA

The Embeddedness of Chinese Business Organisation

In order to understand the integration of Chinese migrants and the reactions to them, it is necessary to appreciate the economic sectors they engage in and the nature of business organisation, as it generates different, actual and perceived, impacts on any given African economy. Economic integration of migrants has been examined through the idea of ‘embeddedness’. It is argued that economic practices are embedded in social practices. Embeddedness has been used to analyse ethnic businesses, which often secure labour, contracts and inputs from members of the same ethnic or racial group. For newly arrived immigrants, ‘participation in a preexisting ethnic economy can have positive economic consequences, including a greater opportunity for self-employment’ (Portes and Jensen, 1987, p. 768). Eventually, such ethnic communities can function as a ‘market for culturally defined goods, a pool of reliable low-wage labour, and a potential source of start-up capital’ (Portes and Sensenbrenner, 1993, p. 1329). As a normative model, it is appealing, but we know relatively little about the actual organisation of Chinese businesses in Africa, although a few studies have been conducted (Haugen and Carling, 2005; Ho, 2008; Dobler, 2008).

As we have seen in the late 1990s and early 2000, driven by the increasing Chinese state engagement with African states, there was a recurrence of temporary labour migrants employed by the 800 or so Chinese multinational companies who are usually working on designated projects with fixed periods overseas. As Gong (2007) notes, given their involvement in extractive industries and with the backing of the Chinese state, it is these groups that have become the targets for more violent and criminalised animosity among Africans, such as kidnappings of oil workers in southern Nigeria.Footnote 2 The rush to oil production drives much of this, although the western media's obsession with oil masks the significant attention being paid by the Chinese government to non-oil sectors (Bosshard, 2007).

Another major growth sector for Chinese SOEs and private firms is in engineering and construction, which are generally labour-intensive activities. A World Bank study (Foster et al, 2008) calculated that Chinese finance for infrastructure has risen steadily since the turn of the millennium, rising from around $1 billion/year to a height of $7 billion/year in 2006, China's so-called ‘Year of Africa’. The Chinese now have major infrastructure projects in 35 African countries, most funded by the ExIm (export–import) bank at ‘marginally concessional’ rates, and in many cases funded through natural resource deals. However, Dobler (2008) notes in Namibia that smaller, private construction firms are competing with Namibian firms for contracts. And in Tanzania, Baregu (2008) notes that out of 147 Chinese companies in the country only 22 had portfolios of more than $1 million, marking the majority out as private small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Like mining companies, these firms sometimes bring low-cost labour from China, although the perception that they only employ Chinese labour is misleading. For example, in the ExIm-funded Bui Dam in Ghana, the agreement with Sinohydro ensures that jobs go to Ghanaians with about 700 Chinese expatriates working on the project compared with 3000 Ghanaians. In the recent China–Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) deal, only one of the five workers will supposedly be Chinese, but no independent monitoring has confirmed this (Curtis, 2008). However, in Angola, Corkin (2008a) notes how even Angolan firms are keen to import Chinese labour for reasons of cost and the lack of the requisite skills locally, Naidu (2008) also observes something similar in South Africa. There is a semilegal version of this, involving smaller Chinese firms, whereby labour is recruited through semilegitimate agencies (Wong, 2006). These workers are often low-paid and work in manufacturing in the export processing zones (EPZs) of places, such as Mauritius, and where they are in direct competition with relatively unskilled African labour. Because of this competition and the poor conditions of workers per se, there have been labour disputes in South Africa and Mauritius.

In addition to these, state-backed migrants are petty entrepreneurs who largely operate in trade, services and in light manufacturing, establishing themselves in places, such as Morocco, Ghana (Colombant 2006), Angola (Corkin, 2008a), Cameroon, Namibia and Cape Verde (Haugen and Carling, 2005; Mung, 2008). Ho (2008) rightly argues that these entrepreneurs operate independently of Chinese state agendas even though the misguided western notion of ‘China Inc.’ suggests the contrary. These traders have been at the heart of the marketing of Chinese manufactures in Africa, which are welcomed due to their low cost, but which have excited tensions among trade unions and business associations due to displacing local manufacturers and traders and the poor quality of some of the goods (Sylvanus, 2007). As a result of this recent arrival, very few firms are well integrated with the domestic economy compared with Indian firms. In a World Bank survey (Broadman, 2007), about half of the firms that were owned by people of Indian ethnicity were African by nationality, whereas 93 per cent of Chinese-owned firms were run by Chinese nationals (ibid. p.22).

Initially, Chinese traders have been involved in cheap consumer goods, what are called in Kenya ‘down street’ merchandise rather than ‘up market’ products (Sautman and Hairong, 2007) producing in Nigeria what Ogunsanwo (2008, p. 202) reports as ‘illegal Chinatowns’. The traders tend to live quite frugal lifestyles (Dobler, 2008), and often utilise family labour, but may also be the ones that employ the semilegal workers mentioned above. In Haugen and Carling's (2005) study of Cape Verde, the typical pattern involved an initial family member, usually male, emigrating, and then close family and extended family joining as required. Dobler (2008, p. 248) notes, however, that this pattern is breaking down in Namibia where new migrants enter through a ‘more commercialised form of chain migration’ involving intermediaries who are paid for their services.

These traders seem to use limited African labour, except for menial tasks, such as cleaning and security. A lack of trust is often cited as the reason for employing Chinese labour over Africans, although Haugen and Carling (2005) found that one firm had helped a former African employee to set up their own business in which they retained a part share, and Campos and Vines’ study (2008) of Angola mentions Angolans managing a Chinese restaurant due to easing staff communications and understanding customer needs. In Ghana, we were told by different businessmen that one problem with Ghanaian productivity was ‘culture,’ insofar as Ghanaians, it was argued, were forever disappearing for funerals or clan or family events and so could not be relied on. This was exacerbated by poor infrastructure, such as regular power failures and a lack of public transport, so that they could not operate shift systems as they could in China.

The Chinese traders buy from China, either from large wholesalers or directly from the factories. The ability of Chinese traders to utilise networks rapidly and communicate as a conational helps explain their ability to keep costs low, although Li et al (2007) have shown that African traders have been operating from Guangzhou for as long as 10 years and form part of quite sizeable trading communities in some Chinese cities drawing traders from 52 different African countries. However, the recent Chinese traders in places, such as South Africa, are not necessarily well connected to the old Chinese communities. Part of this flexibility has seen various strategies of geographical movement, expansion or diversification (Haugen and Carling, 2005). In the Cape Verde case, some traders moved to new territories within the same country when local markets got tight, whereas others have relocated to another country. However, we lack detailed evidence of patterns in other localities.

In addition, the emerging groups are the transitory migrants. Mung (2008) asserts that these migrants often use African states as ‘soft’ locations where they can break their journeys on an ultimate quest to enter North America or Western Europe. Here, they gather funds and the documentation (legal or otherwise) for the next stage of their journey. As such, they may take up petty trading that largely keeps them solvent as opposed to becoming embedded in African economies with a view to long-term economic success.

Arising out of diversification strategies and partly as a legacy of the Cold War aid programmes, Chinese migrants are also involved in a range of services. This is mainly in restaurants and medicine (Hsu, 2007). Catering has partly grown out of retailing, but also to service the growing Chinese populations in Africa's capital cities and resource frontiers. In terms of medical practitioners, Hsu (2007) shows how in Tanzania/Zanzibar, some Chinese doctors, who had worked for aid teams in the 1970s, stayed on to set up private practices using both Chinese and ‘western’ medical technologies.

The Chinese presence in manufacturing has mainly been in labour intensive sectors, and the longer-term impact on African economies is not clear and depends on employment practices, wage levels and government policy. Contrary to the popular story that early migrants in the 1950s and 1960s were aid workers who stayed on, Ho (2008) shows in Ghana that a number of migrants came at the country's independence lured by the promise of a stable and soon to flourish economy. In some cases, the factory owners set up the factories and then brought in managers from Hong Kong while they moved on to start other ventures. This not only shows a more diverse history of manufacturing start-ups, but also that the treaty ports and British colonial connections were important in knowledge flows and determining the patterns of migration.

Although increasingly dispersed across Africa, the key countries for Chinese manufacturers are South Africa and her neighbouring states (Pickles and Woods, 1989; Hart, 1996) and Mauritius (Brautigam, 2003). In terms of business organisation, Chinese manufacturers have been criticised for the lack of backward linkages they create. Procurement, in particular, has been a bone of contention with manufacturers preferring to import materials and components from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most ExIm bank agreements stipulate that 50 per cent of procurement materials must originate in China (Corkin, 2008a).

The Social Organisation of Chinese Diasporic Communities

As we have seen, recent migration to Africa builds on older trajectories laid down during the colonial and Cold War periods. Although there have been no systematic studies, many of the large, state-influenced construction and extraction projects are organised around quite bounded projects with technical and less skilled Chinese personnel living in compounds and having relatively little contact with African communities (Corkin, 2008b). They are also on fixed term contracts and so generally return home, but we lack detailed studies of these kinds of projects.

For the smaller private entrepreneurs, who lack formal state backing, it is important to analyse what role that the existing diasporic communities play in enabling integration into African society, and how they are organised to facilitate connection back to China. Migrants bring with them a series of overlapping social identities, with most ‘switching’ ethnic affiliation on and off depending upon the relative advantages to be gained by either strategy (Zetter et al, 2006). In general, recent Chinese migrants in Africa remain relatively self-contained. One important upshot of this for integration and business more generally is that language and communication have been, and still remain, a problem. Very few recent migrants speak any local languages and have rudimentary English or Portuguese at best. Some innovative solutions to this are emerging such as in Angola where firms are recruiting from former Portuguese colony Macau.

Family ties and informal networks (Xiang, 2005) are the basis of transnational private Chinese business organisation. But, alongside, the family and clan are more formal organisations that serve to cement communities (Wheeler, 2004), although the informal and formal are intertwined through social capital embodied in trust relations among individuals (Crawford, 2000). These formal organisations often started as social clubs for the small groups of settlers. In South Africa, in addition to gambling and other recreational activities, these clubs had libraries and subscribed to Chinese newspapers and bought in Chinese language books, indicating a reasonable level of education among migrants (Park, 2006). Even today there are three mandarin language newspapers printed in South Africa, handling Chinese news and community affairs (Wilhelm, 2006).

These organisations help maintain a diasporic community in a number of ways. First, they maintain Chinese ‘culture’ for migrants and their offspring. Many organise language classes and cultural displays (Wilhelm, 2006). Like other diasporas, this culture is often a partly mythologised sense of what the homeland is about, but is important for reinforcing a sense of community. Second, these organisations can function as the formal links between a migrant community and its hometown (Young and Shih, 2003). For example, The China Youth Development Foundation's ‘Project Hope’ is funded by the Chinese diaspora through organisations such as the North American Chinese Education Foundation (NACEF). As mentioned earlier, these organisations can also provide FDI to localities back in China.

However, Ho (2008) shows in the case of Ghana that formal organisation is generally less important than informal sociality. He talks about the divisions within the ‘Chinese’ community in Ghana and how it is in a constant state of flux. He argues, ‘their social bonds are loose and uneasy and that their idea of belonging to a place and group is fluid’ (ibid. p.53). In his fascinating ethnography, he shows how suspicion and distrust mark the business relationships among the Chinese, built upon a sense of transitioning and moving on, yet Chineseness may be evoked at certain times. Dobler (2008, p. 247) also argues that the ‘Chinese who are living in Oshikango are no homogenous, close-knit community’ and have not cooperated among themselves. Yet, he speaks of the ‘intensification’ of social life among the Chinese as more traders arrive and socialisation begins to increase, possibly leading to a more unified sense of diasporic community.

Chinese migrants have generally been quite mute in political life, as is common among migrants who are treated with suspicion by ‘hosts’. However, there have been times when they entered the public realm, either through organised politics or through more violent rebellion. The four states (South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion), which experienced earlier Chinese waves of migration saw higher integration between the Chinese and the local communities, both socially or politically. In Mauritius, almost 30 000 older generation of Chinese migrants have taken up Mauritian citizenship; and in Madagascar, intermarriages are common and at least 60 per cent of the Chinese are mixed ethnically (Zhang et al, 1993). Given that these are well-established communities, they may serve as a template for the gradual involvement of other migrant Chinese communities in national politics. However, there may be parallels with other ‘ethnic’ merchants in Africa, such as Reno's (1995) study of the Lebanese in Sierra Leone where politics is informalised through a ‘shadow state’ tying ethnic entrepreneurs into circuits of state power, though empirical work is needed to analyse how these political processes unfold.

African Responses: State, Society and Multiculture

So far we have dealt with the changes in China's geopolitical and economic relations that have influenced migration to Africa, and examined how Chinese business is organised. However, the question remains as to what factors contribute to the differential acceptance towards migrants in different African countries. Why, for example, do some countries, such as Ghana, appear more open and accepting towards the Chinese, whereas some Zambians and Nigerians perceived them as a threat? Kaplinsky's (2008) framework usefully raises the ‘for whom?’ issue and how groups within countries are affected differentially, which in turn helps explain the varied responses that we see to the Chinese. We would argue that an important element that conditions these responses is political culture. This not only means state policy, but also the ways in which histories of state formation and grassroot politics shape the responses to outsiders. However, just as we argued that any idea of a singular Chinese diasporic identity is impossible, it is equally unwise to hypothesise about an ‘African’ perspective. As Manji (2007) warns, ‘there is no single “African view” about China in Africa’ (p. vii), for reasons of class, race and power.

Earlier sections suggested that reactions are conditioned by economic competition and a sense that the Chinese are benefiting at the expense of Africans. Here, the rentier state in Africa is complicit in syphoning off revenue from Chinese investment, production and trade, thus repeating a model of extraversion laid down under European colonialism (Bayart, 1993). So, in understanding the relations between migrants and Africans, we need to appreciate different models and experiences of state formation in Africa, as both Alden (2007) and Taylor (2007) argue. Clearly, debates on the African state are manifold (Davidson, 1992), and it is not our intention to review them here, but to raise issues for future research. The African state was formed in a peculiar crucible of colonial expropriation and anticolonial nationalism, which fused multiple ethnicities into single ‘nations’ and used development as the ideology of unity (Davidson, 1992). Given the extraverted economy, control of the state became a primary source of empowerment and wealth creation. In some polities, ethnic cabals came to dominate the state and diverted economic rents to their direct benefit (for example, Nigeria). In others, a more pluralistic and protodemocratic model emerged (for example, Botswana). So, we need to understand the extent to which the reception afforded to Chinese migrants is conditioned by legacies of politics and state formation, thereby allowing for multiple forms of belonging, and consequently a greater openness to outsiders.

Such multiple political communities are formed relationally. Zetter et al (2006) argue that in contrast to Putnam's consensual view of social capital, for migrants what appears as inherent social capital may be a survival strategy in a hostile society. Where the reception is hospitable, migrants may be more active economically and in the organisations embedding them into local polities. Where the reception is hostile, migrants may be tempted to organise in clandestine ways, orienting their lives more exclusively to their homelands. However, apart from South Africa, we have no detailed data with which to verify either hypothesis.

In terms of the reception migrants to African countries’ experience, there is the obvious and important juridical sense in which migrants are conferred varying degrees of rights within the recipient state. And the extent to which they can claim these rights directly affects their well being, and hence their ability to support families back in their countries of origin. Where state policy is hostile, a migrant identity may be cemented. For example, for the Chinese in apartheid South Africa, racial categorisation meant that they were encouraged to hold onto a sense of Chinese identity. This urges a deeper understanding of how state policy affects migrant's self-perception and mobilisation.

Some studies certainly show that the African state of residence is important for commercial success. Ho (2008) shows in Ghana how Chinese businesses manipulated local laws regarding capital equipment and foreign exchange for overseas investors to earn additional foreign exchange. However, talking to Chinese businessmen in Ghana today, they argued that Ghana is much stricter than other West African states in applying its investment code, which sets a high minimum limit for investments and its immigration laws that delimits labour importation. In Namibia, Dobler (2008) demonstrates the importance of good relations with local officials, especially local government and customs officers, through which trading permits are secured. Although this is not necessarily outright bribery, it shades into illegality. It is said that the Chinese see this as legitimate business practice and something one would probably have to do in many countries, China most certainly included. Sometimes this protection by the local state can be problematic as in Zimbabwe where during Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, which destroyed the livelihoods of so many Zimbabweans, generally spared the Chinese traders (Sachikonye, 2008). In South Africa, the Chinese have always held a contradictory position in a highly racialised state, but recently, the older Chinese migrants have been lobbying for benefits under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation arguing that they were treated ‘as black’ under apartheid (Naidu, 2008).

African civil society responses to China's activities have been relatively mute, but they are key to the future direction of dividends from this resource boom, in terms of exerting control over rentier states (Obiorah, 2007). That said, a number of Africa trade unions and business associations have led the critique of China's role in national economies. For example, the South African Trade Union Congress (TUC) has organised debates around the future of African clothing and textile industries (Amankwah, 2005; Sachikonye, 2008), and in Uganda, the local business organisations have spearheaded a campaign over ‘unfair’ Chinese competition (Lee, 2007). Following the Chambishi mining debacle, a damning report by the Civil Society Trade Network of Zambia (Fraser and Lungu, 2007) openly accused Chinese firms of malfeasance and urged the Zambian government and mining firms to develop and enforce better standards. Ndulo (2008) reports that in response to the protests around this issue, the Zambian Government in partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has completed the Zambia Decent Work Programme, aimed at improving working conditions and social protection. In pursuit of this, one Chinese firm was closed on grounds of health and safety.

Despite the relative suppression of African civil and political society, the tensions that are evidently bubbling away (Dobler, 2008; Naidu, 2008; Sachikonye, 2008) have, in some localities, resulted in protest as in the case of Zambia (Ndulo, 2008). However, here a political party – the Patriotic Front – lead by Mr Sata played the anti-China card to win votes in Lusaka and the Copperbelt. Although he had some success, his overall campaign was unsuccessful, but it may signal the shape of things to come as these tensions grow. In Ethiopia and Nigeria, there have been attacks on Chinese oil facilities by militias, which are linked to other campaigns for redistribution and recognition, but are targeted at an obvious symbol of private gain and resource extraction (Powell, 2007). These tensions depend upon perceived levels of exploitation, although worryingly they are couched in cultural rather than class terms (Dobler, 2008). The tensions also reflect the local sectors with, in general, trading proving more contentious as it displaces African traders. However, sometimes in manufacturing local businesses lack the capital or knowledge to start up, and hence the Chinese may be more welcome for bringing the investment, jobs and goods.

However, there are other unexplored ways in which migrant/host relationships unfold. It is at this level of what Gilroy (2004) terms ‘convivial culture’, the everyday minutiae of living together, that much integration occurs. Hsu (2007) provides an interesting example of this in the case of noodle production on Zanzibar. Originally produced for the local Chinese community in the 1950s they started to become popular with locals through the restaurants on the island. Over time they have become a staple of Ramadan feasting at the same time as diasporic Chinese have shunned them for not tasting good enough, being ‘unhygienic’ and inauthentic. However, a couple of Chinese firms produce for this growing African demand, employing a local workforce.


This recent migration of Chinese to the continent has profound economic, social, cultural and political impacts, and has unleashed an equally vociferous debate. Using existing data on Chinese migrants in Africa as an entry point, we showed that the figures are extremely speculative and lend themselves to inflation and purposeful misinterpretation. Although it is important to deconstruct such ‘naturalised’ statistics, more importantly we need to focus on the social and geographical characteristics of migrants. In this, we argued that the term Overseas Chinese has been used too loosely in many contexts, not least in the recent wave of migration to Africa. This term is inherently contested both within China and beyond, and tends to subsume identity, class and behavioural differences under an overarching diasporic identity.

At the same time, Chinese migrant flows overseas are also conditioned by the Chinese government policies. We observed fluctuating flows at different periods, reflecting different economic and political conditions in China and with its engagements internationally. The Chinese government's broad change of attitude towards the Overseas Chinese, from traitors in 1940–1950 to investors and agents of modernisation in the 1990s, saw a spike of overseas migration. Earlier migrants to Africa, mainly during the Cold War period, contributed in diverse ways to African development, as they did not only enlarge the local economy, but were also more integrated and accepted into the local communities. However, recent migrants are arguably more footloose in comparison, especially in new host countries without preexisting social structures to encourage assimilation. These later migrants, ranging from entrepreneurial to transit and then to illegal migrants, became ‘guests’ that stay, but are also more willing to move to greener pastures when the chance arises. It is this footlooseness that may determine the developmental impacts of this recent wave of migrants.

More importantly, African responses to Chinese migration have been varied. In most states, the Chinese are welcomed, but in some localities and at certain times, they are treated with resentment and occasionally subject to violence. It is important to understand the mechanisms for such differential reactions, but we argued that by analysing various channels of interaction, we are better able to investigate the outcomes systematically. Many African governments have taken a laissez faire response to China's aid and investment welcoming the infrastructure, mineral rents and leverage it provides vis-à-vis other donors (Mohan and Power, 2008). As Dobler (2008, p. 254) notes ‘What is conspicuously absent in Namibia is a real debate on the costs and benefits of the Chinese presence and the possibilities for its regulation’. As corporate relations with the Chinese mature, African governments are becoming more proactive in managing their relations with the Chinese in terms of policies around such things as local content, most notably the agreement between the Chinese and DRC (Vandaele, 2008). Moreover, if recent hostility to the Chinese persists, questions will be raised about the willingness of the Chinese to further integrate economically and socially into African countries, which could reduce the benefits of this new interest in African economic growth. Hence, it is vital that we understand whether and how integration of Chinese migrants is taking place, and this calls for more qualitative studies in different localities to show the ‘everyday interaction’ between the Chinese and Africans.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the UK's Economic and Social Research Council in funding the research project (Ref: RES-062-23-0487) from which this paper derives. More details are available at

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Mohan, G., Tan-Mullins, M. Chinese Migrants in Africa as New Agents of Development? An Analytical Framework. Eur J Dev Res 21, 588–605 (2009).

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  • China
  • Africa
  • migration
  • development