Over the past 20 years there’s been remarkable growth in China-Africa links because of increased trade and investment. As a result there’s also been a great deal of movement of people between China and African countries. It’s estimated that there are now about 500,000 Africans in China, while the the number of Chinese in the 54 African countries ranges between one and two million.
Though Chinese people can now be found in most African countries, there’s a claim that some commentators and media outlets make: that they hold themselves apart from their host societies.
For instance, a US commentator writes that:
(They) have no experience in the world outside of China; no curiosity about these strange African lands and their people and a morbid indifference to Africa’s long-term future. (Most) are poorly educated and ill-equipped to live in different cultures.
To some, the claim of Chinese self-isolation might resonate due to the physical evidence of Chinatowns, such as those in the US, Canada and South Africa. However, the reverse is true.
Chinatowns in these countries are not products of Chinese voluntary self-isolation, but of forced exclusion policies of white settler societies and governments. For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act in the US and the Chinese Exclusion Act in South Africa.
These exclusionary measures were driven by the fear of Chinese as the “Yellow Peril”: a racial construct used extensively in Western countries against Asians who were viewed as a threat to Western civilisation, with images of expansion, takeover and appropriation. Today depictions of African weakness, Western trusteeship and Chinese ruthlessness are continuations of these stereotypes. I believe that these myths persist because of bias in the media and because Chinese relations and people are sometimes used as political pawns.
My colleagues and I set out to examine the claims of Chinese self-segregation in various African countries. Based on surveys, interviews, and academic literature we examined the varied lives of Chinese people over the past 10 years. Our primary research site was Zambia, although we conducted research in many African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Sudan.
Our research examined where Chinese migrants lived, their knowledge of local languages and socialisation patterns. We found that – like all migrants – factors affecting Chinese integration include local political environment, recentness of migration, language barriers, and corporate policies to mitigate crime and conflict. In addition Chinese are also affected by host bias – such as anti-Chinese campaigns.
The accusations of Chinese self-isolation in Africa does not mesh with the reality: the lives of Chinese people in Africa are varied and cannot be reduced to a single category. The accusations are also damaging as they are racist, undermine African-Chinese relations, misrepresent the global Chinese presence, and fosters suspicion of Chinese migrants as perpetual “others”.
One group of Chinese migrants are contract employees. They usually work with large Chinese companies as expatriate engineers, managers, and skilled workers. From our research we found that contract employees usually stay for one or two contracts (with one contract lasting between one and three years), but a small number may work as long as a decade.
Of all contract employees, contract employees working on infrastructure projects often had the most interaction with locals. This is because they lived and sometimes ate with their local colleagues.
For instance, we interviewed teams of Chinese and local drillers from a Chinese water well firm in Sudan. One Sudanese interviewee said:
Chinese live like locals. If the locals have brick houses, they’ll stay in them, but if not, they’ll stay in grass huts or tents.
In China it’s not uncommon for construction and mining workers to live collectively in compounds. They now do the same in Africa. This helps to save the company time and money, but it’s also a precaution to reduce their exposure to crime.
Company policies can also affect how much workers interact socially. For instance, our field research in Zambia found that the Chinese mine construction firm TLZD had policies whereby Chinese employees were not allowed out at night for their safety, but also because – due to language barriers – misunderstandings can lead to fights. Most Chinese in Africa, like first-generation migrants everywhere, are hampered by a language barrier.
Some company policies encourage integration because they make learning a language a requirement for the job. For instance, one Kenyan journalist based in Beijing observed that some large firms only hire Chinese “with a solid understanding of local African languages.”
Wall Street Journal correspondent Te-Ping Chen also observed that “Chinese immigrants that have come to Africa tend to live side by side with Africans (and) tend to speak local dialects.” By contrast, we found that white people have lived in South Africa for more than three centuries and Indian people for 150 years. But unless brought up on a farm, few white people speak an African language, while most young Indians speak only English or are bilingual in English and Afrikaans.
For the Chinese people that aren’t contract workers, they typically work in small and medium businesses as either owners, employees, or family dependants. Some will bring their nuclear family to Africa while others straddle two continents.
They tend to live in small groups all over cities, depending on their economic status. For instance in Luanda, Angola, less affluent Chinese groups have sprung up in informal settlements.
Scholars find that how much they mix and integrate depends on the nature of their business. For instance, Chinese retailers have much more engagement, with a variety of people such as local employees, customers, or partners.
As expected, the longer they stay the more localised they become – for instance their children go to local schools allowing them to integrate more. As many Chinese are traders, they are also active in learning local African languages.
Our research shows that even though there’s plenty of evidence that Chinese don’t self-segregate, it’s a myth that has been hard to confront because some people have examples of Chinese non-interaction and may be politically invested in generalising that tale.