Date published on SAFPI: 
Monday, 20 August, 2012
Date published on source: 
Monday, 20 August, 2012
Source organisation: 
Radio Australia

Africans have mixed perceptions of Chinese migrants, finds study

A study in Africa of attitudes towards Chinese migrants has shown varying degrees of acceptance, with South Africa the most welcoming. Chinese investments in Africa have grabbed media attention in recent years, often in a negative light. Trade in 2011 between China and African nations rose by one-third, from the previous year, to US$166 billion. It's estimated there are 750,000 Chinese nationals working in different African countries. China's motives are often portrayed as cynically trained on Africa's natural resources, but is this how Africans feel about the Chinese?

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Dr Yoon Jung Park, Rhodes University, South Africa and convenor of the 'Chinese in Africa and Africans in China' research network. Yong Jung Park is a visiting Professor at Howard University in Washington DC

PARK: One of the reasons for my research project is that most of the media coverage on Chinese in Africa, tends to cover incidents, oftentimes incidents and violence. So there's a perception that most Africans do not like the Chinese coming in, that the Chinese are competition, and there's increasing levels of violence and anti-Chinese sentiment. So I've been doing research mostly in southern Africa, in South Africa and Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and then with a couple of colleagues, I've been following their research in Zambia and Botswana.

It's very clear that reactions to Chinese are quite mixed. And it depends on a number of circumstances. In smaller countries, where there're increasing numbers of Chinese retailers, in particular, or poor Chinese labour practices, as is the case in Zambia, there does tend to be quite a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment building up. But in places like South Africa, which has probably the largest economy on the continent, as well as a history of Chinese in the country, there is a lot less anti-Chinese sentiment, and in fact, many people are quite appreciative of the fact that Chinese goods are widely available and more affordable, that there are Chinese shops and other premises that are opening up and providing jobs.

What's interesting in Zimbabwe is that in the last few years, they've actually helped a lot of local Zimbabweans survive the worst of the political crisis. What we found was in the late 2000s, quite a lot of appreciation for the fact that the Chinese were hardworking and determined, and somehow managed to get local products - just basic consumer goods - into the country, when the major retailers weren't able to that.

And so, being able to stock the shelves of their stores, and provide access to basic goods, was something that was appreciated by the local population, and so, the strong anti-Chinese sentiment that we saw in the mid-2000s for example, that was evident in local media, in Zimbabwe, in local blogs, there was no evidence of any hard feelings against the Chinese, but rather, a great deal of appreciation for the fact that the Chinese allowed many Zimbabweans who were suffering huge levels of inflation, to actually have a little bit of purchasing power and some options.

LAM: Africa of course, has seen a fast pace of China-supported growth over the past couple of decades. In terms of incoming Chinese investment, and also the Chinese presence, are there pockets of mistrust here?

PARK: Again, I think it depends on what country you're talking about and when. I haven't focussed in my own research, on the big Chinese investments into these countries, or on foreign direct investments or trade, as much as on the impact of local Chinese migrant investment.

In Johannesburg, for example, you now have Chinese migrants who've been here for ten, twelve, even fifteen years. A lot of them have been successful in their business ventures and are re-investing their profits into second and third businesses and they're now diversifying their own interests beyond the small retail shops that we see in a lot of smaller African countries throughout the continent. And in South Africa, what you're seeing is a lot more investment now in property development, in small manufacturing and going into partnership with locals and even in mining development.

Again, in South Africa, you've had Chinese migrants for a lot longer than in most other African countries, and so in some ways, it would be worthwhile to look into some of these trends more deeply, because this is possibly the direction that many other African countries will be seeing, in terms of Chinese engagement locally. When Chinese people, migrants, diplomats are able to communicate locally, I think it makes a huge difference.

Where you see some of the more negative aspects, they come to the fore when there's competition over local resources, competition over business, where the Chinese are seen to be pushing locals out of jobs, or where Chinese goods are having a negative impact on local manufacturing.

LAM: Are these long term migrants we're talking about here - do they intend to make Africa their new home?

PARK: Almost every single Chinese migrant that I've interviewed, intends to eventually return to China. But it's interesting that these people we've interviewed over the years, they're still here. And they don't have any immediate plans to return. So, it is quite interesting - the mentality is to eventually to move back, to return to China, but the reality seems to be that as long as there are opportunities, particularly in South Africa, the quality of life is seen to be much better here, and so they're staying on, longer than they might have originally intended.

My research with the Chinese South Africans, with Taiwanese South Africans and with the Chinese migrants - and they've now been here for again, eight, ten, twelve years - indicates that the reality is quite different. They are committed. They might still consider themselves Chinese but many of them have taken permanent residence here. They all have made certainly economic, financial investments in the country - that first wave of mainland Chinese migrants has raised their children here. The newest migrants tend to still send their children back home to China, whereas some of those who've been here for longer, are educating their children here.

You see also actually in places like Zambia and Tanzania, some of the former railway workers, who had decided to stay on have now been in those countries for twenty years. They've integrated into local society, many of them married locally, have mixed-race children. Again, it might not be the future for all Chinese migrants who're in the country, but it's certainly one of the paths that has been chosen by those who decided that this IS going to be home.

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