The Chinese migration to the West traces back to the 1850s when Chinese workers, forced by poverty at home, migrated to the United States to work in factories and railroad construction. The journey was long and arduous, yet after more than a century of work, one might say that the Chinese have found a foothold in the West. Today, the Chinese migration overseas is vastly different from those of the past. A country invigorated by a booming economy, China has laid its eyes on Africa. And instead of poverty, China sees endless opportunities in the naturally resourceful and potential-filled continent. This appreciation on China’s part is reflected in the vast amount of Chinese companies and immigrants now in Africa – either conducting government projects or running private businesses. However, the implications of an ever-growing Chinese presence in Africa stretch wide and far – from concerns about political control and commercial exploitations to environmental damage and labor rights abuses.
According to a podcast on ChinaFile featuring China-Africa scholars, there exceed a million or possibly two million Chinese immigrants now in Africa. The exact number is often volatile and much disputed due to the flexibility of Chinese immigrants on the Continent. Many of those who work for the government and big companies are aiming to come back to China within a few years, while others are looking to own properties and build a life there for themselves. Government projects aside, behind the large influx of Chinese immigrants in Africa is the Chinese merchants’ motivation to escape the fierce competitions at home and search for opportunities elsewhere. Still, landing opportunities in Africa does not mean a worry-free life for these private businessmen. In a BBC documentary on Chinese influence in Africa, journalist Justin Rowlatt witnessed the local Zambian chicken farmers growing ever more frustrated and resentful of Chinese newcomers who had intensified the competition and “stolen” their business.
The upside though is that not all Africans think of the Chinese presence in their countries as negative. In fact, a significant number of them welcomed the Chinese with open arms. South Africa has long been dubbed as China’s “BFF” in Africa – receiving the most amount of investment and cooperative exchange from China; Tanzania and Zambia have been engaging with China since the establishment of the new regime in 1949 and remained cooperative even during China’s chaotic and regressing Cultural Revolution; other countries such as Angola happily welcomed the expansive trade and aid projects brought on by China.
Although facing suspicions and backlashes from both local and international organizations, China seems unfazed by the accusations of its commercial and political intent. According to China-Africa Relations scholar Deborah Brautigam’s book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, China’s intentions to reap profit from giving aid to Africa are justifiable if not reasonable. Brautigam stresses that foreign aid has always been given for diplomatic, commercial or ideological reasons. As a developing country with deep poverty in its often-neglected rural areas, China should not have the obligation to give aid purely as an act of charity. In fact, an article from The Economist merely categorizes China’s competitive presence in Africa as one among many. It goes on to explain that most backlashes against China in Africa derives from the country’s role in contributing to the African boom and becoming Africa’s biggest trade partner. As India shows its ambition of joining the boom, the competition is only going to get fiercer before the power becomes balanced. And despite China’s flexibility in engaging with African traders, the issues of labor abuses, ivory poaching and environmental damages are urgently real, and the responsibility of a growing Chinese presence in Africa will be to help solve these problems alongside their African partners.