Linguist Adams Bodomo described the lives of African migrants in China at a recent African Studies Center event.
Africans in China fall into two main groups: businessmen/traders and students, with a clear majority between the ages of 25 and 34.
International Institute, February 13, 2014 — “There are approximately 2 million Chinese in Africa and 500,000 Africans in China today,” said Adams Bodomo at UCLA on February 5. The latter represent Africa’s newest diaspora, albeit one that renews itself regularly due to visa difficulties.
A professor of African languages and literatures at the University of Vienna, Bodomo delivered the Annual James S. Coleman Lecture of the UCLA Center for African Studies at UCLA’s Young Research Library.
Two-way migration is one of the many outcomes of what Bodomo called “China’s re-engagement with Africa,” that is, its drive to obtain African resources to fuel its growth.
Drawing on his recent book, “Africans in China: A Sociocultural Study and its Implications on Africa-China Relations” (Cambria Press, 2012), Bodomo discussed a five-year study he conducted of Africans living in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Yiwu, Shanghai and Beijing. Due to the impossibility of gathering reliable statistical data on migrants, as well as the undefined nature of the research issues, the study used a mixed-method approach that combined qualitative and quantitative tools.
Bodomo, along with a multicultural team of African and Chinese research assistants, interviewed community leaders (Guangzhou) and everyday people of different African national groups in these cities. They also administered a questionnaire. Altogether, the team interacted with between 800 and 1,000 Africans and collected 736 questionnaires with valid responses.
Traders and students predominate, but most don’t stay in China for long
The vast majority (82 percent) of questionnaire respondents were male and the “top 10” countries of origin of Africans in China were Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Tanzania, Congo, Kenya, Cameroon and Niger. One out of every five Africans in China is Nigerian, noted Bodomo, but people are coming to China from almost all countries of the continent. In Guangzhou, migrants have formed communities based on national identity, language and religion.
“These are highly educated people,” he said, discounting the expectation that “people who trade are dropouts.” Some 92 percent of respondents had completed secondary education, 288 individuals had completed a university degree and 139 had completed some level of postgraduate study. “It’s not only the unemployed who go to China,” he remarked, “It’s also the wealthy and successful.”
Africans in China fall into two main groups: businessmen/traders (61 percent) and students (23 percent), with a clear majority (60 percent) between the ages of 25 and 34. Overall, said the speaker, most African migrants are from West Africa (particularly Ghana, Mali and Guinea), largely because many West Africans studied in China during the 1960s.
Today, China is awarding 5,500 scholarships to Africans every year. In addition, many Africans who previously studied in China went to Southeast Asia (primarily Thailand and Malaysia), then returned to southern China and Hong Kong after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A number of these people are now doing business in China, observed Bodomo.
Most African migrants in China stay only a short period of time because they find it impossible to renew their visas in Chinese cities. Among study respondents, only 21 percent had lived in China from one to three years.
According to the speaker, the most successful African businessmen in China had traveled and had some experience doing business abroad before coming to China. He pointed out that the leading African businessmen in Yiwu was from Senegal: a man who traveled to China on business, saw an opportunity and now runs a large textile manufacturer in the city.
Bodomo argued that Africans in China repackage their identities for different groups. When and how migrants use which language, and which languages they can use, are important identity issues, he observed (and the research topic of some of his graduate students).
When asked what their first language was, African interviewees generally responded to Bodomo by citing an African language, but cited English or French when interviewed by Chinese researchers.
More Africans in China speak the latter two languages, in fact, than speak Chinese. Among survey respondents, only 3 percent claimed to speak excellent Chinese, 34 percent did not speak Chinese at all, and 21 percent said they spoke it poorly. The majority (68 percent) believed English was the common language in and around their business districts in China. “Many think the Chinese should learn ‘their’ language,” reported the speaker, “meaning French or English!”
Migrants solve their communication problems in two principal ways. Either they hire a bilingual shop assistant and/or secretary — who are usually migrants to the given Chinese city themselves — or they engage in “calculator communication,” a style of negotiation that involves body language and typing numbers into a calculator. The danger of the first choice, noted Bodomo, is that some assistants have learned a migrant’s business then broke away and started their own.
The speaker claimed “a nascent African-Chinese pidgin” was developing between Chinese and African businessmen — an interesting linguistic mixture of African, English or French, and Chinese words. “Sometimes you hear words from all three languages in one sentence,” he remarked.
Facilitators of cultural bridges or unexpected guests?
Bodomo claimed that Africans in China were contributing to the economies of both China and their home countries. In addition to employing migrant workers in China, they remit close to 50 billion yuan to their home countries each year, exclusive of the value of goods that they ship, and are a big market for Chinese suppliers. In addition, Chinese doing business in Africa often rely on these people when they are in Africa.
In contrast to African diasporas in western Europe, and by extension, the United States, Africans in China are not encountering a former colonial power with some knowledge of its culture, he observed. “I believe something new is happening,” said Bodomo. “In China there is a sudden meeting of two different cultures — neither know a lot about one another. There is no political connection, no economic contact point, or even linguistic or cultural contact points.”
The Chinese government never expected Africans to migrate to China and are only now trying to formulate a policy on migrants, he said, noting that “they don’t even use the word ‘migrant’ in Chinese, they always say ‘our foreign friends.’”
The Chinese-African relationship
Bodomo believed that Africans in China will begin to play a major role in shaping African policy on China. He pointed out that while China has a clear Africa policy (non-interference, or the willingness to engage with whoever is in power without first insisting on regime change), Africa does not yet have a clear China policy.
One audience member claimed the Chinese policy of non-interference was really a subtle form of economic colonization and asked if African academics were arguing for a less disadvantaged, unbalanced economic relationship with China.
Bodomo responded that the answer depended on how neocolonialism is defined. He noted that the Chinese are not taking over the reins of power and directly ruling countries in Africa. “It is up to Africa,” he said. “Investments are not a problem. . . the question is how we handle them. Africans need to have their own policy to manage [these investors].”
He conceded there was a gap between Chinese policy and practice in places like South Sudan, commenting “I think if you sell arms, you are interfering. . . . But to be fair, they have not asked for a government to be overthrown as a conditionality of doing business.” He did note, however, that the Chinese were beginning to worry about some of their investments in Africa.
Surprised that the speaker never used the word “racism” in his talk, another audience member asked about the prejudice experienced by Africans in China, noting that a group of Senegalese students at one point had gone to their embassy and asked to leave. Bodomo replied that he covered issues of racism and cultural conflict in his book, including the difficult experience of African-Americans who came to Shanghai to teach English.