Why is African Migration to China Dwindling as Trade Ties Increase?

By Xiaojing Zeng

Relations between China and various sub-Saharan African countries have steadily strengthened since the beginning of Sino-African cooperation in the late 1990s. China, as the largest economic partner for many African nations, presents a uniquely attractive prospect for budding businesses and industries. Notably, since China’s announcement of the 2013 multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative, 39 African governments have signed on in order to increase economic activity in their respective countries.

7th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 2 Aug 2018. Source: Flickr

7th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 2 Aug 2018. Source: Flickr

For several decades, this dynamic drove a marked increase in African migration to China. However, as of recent years, the number of immigrants has dwindled. Considering that China-Africa trade ties are increasing, why does it appear to be so difficult for African migrants to integrate and prosper in China? This question can be answered by an analysis of two factors: first, discrimination and racial profiling within a traditionally homogenous society; and second, a decrease in economic opportunities for migrants caused by a tightening of Chinese trade laws and policies.

Discrimination against migrants in China 

In 2018, a skit presented during the state-sponsored CCTV Spring Festival Gala sparked international outrage due to its use of blackface to “celebrate” the Belt and Road Initiative. Criticism on Twitter and Weibo, a widely-used Chinese social media platform, included comments such as, “CCTV’s racist show during Spring Gala shook me and made me so ashamed of China and  my people,” and “I have never seen more awkwardness and blatant discrimination than this.” Nonetheless, the fact that the skit was disseminated to millions of viewers illustrates that Chinese media perpetuates ideas that lead to discrimination in the public sphere.

Racial profiling is a significant barrier for Africans looking to secure jobs in China. Berthold Winkler, a prolific YouTuber who vlogs his experiences as an African in China, states that “it is especially hard to get a job in China, because they want natives. If you are not a native, then you have to come from the U.S., Canada, or any other English-speaking country except for Africa.” In an interview, Winkler spoke with an African migrant with a decade of in-China experience who stated, “I believe that the system here is made specifically for the success of the indigenous. And the Africans arrive without any plans or knowledge of the system in China. So in most cases we just scramble for meals.”

This sentiment is reflected in the difficulty African migrants face in obtaining the status of a full resident in China. Not only did the Chinese government decrease the number of Chinese visas being issued following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Exit-Entry Administration Law of 2013 subjects those who have overstayed their visas to detention and investigation, with the aid of local police traps. Many Africans have resorted to hiring help from outside services to deal with the bureaucratic red tape surrounding the visa process. However, as stated by one migrant, “You might have the money and want someone to extend the visa for you. But you don’t know who to give the money to…both Chinese, Africans… you give them the money and then you don’t see them again.” 

Higher prices, lower opportunity 

Meanwhile, the tightening of intellectual property (IP) laws and regulations has prevented African entrepreneurs from manufacturing counterfeit goods for profit. IP regulations in 2016 prevented manufacturers from reproducing products with logos from Adidas, Nike, or Unilever. These restrictions, along with an increase in salaries for labor (12% year-over-year since 2001), have resulted in a significant loss of income for hopeful entrepreneurs. Coupled with the devaluation of African currencies and an increase in global competition, migrants are taking losses for living expenses and visa renewal fees. As a result, potential African migrants are looking for better opportunities in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. This has been clearly demonstrated by the decrease of African migrants in Guangzhou, one of the most diverse cities in China. In 2012, research conducted by African Studies expert Adams Bodomo estimated that more than 100,000 African migrants resided in the city, making it one of the largest African communities in Asia. Specifically, the diverse and dynamic city lured traders looking to mass produce and buy goods to sell back to their home countries. However, as of 2019, that number had dwindled to 12,737.  

A view of Ghuanzhou at dusk. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A view of Ghuanzhou at dusk. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The future of African migrants in China

While being a migrant in China has its challenges, certain African communities and organizations have played a crucial role in facilitating networking opportunities to increase the likelihood of success. For example, numerous African-run Pentecostal churches provide resources such as lessons on Chinese business conduct and attire, as well as access to established entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, community-based sports teams divert at-risk African youth from engaging in dangerous activities that may affect their lives in China. Tony Ekai, a migrant who found support through his Nigerian community soccer team in Guangzhou, explains that once young migrants “find out how difficult it is to make it in China, they start getting frustrated, and some make the wrong decisions… The team is a good way to keep them out of trouble.” 

Nonetheless, close-knit communities are not enough to prevent African migrants from looking for better business elsewhere. Felly Mwamba, a leader of the Congolese community in Guangzhou, notes that the Congolese population in his city has decreased from 700 in 2016 to just 500 in 2018. While China and Africa appear to be increasing economic cooperation, institutional issues that hinder African equality and success in China have not been addressed. 

When comparing the cost of racial and economic barriers that migrants face in China to the possibility of success that can be gained elsewhere, Africans are increasingly choosing the latter option. For that reason, in order to move beyond a one-sided relationship and inspire deeper, more comprehensive bilateral partnerships, the Chinese government must encourage cross-cultural interaction and mutual understanding. By ignoring institutional problems, the trade relationship between China and Africa may become more vulnerable in the future.

Xiaojing “JJ” Zeng is a Masters in Security Studies candidate at Georgetown University with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.