Journalist Howard W. French caused a sensation in 2014 by publishing China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are building a new empire in Africa.
The former New York Times reporter detailed how Africa has become a resource-rich El Dorado for Chinese construction and mining firms and a platform for projecting Beijing’s geopolitical might. He reckons Africa is currently home to over a million Chinese workers and immigrants. If true, this represents a huge jump for a continent that only two decades ago had just a sprinkling of members from the worldwide Chinese diaspora.
However several US-based experts on China’s engagement with Africa have noticeably different views. They note that Chinese investment and political involvement in Africa, while clearly on the up, isn’t as large as French and other western media reports claim.
Far from being a monolithic group dedicated to carrying out Beijing’s policy aims, they also describe Chinese migrants to Africa as a mobile, diverse population with few, if any ties to China’s government. Some migrants may also be leaving Africa.
“There’s no such thing as China Inc.” in Africa, says Yoon Jung Park, one of the world’s top experts on Chinese migration to the region. “Beijing clearly has no control over these independent migrants.” Seoul-born Park is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. who has lived in Johannesburg and Nairobi.
She notes that China’s government provides no assistance, financial or otherwise, to Chinese migrants in Africa. “There is no plot from Beijing. If you look at the numbers, there are far more Chinese in other parts of the world than there are in Africa,” Park points out.
Park offers anecdotal evidence that richer and more transient members of Africa’s Chinese community are pulling up stakes and emigrating to the US and Latin America due to economic factors, including the impact of China’s downturn on related jobs and businesses.
“Very few of the migrants I interviewed talked about staying in Africa permanently. They said it was temporary and that they would eventually return to China”
In South Africa, Park says the departures are also traceable to local crime, safety and corruption concerns. She believes the year-long devaluation of the South African rand and the impact on local holdings have been a bigger impetus for some migrants to leave South Africa than China’s downturn.
“They are a highly mobile population. They move around based on where economic opportunities present themselves,” Park said. “Very few of the migrants I interviewed talked about staying in Africa permanently. They said it was temporary and that they would eventually return to China.”
On the investment side, David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, says there’s a fair amount of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) entering Africa, adding up to about 5% of China’s total global FDI — which hit US$118.02 billion in 2015. But the former World Bank official and respected authority on the subject says “it’s still a pretty small percentage of (China’s) total investment.”
Park and Dollar peg the total number of Chinese migrants in Africa at about 1 million, far less than the 2 million suggested by some reports. They note the dearth of accurate data from local African or Chinese government sources and say the 1 million figure is a best guesstimate based on available information.
Even in South Africa, the continent’s most developed nation and home to its largest group of Chinese residents, Park says “the Home Affairs Department is notoriously bad about keeping track of things (like Chinese migrants). They also only track people who come in, not those who leave.”
Europeans outnumber Chinese
Whether 1 or 2 million, the total number of Chinese in Africa is eclipsed by the estimated 5.6 million white Africans of European ancestry that the CIA Fact Book and other sources say currently reside on the continent. Park also notes that the 1 million Chinese-in-Africa figure is minuscule when compared with China’s total population of 1.3 billion.
Hannah Postel, a migration researcher at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. who has done field research in Zambia, believes that unverified and possibly inflated population estimates for Chinese migrants are fueling fears, as per French’s book, that they are tools of Beijing and are “building a new empire in Africa.”
“In terms of the actual numbers of Chinese migrants to Africa, I think we’re still at the very beginning of being able to assess that,” said Postel, who thinks the actual number of Chinese in Africa may actually be in the “high hundred thousands.”
Postel noted that during her time in Zambia, the local Chinese embassy was clueless about how many Chinese were in the country. Nor did Beijing’s diplomats seem particularly interested in tracking these numbers, Postel says.
Park thinks the relative disconnect between Chinese migrants and local Chinese diplomats extends across Africa. “Often their first contact with the local Chinese consulate is when they have to report that they have been victims of crimes.”
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times