Written by Li Anshan.

In recent years, the rapid development of China-Africa relations has prompted migration flows to and from China and the fifty plus countries of the African continent. These migration flows have in turn attracted international attention and no little misunderstanding. Here I would like to address some issues and provide answers to ten specific questions in order to improve the understanding of these processes.

  1. How many Chinese are there in Africa?

The precise number of overseas Chinese is uncertain and we have to use an estimation, although the number of Chinese in Africa is not huge. In my book published in 2000 I predicted that there would be a rapid increase in the number of Chinese in Africa in the 21st century.[1] With 136000 in 1996, 240,000 in 2000, 550,000 in 2006-7, the number reached 1.1 million in 2012. This represent a big increase, although the number is insignificant compared with the number of Chinese in other continents. Reliable estimates of the number of Chinese overseas in 2013 suggests 30 million in Asia, 7.9 million in America, 2.5 million in Europe, and around 1 million in Oceania. The figure for the U.S. alone in 2010 was 4.02 million, three times of that living in the 54 countries of the African continent.[2]

  1. Who are the Chinese in Africa?

Various kinds. The Chinese in Africa include a small percentage of the old generation who are now citizens of the settled countries and new arrivals in recent years. For example, among about 250 thousand Chinese in South Africa, the South African citizens with Chinese origin before 1994 and their descendants account for 10,000 to 12,000. Most of new arrivals include temporary workers, entrepreneurs, project managers, farmers, re-migrants, intellectuals, etc. Most of them are not immigrants in real sense. For instance, among 900 Chinese in Rwanda in 2012, two thirds are the members of contracting Chinese companies or workers of the projects aided by the Chinese government, the rest are free immigrants. Most of 35,860 Chinese evacuated from Libya in 2011 were managers and workers of the companies. Same can be applied to Chinese in other African countries.

  1. Are the Chinese in Africa taking Africans’ jobs?

There are worries among some Africans that Chinese migrants constitute an economic threat to their livelihoods. It is true that Chinese peddlers in Nigeria or mine workers in small gold-mines in northern Ghana have engaged in certain fields confined to local citizens, but African and Chinese governments are tackling the problem. However, big projects undertaken by Chinese companies are using many local workers. For example, the construction of the 1344 kilometre Benguela Railway in Angola was completed in August 2014 after nearly 10 years’ of hard-work and joint efforts of about 1000 Chinese (more than 20 Chinese died during the construction) and 100 thousand Angolan workers. As one engineer of Beijing Construction Group explained, the Chinese in Angola are “people who come to work on a project, do business or are migrant workers, there aren’t any people who are immigrating here to stay”.

  1. Are the Chinese in Africa part of a “grand strategy”?

There is no such thing as the Chinese government supporting Chinese immigration to Africa as part of some notional grand strategy. More and more studies show that Chinese immigrants are arriving in Africa independently, with various social backgrounds, multiple points of origin and different educational levels. Yoon Junk Park for one criticizes the misguided view that Chinese immigrants are supported by the Chinese government, and argues that they are independent immigrants and come to South Africa in order to improve their living standard.[3] A report of Chinese traders in five Southern African countries demonstrated how the Chinese presence in Africa is diverse, complex and by no means part of well-planned strategy on the part of the Chinese government. Indeed many Chinese interviewees were unhappy with the Chinese embassy and wanted nothing to do with it.

  1. What brings the Chinese to Africa?

The simple answer is that Chinese come to Africa to make money. Although individual motivations vary, the underlying factor in many cases is that Chinese perceive in Africa better opportunities to advance their personal economic standing. The western media has a tendency to over-emphasize the Chinese “hunger” for natural resources in Africa, while a major reason is the continent represents a big market for many goods, attracting many Chinese traders. What is more, African countries offer better conditions for visa application, and there is less pressure for living and less competition for development. Some Chinese stay on or come back to Africa for business after finishing stints on medical teams, assistance staff for the government, or construction workers on various projects. Some also see Africa as a spring-board for migration to other continents.

  1. Why do Africans choose to go to China?

Again, the simple answer is that Africans migrate to China to seek business opportunities. An increasing number of Africans are engaged in trade in China and forming migrant communities in Guangzhou, Yiwu and elsewhere. The African communities in China have become a new subject for academic research.[4] With its rapid development, China is an attractive place for Africans to do business. Guangzhou, the first gathering-place for African merchants, has given way to Yiwu, where the world’s largest commodities market is located. Almost all African countries have a space to set up shops in the African Trade Centre in Yiwu, either for retail or wholesale. Gizelle, a successful Cameroonian businesswoman, has her shop there selling hand-made African decor and furniture to customers from various cities in China and is very happy with her business expansion. Her story is common to many African merchants in China.

  1. Is there discrimination towards Africans in China?

Nowhere is completely free from discrimination, but such attitudes toward Africans in China is rare. I have supervised three PhD. students from Africa and they shared many stories of their experiences in China. They all say that Chinese are curious about them, but none of them came across discrimination. A Ghanaian student described her experience in China in The Atlantic, although there are good relations between China and Africa on governmental level, yet

“on a person-to-person basis, ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance still persist…… I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning.”

This type of attitude towards Africans is evidenced on the website “Guancha” (Observer), where the responses to a report on African experiences in Yiwu market indicate positive attitude towards African merchants. There are ignorance and curiosity rather than discrimination.

  1. Why do Africans come to China to study?

An increasing number of young Africans come to China for further study. The first reason is to know more about China, especially after witnessing the Olympic Games in 2008 provided a totally different image from that previously reported in much international media. Rapid development in China represents a great opportunity for many African students, with the ability to study advanced technology in many sectors from transportation to aerospace. The Chinese government also offers favorable conditions, including fellowships or free technological training, especially after the establishment of FOCAC. Practical reasons are important too. Tuition and living conditions are cheaper than in the west. Chinese language and experience prepare them a good way for a better job in Chinese companies in Africa such as Huawei and ZTE. Finally, there is an easier access to Chinese visas than more restrictive western countries.

  1. What role do Africans in China play?

Mutual understanding is a key component in bilateral relations, and greater exchanges between Africans and Chinese is beneficial to both sides. A student once asked me to supervise a thesis entitled “The history and spread of the Djembe Drum in China”. When asked why she chose this topic, she told me she was a member of the Djembe Club at our University! This type of cultural exchange is very valuable. Besides promoting bilateral business, Africans have brought their values, skills, paintings, sculptures, art works, dances, music instruments, films, etc. There is a Foreign Related Dispute Mediation Office in Yiwu comprised of mediators from 12 different nations. Senegalese Tirera Sourakhata and his Guinean colleague volunteered to be mediator with their knowledge and language skill. In Peking University, there is an International Cultural Festival every year, and African students set up national stands to introduce their own culture. African singers frequently perform popular art in TV programs, and there are African reporters on CCTV and other media, African dance groups, African drum clubs, etc. Their contribution undoubtedly enriches the multiculturalism of contemporary China.

10.  Is there a wave of intermarriage between Africans and Chinese in China?

It is inevitable that greater cultural and personal interactions between people will lead to an increase in marriages between couples from different nationalities. I know personally of several Afro-Chinese marriages. What is more, there seems to be a boom of this kind of intermarriages, which will bring about a new generation in China, or in Africa, for that matter.

A popular view holds that the China-Africa honeymoon is over and there are increasing problems regarding bilateral relations. I have a contrary opinion, which is that the more problems the better. Why do I say this? Because if there was no or minimal contact, there would be no problems. When relations become wider and deeper, more problems naturally occur. With an equal relationship and mutual respect, China and Africa can sit down to discuss their problems and together find solutions. Once the problem is solved, relations will get closer still.

Li Anshan is Professor and Director of the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University, and Chair of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies. Image credit: CC by jbdodane/Flickr.


[1] Li Anshan, A History of Overseas Chinese in Africa, Beijing: Chinese Overseas Publishing House, 2000.

[2] Figures are taken from 2013 Statistical Yearbook of the Overseas Community Affairs Council, Taibei, 2013 and Blue Book of Overseas Chinese: Annual Report on Overseas Chinese Study (2014), Beijing, 2014. Another comparison also makes send. The Indians in South Africa are much more than the Chinese.

[3] Yoon Park, A Matter of Honour. Being Chinese in South Africa, Lexington Books, 2009.

[4] A. Bodomo’s study is a pioneer work. See Adams Bodomo, Africans in China: A Sociocultural Study and Its Implications on Africa-China Relations, Cambria Press, 2012. For a historical review, see Li Anshan, “African Diaspora in China: Research, reality and reflection”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2015(forthcoming issue).

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