In Box

Passage to China

It’s no secret that China has taken a shine to Africa in recent years, showering cash on the continent in a quest for influence and natural resources. As a result, as many as 750,000 Chinese have recently moved to Africa for work. Now, a far lesser-known trend appears to be emerging: A growing number of ...

It’s no secret that China has taken a shine to Africa in recent years, showering cash on the continent in a quest for influence and natural resources. As a result, as many as 750,000 Chinese have recently moved to Africa for work. Now, a far lesser-known trend appears to be emerging: A growing number of Africans are immigrating to the Middle Kingdom, lured by the opportunities of its booming economy.

The Chinese government zealously guards immigration data, but Barry Sautman, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 Africans — mostly businessmen — in the southern city of Guangzhou alone. The number of Africans living in larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, says Sautman, has increased from several hundred to several thousand in a few years. It’s a mere drop in these cities of millions, but it is evidence that what was once rare is becoming more routine. Even cities off the beaten path — such as Shijiazhuang, Baoding, and Taiyuan — are beginning to see the arrival of Africans. There will "certainly… [be] an increase in [African] migration in the direction of China," says J. Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, "because China is offering opportunities to increase life chances, skills, and income."

There’s undoubtedly more African talent equipped to work in China than ever before: Today, nearly 120 schools in 16 African countries offer Chinese-language courses. Africa also boasts six Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institutes, which offer courses in Chinese language and culture. And the Chinese government has already pledged to double the number of annual scholarships for African students to attend Chinese universities to 4,000 each year.

But are the Africans welcome? Although Beijing has been solicitous toward its new economic partners, Chinese nationals are still largely unaccustomed to foreigners, particularly those from outside Asia. Tensions within the African community were raised last September, when police raided bars in Beijing’s Sanlitun district, arresting nearly 30 people of African descent, including the son of a Caribbean diplomat, on drug charges, spurring accusations of racial profiling and police mistreatment. How the government treats its newest immigrants may decide whether others choose to go east. 

Malia Politzer is a freelance journalist based in Spain. She is a former Pulitzer Center grantee and Institute of Current World Affairs fellow and is currently completing a Ph.D at the University of Granada. Twitter: @maliapolitzer

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