As Chinese Laborers Follow Jobs to Africa, African Traders Flock to China

Mbeki JintaoI’ve long argued that one of China’s most important exports to the rest of the world is people. The numbers are staggering: hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of rural, often poor Chinese have left their homes in search of new opportunities. And that’s just accounting for those headed to Africa. As Chinese state-owned firms more heavily engage across the continent to exploit Africa’s abundance of natural resources, poor Chinese follow. Often, they find work building the highways, railroad, and electrical systems needed to move resources from their point of origin to port. And what’s more, the Chinese government is eager to see them leave, and never come home. According to Telegraph article from 2008, Beijing “officials want more of China’s surplus rural population of tens of millions of people to follow them, saying they will earn money and help the continent to develop.”

But just like power, population flows stream both ways. While numbers are difficult to come by, it has become clear that levels of immigration—legal and illegal—to China are on the rise. The heaviest flows at current seem to originate from points dotted around the region as laborers from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma increasingly look to China for new economic opportunities. But traders from Africa have also flocked there to exploit emerging markets for designer jeans, knock-off luxury items, and sports merchandise to feed China’s appetite for all things LeBron James. Needless to say, however, the transition has not been easy even as it grows larger.

The Christian Science Monitor looks at the experience of Africans, mostly Nigerians, who have migrated to China in search of work. For African migrants, life is predictably difficult.

Though the Chinese trade with the African immigrants, not everybody embraces them as neighbors. Some Chinese cite a language barrier with the English-speaking Africans. Some Africans in China on work visas said they feel they are perceived by the Chinese as violence-prone troublemakers. Still, because most Africans don’t speak much Mandarin or Cantonese they do not seem a threat to take jobs, and are just in China to buy goods to take back to their home country and sell.

Recently, however, social antagonism against African immigrants in China has provoked government action designed to coercively crack down on illegal residents in the country.

But since 2009, local police have begun to regularly raid buildings teeming with Africans as they look for those who have overstayed their visa. Those who are caught face stiff fines and interminable jail time. In July 2009, two Nigerians jumped to their deaths from a five-story building to evade police pursuit. Though such standoffs are rare, enraged Africans rallied outside the police station to protest the strong-arm tactics leading to the casualties.

These recent flashpoints hint at the larger troubles China currently experiences as it looks to integrate into the global economy. ‘“I wonder, if China wants to open up the market, why they don’t allow people to come?’ asks Stephen Kelvin, a polo shirts trader from Nigeria.” Good question.

In fact, the government in Beijing does allow migrant workers to enter the country, albeit on highly restrictive visas. A major policy initiative was launched in 2005 to allow workers into the country with a view to stimulating business both at home and abroad. But as the Monitor reports, the 2005 program has proved suboptimal in its results, and opened new opportunities for exploitation and grift.

Many Nigerians say few of them can get work visas renewed for longer than three months; some can only get a 30-day extension each time they seek to stay longer. Some African traders allege that they have become vulnerable to dishonest Chinese suppliers who would delay delivery beyond the Africans’ visa extension, forcing them to choose between losing business and becoming illegal. To remain legal, the only option is to submit their papers and keep their fingers crossed, many say.

As a result, policymakers in Beijing are mulling next steps forward, considering drafting “the country’s first immigration law, according to Zhuang Jijao, a researcher with the China Academy of Social Sciences.”

What that law might look like remains unclear. But what is certain is that Beijing needs to address what will undoubtedly be an intensifying surge of immigrant labor pouring into the country as China’s economic growth continues to swell. As Zhuang told channelnewsasia.com last May, “judging from the history of Western developed countries, inward migration flows often reveal the appeal of a nation. But to have a stronger appeal and competitiveness in the global arena, a nation must properly resolve social and economic issues arising from immigration.”

In this sense, the immigration issue mirrors other aspects of the new reality facing rising China. Up until now, Beijing has enjoyed the luxuries of exploiting the international marketplace at little cost to itself, essentially having its cake and eating it too. Yet as China seems to be discovering perhaps sooner than it would have liked, with hegemony comes responsibility and new challenges. The realization, then, of Chinese ambitions will likely hinge on Beijing’s ability to negotiate the slippery slope of reconciling its realist priorities with the principles of the liberal world it ultimately seeks to lead.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.