How Africans in China challenge stereotypical views on African migration

The African story in China is more nuanced than we often see
The African story in China is more nuanced than we often see
Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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In a conference I attended in 2013, a renowned, Western-educated, Korean scholar of migration, stubbornly argued that Africans were taking up work on Chinese farms growing food, as well as displacing Chinese workers in low-paid, blue-collar work. I was astounded. I felt forced to explain that this assessment was far from reality. In all my years as a researcher in China, I had never met one single African growing vegetables, working in a factory, or working as a janitor.

Not long after that, I heard a Sudanese businessman who had opened a factory in Guangzhou complaining angrily to a British journalist. He was frustrated that people like him (with employees, investments, business visas, and years of experience in China) were often described by Chinese and Western media as “illegal immigrants”; whereas unqualified, white Americans working illegally (on tourist visas) as teachers, earning barely enough to survive, were called ‘expats’.

Certainly, his concern struck me as one about representation, and about the lack of space for someone like him to have his story accurately told.

Much has been said about Africans in China over the last 15 years. From Africans taking advantage of the multifarious commercial opportunities brought about by the entrance of China to the World Trade Organization, to the emergence of African communities everywhere in the country—the so-called ‘Chocolate City’ (or ‘Little Africa,’ for a less controversial term) in Guangzhou being the most prominent example. Without a doubt, the long term consolidation of a Black diaspora in the People’s Republic of China has captivated the imaginations of people in China, Africa, and the world over.

Just this last year, for example, hundreds of pieces were written about what came to be known as the ‘Guangzhou incidents’ when, controversially, dozens of Black people in the Cantonese metropolis were evicted, stopped, detained, and compulsorily tested for coronavirus (see here what I wrote for Quartz Africa about the future of African presence in post-Covid-19 pandemic China). Indeed, much of what is written about Africans in China either looks at commercial opportunities, or provides accounts of Afro-Chinese racial relations (from a Western perspective).

For a decade now, I have been researching the cultural politics of African presence in southern China, and have striven to tell more nuanced stories about the diverse group of Africans that I have met in the country—mostly, focusing on their individual aspirations. One of the main obstacles that I have had in communicating my research findings to international audiences, however, is that people seem to be stubbornly stuck with two types of images about African migrants.

The first image portrays Africans on the move (when migrating out of Africa) as a consequence of war, natural disasters, or poverty. The second image is a two-sided one. At best, it portrays Africans as occupying low-end, blue-collar positions in the receiving societies; at worst, it depicts them as leading clandestine, subterranean, often illegal (criminalized) lives. On both sides of this image, however, African migrants are seen as a burden.

It is not news that these depictions are heavily sedimented in Western imaginations about African migration(s). They are the outcome of decades of knowledge production from paradigmatic centers in the ‘Global North’ (mostly coming from migration studies) and the imposition of a single story, a simplifying gaze, on peoples of the ‘Global South’.

While migration scholars may make the top of the list of potential culprits, they are not alone: journalists have also played

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a role in spreading misrepresentations about African migrants in China and elsewhere. While there are many people in the world generally who leave their home countries due to difficult circumstances, stereotypical assumptions around migration do not always apply. And, in the case of Africans in China, they often don’t.

Stuart Hall, the late Jamaican-born British cultural theorist, famously noted that representation matters for it has consequences: “how people are represented is how they are treated”.

In my upcoming book, African Transnational Mobility in China: Africans on the Move (Routledge, 2021), I take heed of Hall’s assertion by presenting a number of stories that stand strongly against the surreptitiously pervasive gaze that conflates non-“Western” individuals (in particular Black and brown people) with “illegal immigration” and ‘low-end trading’, the typical ways in which Africans in China have been represented. In particular, I challenge the overarching migration and trading narratives as they have left little space for issues of agency, emotion, and aspiration to be considered in their own right.

In the mix of economistic lenses (that attribute African presence in China exclusively to trade and globalization) with the often sensationalist takes on ‘race’ and racism (that pervade Western representations of the Africa-China encounter), a crucial element has been missing: this is, an in-depth analysis of the aspirations, hopes, feelings, motivations, and expectations behind the complex transnational, multidimensional, drives that lead people from all walks of life to journey between Africa and China.

The stories that I present in the book show how, by looking at the aspirations, hopes, and expectations of the Africans who I met in China, a different picture is revealed. A picture emerges where self-making transnational entrepreneurs actively pursue their dreams, often by resorting to trade (an activity that generates endless commercial opportunities for Chinese citizens), not as an end in itself, but as a tool to achieve other (more important) mid- and long-term objectives.

The picture that emerges from China—and its African diasporic communities—is a picture of empowered African agency that does not comfortably fit within the sedimented and stereotypical ways in which the ‘Global North’ gaze (with its white logic and white methods) routinely represents Africans.

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