Observations on China in Africa: A Three Part Series

 – Wadeisor Rukato

Part 2: A brief history of international migration from China since the formation of the PRC

In the first post of this three-part series, I wrote about the diverse interactions between China and Africa that I observed during recent trips to Kenya and Zimbabwe. In this post, I provide a brief history of Chinese Migration to African countries since the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The third and final post in this series will focus on providing a typology of Chinese migrants to Africa.

As early as “the 18th century, China’s policy purposefully discouraged outbound migration”[1]. During the two Opium Wars, however, colonial powers reduced their restrictions on Chinese immigration and this enabled large-scale Chinese overseas migration in what has come to be known as the Coolie Trade[2] (Pieke and Speelman 2013; Mohan and Lampert 2013; Wenrou 2001).

At the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, any policies that had previously allowed for migration were reversed, and outbound migration was effectively terminated[3] (Pieke and Speelman 2013; Mohan and Lampert 2013; Wenrou 2001).  It is only with the ushering in of China’s economic reforms in the early 1970s that new patterns of Chinese emigration began to emerge, very often tied to different variables of Chinese economic development, the expansion of international trade relations and increased foreign direct investment[4].

While there is a general perception that migration between China and Africa is a recent phenomenon, it, in fact, has its origins in a long history of relations between different African States and China,  dating back to as far back as “ancient times” (Li,2007). Recent Chinese migration to Africa has been largely triggered by a range of both global and domestic factors, including “shifts in the world economy, geopolitical rivalries, and changing policies in both China and the receiving nation-states”[5] (Brautigam 2003; Giles Mohan and Dinar Kale, 2007).

Giles Mohan and Dinar Kale identify three predominant phases of Chinese migration to Africa[6]. The first, between the 1850s and 1950s, is identified as primarily having been a function of colonial labour demand[7].  In addition to this, a very small proportion of the migrants in this phase consisted of “enterprising groups of independent traders that serviced Chinese labour migrants and undertook small-scale export.”[8] The Chinese community in South Africa is distinct. From the late 19th Century “… independent artisans and family trading firms constituted the oldest communities Chinese migrants in South Africa. They are known today as ‘local’ Chinese in distinction from more recent…”[9] migrant groups.

During the second phase, between 1960 and 1980 migration from China to Africa was primarily determined by China’s political relations with African states in the context of broader Cold War politics. Medical teams and other and technical experts were sent to Africa to undertake projects in different African countries (Giles Mohan and Dinar Kale 2007, Brautigam 1998, Hsu 2002). Small numbers of these migrants stayed on in order to capitalise on available economic opportunities in construction or medicine[10].

A sleepy-looking me and Author Howard French at an open talk about his book on Chinese migration in Africa titled “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa“. I would recommend this book to anyone interested reading further on Chinese migration to Africa.

The final phase identified by Mohan and Kale is characterised by migration that has occurred from the 1990s until the present. The surge in Chinese migration to Africa in the last 30 years was at first primarily an outcome of China’s economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s. “The economic reforms created massive demands for raw materials and a glut of cheap Chinese manufactures which required new markets. This has seen a wave of economic migration to Africa by state-influenced construction teams, mining and oil workers, and private traders (Broadman 2007).”[11] More recently, the increase of Chinese investment and trade relations with Africa, and the formalisation of these relations through institutions like the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has been a massive driver of migrant flows from China to Africa.


[1] Giles Mohan and Ben Lampert, “Chinese Migrants in Africa: Bilateral and Informal Governance of a Poorly Understood South-South Flow”, (The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development Draft Paper, 2013), http://bit.ly/1MMAliP (Accessed on 31 December 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hou Wenruo, “China’s International Migration Policy”. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 10 (2001)

[5] Giles Mohan and Dinar Kale, “The invisible hand of South-South globalisation: Chinese migrants in Africa”, A Report for the Rockefeller Foundation (2007).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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