Observations on China in Africa: A Three Part Series.

– Wadeisor Rukato

Part 3: A typology of Chinese migrants to Africa.

The previous post in this series presented a brief history of Chinese migration to African countries. Reactions to part two of the series reflect how the discourse on Chinese migration to Africa has tended to focus on recent migration from China to Africa that is fueled by Sino-African economic relations. This has been to the neglect of the complex pre-twentieth century history of Chinese migration to Africa. A reader affirmed this point by remarking that he had “no idea how complex the migratory history between  China and Africa actually was”. Most people don’t.

This post is the third and final segment of the three-part series. It presents a typology of Chinese migrants to African countries by focussing on forms of migrant categorisation in the literature on this subject. Typologies of Chinese migrants in African countries are best observed in the context of the broad historical phases of migration discussed in the second post.

While there is considerable overlap in the Chinese migrant typologies presented in the literature, different scholars have classified Chinese migration according to different relevant categories. Pieke and Speelman (2013) classify Chinese migrants in Africa according to a three-category typology. The first category consists of the established community of Chinese born in Africa. This category is only significant in South Africa and Mauritius”[1], which both have large populations of Chinese nationals (Pieke and Speelman 2013; Giles Mohan and Dinar Kale 2007). The Chinese population in South Africa can be traced back to the 1660s and the early 1900s when the British colonial administration imported considerable amounts of Chinese labour to work in mines.

The second category consists of “… traders, businesspeople and investors, mostly from an urban background”[2]. The migrants in this group settled in African countries after travelling to the continent in a professional capacity as members of medical teams; employees and owners of Chinese companies that operate in Africa; or as workers who were sent to Africa to implement development projects. The third category consists of rural migrants from areas in Southern Zhejiang province and Central Fujian. For this group, migration to Africa is less linked to formal state activity in African countries. Rather, it is primarily motivated by personal aspirations and the seeking out of new opportunities in Africa.

Mohan and Lampert (2013) also present a three-category typology of Chinese migrants in Africa. The first category of their typology consists of “temporary labour migrants [who] are generally associated with large infrastructure projects”[3] in African countries”. This group is identified as being employed according to temporary labour contracts. Migrants in this group generally return to China at the completion of their contractual obligations. Mohan and Lampert’s second category is comprised of petty entrepreneurs “who usually work in trade, services and light manufacturing, but lack government backing”[4].

The third category presented by Mohan and Lampert is undocumented migrants who purposefully wish to evade state surveillance[5].

This group of migrants generally use their stay in African states as a temporary settling point in journeys to Europe, where they in fact desire to settle permanently (Pieke and Speelman 2013).

Among all of the groups discussed in the literature, it is this third group that is least understood, presenting an important opportunity for further research. Across the three categories identified, “the prevailing impetus for each of these groups is economic.”[6]

An earlier paper by Mohan and Kale (2007) presents a typology that characterises migrants according to a number of broader categories. The four comprehensive categories are; a) migrant source regions, destination countries, and patterns of settlement b) economic activities c) social relations and d) political processes. This multivariate approach provides key insights into the various motivations and drivers of Chinese migration to African countries. While their findings are too detailed to summarise comprehensively in this post, some of the key insights for each category in their typology appear in the table below.


From the information in the table, it appears that migrant-sending areas in China and migrant receiving destinations in African are determined by a range of factors, including government policy, the industrial history of African states and domestic conditions in particular provinces in China. A uniform push-factor across the range of migrants to Africa is the potential economic benefit from migrating. Chinese migrants participate in economic activity across a broad range of industries in African states including trade, services and aid and manufacturing.

The social relations and political identities of Chinese who migrate to Africa is a topic that deserves further inquiry and research. Observed social relations are, however, significantly influenced by the specific societies that the migrants come from and the societies in African states with which they interact. It is also clear that changing policy in both China and African states has been central in facilitating migration from China to Africa. Policy reform in both regions has widened the typology of Chinese travellers to Africa. There has consequently been a broadening of observable migrant aspirations across typologies.


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