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Navanti contributor Xiaojing "JJ" Zeng explores the challenges facing African workers in China, including racial discrimination and tightening trade laws and policies.
7th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 2 Aug 2018. Source: Flickr

Relations between China and various sub-Saharan African countries have steadily strengthened since the beginning of Sino-African cooperation in the late 1990s. China, as the largest economic partner for many African nations, presents a uniquely attractive prospect for budding businesses and industries. Notably, since China’s announcement of the 2013 multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative, 39 African governments have signed on in order to increase economic activity in their respective countries.

For several decades, this dynamic drove a marked increase in African migration to China. However, as of recent years, the number of immigrants has dwindled. Considering that China-Africa trade ties are increasing, why does it appear to be so difficult for African migrants to integrate and prosper in China? This question can be answered by an analysis of two factors: first, discrimination and racial profiling within a traditionally homogenous society; and second, a decrease in economic opportunities for migrants caused by a tightening of Chinese trade laws and policies.

Discrimination against migrants in China 

In 2018, a skit presented during the state-sponsored CCTV Spring Festival Gala sparked international outrage due to its use of blackface to “celebrate” the Belt and Road Initiative. Criticism on Twitter and Weibo, a widely-used Chinese social media platform, included comments such as, “CCTV’s racist show during Spring Gala shook me and made me so ashamed of China and my people,” and, “I have never seen more awkwardness and blatant discrimination than this.” Nonetheless, the fact that the skit was disseminated to millions of viewers illustrates that Chinese media perpetuates ideas that lead to discrimination in the public sphere.

A view of Ghuanzhou at dusk. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Racial profiling is a significant barrier for Africans looking to secure jobs in China. Berthold Winkler, a prolific YouTuber who vlogs his experiences as an African in China, states that “it is especially hard to get a job in China, because they want natives. If you are not a native, then you have to come from the U.S., Canada, or any other English-speaking country except for Africa.” In an interview, Winkler spoke with an African migrant with a decade of in-China experience who stated, “I believe that the system here is made specifically for the success of the indigenous. And the Africans arrive without any plans or knowledge of the system in China. So in most cases we just scramble for meals.”

Higher prices, lower opportunity 

Meanwhile, the tightening of intellectual property (IP) laws and regulations has prevented African entrepreneurs from manufacturing counterfeit goods for profit. IP regulations in 2016 prevented manufacturers from reproducing products with logos from Adidas, Nike, or Unilever. These restrictions, along with an increase in salaries for labor (12% year-over-year since 2001), have resulted in a significant loss of income for hopeful entrepreneurs. Coupled with the devaluation of African currencies and an increase in global competition, migrants are taking losses for living expenses and visa renewal fees. As a result, potential African migrants are looking for better opportunities in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh.

To read JJ Zeng's full piece on decreasing African migration to China, click here.

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