Study on china-africa migration touches on lives and national identity
When the first conference of the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network was held in South Africa five years ago it was a revelation for me. I had studied Chinese migration to Africa for many years, but had hardly ever met scholars with the same interest. Now I could compare my findings from Cape Verde to studies from Congo, Mali, Algeria, Lesotho and other countries. I also met some of the very few scholars researching Africans in China, which was invaluable because I was preparing to do fieldwork in Guangzhou.
We left the meeting in South Africa elated and determined to reconvene regularly. The network's conference at Jinan University in Guangzhou in December will be the third of its kind.
Over the past five years, interest in studying migration between Africa and China has surged. When I studied Chinese shopkeepers in Cape Verde in 2003, colleagues would raise their eyebrows and tell me the topic was esoteric or outright irrelevant. Today nobody questions whether these migration flows are consequential.
The number of scholars in this field has not only grown, but the group has also become more diverse. An increasing share of the scholarship on this topic is carried out by Chinese and African academics. Often young, they are eager to do thorough fieldwork and put in the time and effort needed to gain insights. For our research network, which is committed to understanding migration from the perspective of those involved, having members with diverse backgrounds is invaluable.
The surge in academic attention is also felt in day-to-day research duties. Five years ago, I was the only researcher living in Xiaobei, Guangzhou, a key destination for many African migrants and itinerant traders. Today, it is not uncommon to run into colleagues there. Some Africans, especially those holding positions in their home country associations, are now approached by so many scholars and journalists they feel the need to limit their participation.
I moved back to Xiaobei with my husband and two children six months ago. The area is more diverse than ever. Chinese Muslims provide their African brothers with services ranging from halal butchery to money exchange. An increasing proportion of the Africans there are women, some arriving on their own, others coming to join their husbands. In the neighborhood kindergartens, children with one or two African parents play and study with local children.
In this diverse environment, my family thrives. For breakfast, we can enjoy a classic southern Chinese meal of dim sum, or have a sturdy espresso and fresh croissant in one of the cafes catering to Francophone Africans. My daughter gets her hair braided by a Cameroonian. My baby son is picked up and played with by African women who come to China on short trading trips. For many of these women, the stay in China is not only profitable but also a welcome break from social and practical responsibilities at home. Residents and visiting Africans alike relish Xiaobei's lively night scene after they have spent the day trotting around trading malls, factories and warehouses.
Africans who praise Guangzhou for its economic opportunities are easy to find. "China is better than Europe and America," a resident Nigerian garment trader said emphatically. "When I tell my cousins over there that I can produce goods and run a shop in China, they can hardly believe me. Where they are, there are taxes and paperwork. Here they let you go ahead with business."
For some, Guangzhou is more than a place to make money: It is a home. They are married to Chinese and have children who have never lived anywhere else.
As people become more economically and socially invested in China, their sense of vulnerability increases. Some live here without a valid visa, and run the risk of being arrested and repatriated. Others have short-term visas and must frequently leave the country to reapply. Some spouses of Chinese citizens, who qualify for long-term tourist visas only, report being denied renewal.
The uncertainty affects the business environment. Investments are withheld while Africans worry about their prospects of remaining in China. The insecure visa situation takes its toll on relationships. It produces periods of separation between children and their African fathers. And it induces fear about the long-term prospects of keeping the family united.
China's immigration challenges are not unique, most established immigration countries having faced them. How they are handled will not only determine the fates of individuals but also influence the country's economic future and shape national identity.
Successful policies are based on knowledge. Other countries' experiences can inform new policies. But most importantly, they must fit the situation on the ground. This is a challenge for China as well as African countries now managing an influx of Chinese. The research presented at the Jinan conference will further a deeper understanding of the economic, social, and cultural implications of new migration flows between Africa and China.
The author is a visiting scholar at Sun Yat-sen University and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo. She is on the organizing committee of the 2014 Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Conference.
(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/13/2014 page9)