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Will 300 million Chinese leave China for Africa?

Published on 19 June 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a two parts article Asia Times[1] argues that 300 million Chinese will soon migrate into Africa. This prediction is startling enough to warrant consideration. The argument relies on a mix of “push” and “pull” factors. Despite its “one child policy” China is overpopulated: the mainland cannot sustain more than 700 million. Environmental factors, basically lack of water, will “push out” the rest. This is strictly a Malthusian argument, which ignores the paramount role of technology in development. One unintended consequence of the one-child regulation, argues the author, will be prosperity driven by pampered Chinese kids who – now free of stifling Confucian values – will grow up to be very ambitious entrepreneurs. This is the “pull” factor. “Africa represents a land of opportunity for the Chinese migrant. And history shows it is often strong kinship-based ethnic groups whose economic opportunities are more limited at “home” who become the “stranger-traders” abroad, for better or worse. This has certainly happened in parts of Africa where the Chinese represent a valuable link to manufactured goods and novel services unavailable in agrarian and peasant-like societies in Africa.” One is silently thankful for the “limiting factors” still restraining the rest of the mainland Chinese who lived through the “one child” policy. Why Africa? The author seems to envisage some kind of “Yellow Man’s burden”: the Chinese building links to “agrarian and peasant-like societies in Africa” – never mind that Africa is no longer preponderantly agrarian. The 300 million Chinese would replace or join trading minorities like Asians and Lebanese in Africa (a continent with one billion people altogether and a history of poverty) in expanding trade and consumption. It is not clear to what extent independent Chinese would, in the author’s view, become successful industrial entrepreneurs. At the moment there are less than fifty million Chinese overseas[2] and one million Chinese in Africa, of which one third in South Africa. For the predicted move to take place within one generation ten million Chinese would have to settle somewhere in Africa each year. But let’s discard perplexities and look at Chinese history of migration. From its origins on the Yellow River the Chinese civilization expanded slowly into the Yangtze River basin and beyond to the south and west, changing its agricultural base from wheat and millet to rice production as it advanced. The interplay of trade and expansion gradually extended the frontiers of China in the northeast, southwest as well as north and northwest. It was a complex process. “Barbarians” first became part of China’s ho-ch’in policy (peace along the border against gifts); this relationship evolved into the tributary system[3]; over time these peoples “surrendered” and were integrated within the regular Chinese chünhsien (province-district) administrative system[4]. Along this path the Imperial Court may create military colonies to sustain the process. Such expansionist policies were deemed very expensive and were often discontinued as imperial power waned. China then was not adverse to projecting power across its borders; its only “overseas adventure” was, however, under the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan[5] – in direction of Japan. It failed. Historians have long speculated as to why China did not build an empire. My conjecture is quite simple: it did not need to. Chinese diasporas have emerged in particular around Southeast Asia. The Middle East is on the cards[6], together with Africa. Though these diasporas have achieved even very significant economic importance, the numbers of Chinese involved have remained characteristically small[7]. Their presence has not been without its difficulties.

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Raw materials vs. infrastructure, investment, and manufactured goods: this is the complex complementarity than links Africa and China today. Small (and transient) numbers are needed to bring this complex relation to fruition and to secure the allocation of surplus among participant elites. Whether collateral consumption by African non-elites will justify significant expansion of a (Chinese) trading class in Africa remains an open question[8]. Expansion of the Chinese diaspora in Africa beyond minimal limits needed to fulfill the complementarity might, however, endanger the original and overarching bargain, should ethnic tensions rise. In addition, the massive exit of young workers may complicate China’s ability to deal with its rapidly ageing population. The Chinese government certainly has the means to control large outflows of its people in the order of magnitude outlined in the prediction so as to prevent such major failures to eventuate. The author concludes emotionally: “Although the economic and geopolitical motivations of China’s aggressive move into Africa are enormous, the demographic reasons are the most poignant, even desperate. In that sense China needs Africa, not to thrive but actually just to survive.”

[1] https://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/NF14Ad01.html Cedric MUHAMMAD: What China really wants in Africa.
[3] This system involved Barbarian symbolic submission (as signified by providing homage and hostages) coupled with (unequal) exchange of “tributary products” (e.g. horses) and “imperial gifts” (e.g. silk) that favoured the Barbarians.
[4] See: Ying-Shih YÜ (1967): Trade and expansion in Han China. A study in the structure of Sino-Barbarian economic relations. University of California Press, Berkeley.
[6] See e.g.: Ben SIMPFENDORFER (2009): The New Silk Road. Palgrave, MacMillan, London.
[7] Amy CHUA (2004): World on fire. How exporting free-market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability. Arrow Books, London; 346 pp
[8] Colonial powers made use of an imported merchant class to isolate themselves from the non-elite. After independence these foreign ethnicities were often expelled. I’m not sure that autochthonous extractive elites would require such services, though they may be happy to tolerate them – for a consideration.

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