In late July, a Chinese national named Lu Ke was deported from Malawi after spending a year in prison. The incident, reported by the BBC, caused outrage among the people of sub-Saharan Africa. Lu Ke had made videos of African children reciting memorized phrases in Mandarin, unaware of what they were saying. He then sold these videos on Chinese social media. In one video, the young children unwittingly called themselves “black monsters with low IQs.” Lu Ke sold the videos for up to $70, with only 50 cents going to the children, who faced punishment if they refused.
Ghanaian YouTuber Wode Maya first discovered this shady business and alerted the BBC, who conducted an investigation into the thriving video-on-demand industry of African minors make videos greeting or congratulating Chinese people. During the investigation, BBC reporters found that Ke’s business was disguised as a Chinese language and culture school in Malawi.
The incident sparked outrage in the media and online communities and reignited the debate on racial tension between Chinese communities in Africa and local populations. And it wasn’t the first time something like this happened. In 2018, motorcycle dealer Liu Jiaqi was deported from Kenya to China after being caught on video calling Kenyans derogatory names. Many people in China still remember a 2016 advertisement that featured a “miracle detergent” that transformed a paint-stained Black man into a sparkling clean Asian man.
There is no official data on the exact number of Chinese citizens living on the continent. However, estimates by Yoon Jung Park, director of the leading research network on Chinese-African affairs, suggest that there are currently about a million Chinese settlers in Africa, with significant populations in countries such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Angola, Kenya and Zambia. Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Global South Project, estimates that the population may have swelled to two million by 2020, but has decreased since then, “coinciding with the sharp decline of China’s economic activity in Africa.” Olander estimates that today there are no more than 700,000, a “marginal” number in a continent of over 1.2 billion people.
In China, questioning the boss is simply unacceptable, a cultural norm that does not exist in Africa. It doesn’t help that many Chinese bosses try to wring the most out of their African employees, legally or illegally”Yoon Jung Park, director CA/AC Research Network
A consistent theme repeated by mostly American media and advocacy groups is that “the Chinese go to Africa to colonize,” said Roos Visser, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who recently published an essay titled “Racializing China-Africa Relations: A Test to the Sino-African Friendship.” “The colonization angle doesn’t tell the whole story,” Visser told EL PAÍS in a video call. The interactions between Chinese and Africans are extremely complex and should not be oversimplified. Regarding alleged racism within the Chinese community, Visser said their research did not uncover a widespread tendency toward racism, as is often portrayed in the Western narrative.
Yoon Jung Park says that the “yellow peril” narrative, which paints Asians as a threat to the West, is mostly fodder for the geopolitical rivalry. Park believes the alleged systematic prejudice of Chinese communities in Africa is a myth similar to the debt trap, a long-discarded theory that China is making massive loans to African countries with the intention of compromising their sovereignty. While academics and experts no longer believe this, it remains an oft-repeated allegation.
But Visser and Park also reject the rosy narrative coming from the Chinese propaganda apparatus. They argue that the smooth rhetoric emanating from the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is misleading. They also disagree that economic and human relations between the two regions are on equal grounds, driven by noble intentions and a genuine South-South friendship.
Media and advocacy groups always say that the Chinese go to Africa to colonize, but that doesn’t tell the whole story”Roos Visser, Vrije University, Amsterdam
Both Visser and Park readily admit that stale, racial stereotypes are often repeated in African work environments. “I’ve heard many Chinese people say that Black people are lazy, that they steal and you can’t trust them,” said Park, whose field work is based on thousands of interviews across the continent. The American researcher of South Korean origin says these stereotypes largely arise from the clash between different work ethics and different ways of understanding authority. “In China, questioning the boss is simply unacceptable, a cultural norm that does not exist in Africa. It doesn’t help that many Chinese bosses try to wring the most out of their African employees, legally or illegally,” said Park.
Visser says the concept of hierarchy is key to interpreting Chinese-African racial friction. “One school of thought presupposes that only those who have power over others can be racist,” he said. Chinese citizens in Africa are divided into two large and distinct groups. The expatriates are individuals with managerial roles (primarily in mining and infrastructure) who are only in Africa temporarily. The immigrants go to Africa in search of opportunity and intend to stay indefinitely. Visser explains that some scholars believe the Chinese immigrant group can never be racist, at least not in the strict sense. “This view says they can have racist attitudes, but they don’t act on them.”
Lu Ke was a Chinese immigrant to Malawi “who went there without any prior contact with people of other races or cultures,” said Olander. He was a newcomer with few resources who landed in a country where misery abounds. A poor man among a destitute people. “His behavior was clearly racist, although it does not reflect structural racism as seen in the United States and Europe,” said Park.
In countries like Zambia, authorities frequently disregard reported abuses. They don’t care to distinguish between China as a source of investment and prosperity and the behavior of certain individuals”Yoon Jung Park
All these nuances may also explain why some African countries turn a blind eye to degrading behavior. “In countries like Zambia, authorities frequently disregard reported abuses. They don’t care to distinguish between China as a source of investment and prosperity and the behavior of certain individuals,” said Park. Visser recalls that former Zambian President Michael Sata (2011- 2014) made an abrupt about-face after making the “yellow peril” a central issue of his campaign. After winning the election, he became a fervent promoter of Chinese interests in Zambia.
The language barrier
Amid the ongoing racial debate, the extent of Chinese integration in Africa is a relevant question. “Beyond the workplace, it’s almost non-existent,” said Adams Bodomo, a linguist and professor of African studies at the University of Vienna. The language factor creates barriers against the few, timid efforts at cultural exchange. A recent study by Bodomo and Jocelyne Kenne showed that the vast majority of Chinese living in a country like Cameroon arrive speaking only one language and remain monolingual. In their sample of 432 individuals, only 10% spoke French or English upon arriving in Africa. None of them had any knowledge of the native languages of their host countries. After years of living in Africa, even doctors and other professionals continued to use interpreters.
“Generally speaking, they are not integrating,” said Park, who offered another reason that may inhibit integration. Chinese immigrants in Africa tend to spend their leisure time on Chinese social networks and making video calls to family and friends back home instead of seeking out more interaction with their African neighbors. Still, Park said, “Many Africans tell me that Chinese people are different from other foreigners because they live in African neighborhoods and use public transportation.” Olander distinguishes between Chinese employees of large infrastructure projects who sleep and eat in barracks and return to China as soon as possible, and those who have come to Africa to stay. “They open businesses, or work in agriculture and textiles. In many ways, they have much closer relationships with Africans than most foreigners,” he said.
A 2019 study led by Hairong Yan from Hong Kong Polytechnic University rejected the notion that Chinese communities in Africa are especially prone to “self-segregation” due to their marked “ethnocentrism.” Yan’s team found very diverse residential and socialization patterns, arguing that “most Chinese in Africa are not self-isolated and not more isolated in Africa than are other Asian migrants and whites there. Claims of Chinese self-isolation reflect a longstanding, global Yellow Peril discourse that persists despite discrediting evidence.”
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