August 13, 2010
Source: Information Review
Author: Jiang Hongfeng
When the Chinese first arrived in Africa in the early years, they lived a hard life, working in mines and road construction as low-paid laborers. However, working very industriously, they opened small shops gradually. Though small, these Chinese shops have not only become an indispensable part of the local life, but also contributed tremendously to the African economic development. After generations of great efforts, they have settled down and become conscientiousbusinesspeople. The overseas Chinese who have taken root in Africa are continuing to make contribution to the development of their adopted homes with wisdom and competence.
The China-Africa contact is a slow and gradual process and theChinese understanding of Africa has gone through stages from indirect to direct information, from hearsay to firsthand. The Chinese immigration to Africa has been continuous with occasional upsurges.
The China-Africa engagement has a long history. Chinaand Egypt began cultural exchanges as early as in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.). In the 8th century, during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.), a Chinese person named Du Huan once made it to Africa. He could have been the first person to have left behind a written record of the Chinese in Africa.
Africa's great traveler Iben Patutai visited China in the 14th century, and left a vivid description of the urban life of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). In the 15th century, Zheng He led a fleet to call on the east coast of Africa on several occasions. Even more interesting is the fact that giraffes and zebras, animals unique to Africa, appeared in the literature of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Similar archaeological findingshave been unearthed, as Chinese archaeologists found a pottery figurine of a black personin LadyPei's tomb of the Tang Dynasty. In addition, Chinese porcelains ranging from the Tang to Ming Dynasties as well as five Tang Dynasty coins have been uncovered on the East African coast and in Madagascar. Since 18th century, links and exchanges between China and Africa have gradually increased.
Despite the long history of exchanges, China came to know more about Africa only in the modern era. Europeans, especially the missionaries, brought geographical knowledge of the rest of the world to China and the Chinese court officials and intellectuals began learning more about the outside world.
With the gradual declination of the national power and worsening of the living conditions in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many Chinese peasants started immigrating abroad. With Southeast Asia as the first choice, some, however, made it to Africa. They first arrived in Mauritius, and then immigrated to Madagascar, South Africa and other regions. The unequal treaties with the Western powers also brought contracted Chinese laborersto all over the world (Africa included). They worked in mines, road constructions and on plantations as laborers. According to the statistics, a total of 142,000 Chinese laborers were brought to African colonies of the Western powers who contributed to the local economic development. People who followed the footsteps of the Chinese laborers made up the major part of the early Chinese communities in Africa.
The Chinese laborers gave the initial impression of China to the Africans and they spread the knowledge about Africa in China upon returning home.
Generally speaking, the early Chinese émigrés in Africa were penniless peasants who could only live off their hard labor. Using their meager savings, they later opened small stores. Doing small-scale businesses seemed to have become a model, as it was common amongst the early Chinese immigrants. Compared to other ethnic groups, the Chinese in Africa are rather successful in business endeavors. The reasons for their success are, firstly, the all-inclusiveness of their commercial activities. As they started from a low point, their industrious and hardworking nature carried them to any place or into any kind of business (such as long-distance trading and peddling) that the Europeans and other peoples didn't bother to go or do. Chinese businesspeople can be found anywhere from sugarcane plantations in Mauritius and Reunion, mountainous areas of Madagascar, remote regions of South Africa to all rural districts and places where immigrants concentrate.
The Chinese have a flexible way of doing business. As they didn't understand the local languages in the early years, they would put a stick on the counter for the customers to point at the items they wanted or used coins in bargaining. Most Chinese businesses in Africa conducted barter trade.
In the early days, numerous Chinese shops practiced a credit system that gave convenience to the poorer customers. The Chinese shop owners would give credits to the poor white families in South Africa and to sugar refineryworkers in Mauritius and Reunion, and the same practice was adopted by the Chinese businesses in Madagascar and Seychelles. In Mauritius the practice is known as the "turnover system" under which the customers would buy their daily necessities at the same store and make payment on a weekly or monthly basis, thus formulating a relationship of interdependence between the owner and customers.
Although most African Chinese do small businesses, they have become an unnegligible element in the local economic development.
On February 28, 1898, the underprivileged white residents of Johannesburg petitioned the Government to allow the Chinese to stay with the community and wrote, "Sometimes when we have only one Shilling left, we can buy 3 pennies of bread, 3 pennies of cheese, 3 pennies of sugar and 3 pennies of coffee in a Chinese shop, for instance. This is a great help to the poor people. If the Chinese could be allowed to live with us, we poor people will see this as a significant concession from the government." Undoubtedly the Chinese shops made themselves into an important part of the life of the deprived white people of the time.
Dynamic Political Participation
Many African countries have relaxed political constraint towards the Chinese. Despite small in number, a number of the political savvy has taken up government or parliamentary posts through election or appointment, themain conduit of Chinese political participation in Africa. Politically active Chinese individuals can be found in the political arenas of all African country, particularly South Africa. Huo Chengjian was once a South African president caucus member in 1980s and Huang Tuhao was elected Deputy Mayor of Newcastle of KwaZulu-Natal Province in 1996. Huang Tuhao representing the African National Congress and Zhang Xijia from Inkatha Freedom Party became South Africa's first congressmen of Chinese descent in the congressional elections of 2004 and rewrote the history of South African congress having no members of Chinese origin.
Sun Yaoheng became the first Chinese councilor in Johannesburg municipality in March 2006 while a number of people of Chinese descent made into the National Congress, representing various political parties, both in power and opposition. While the Chinese community accounts for only 0.2% of South Africa's population, the four Chinese parliament members occupied 1% of the 400 seats in Congress. The result of the election indicates that the political awareness for participation of the local Chinese community has greatly increased in South Africa.
However, ethnic Chinese political participation in Africa is still small in scale. The main factors are as follows: firstly, the Chinese communities in Africa are much smaller than that in the other parts of the world, which makes it difficult for political participation as a group; secondly, most Chinese come to Africa for business and have little interest in politics.
In the social life of ethnic Chinese in Africa, the cultural traditions of their ancestral country have long been preserved, and ties to it maintained in various ways. Though they are generally successful in doing business there, they have not forgotten their ancestral land and are concerned with it in various forms, some donating to build schools, invest to promote the economic health, and raise fund to help when natural disasters hit the ancestral home and others helping develop commercial and cultural ties between China and their adopted countries, such as offering assistance to Chinese exhibitions held and delegations visiting the local communities.
Shen Wenbo is one of the first Chinese immigrants to Nigeria. He and his friend came to work in an enamel factory of owned by a Lebanese person in 1959. They bought the factory up and expanded it into North Enamel Co., Ltd. in 1972. Previouslyin Nigeriaonly German enamel was used as raw material.
Though Chinese enamel was not the least inferior in quality and less expensive, it had no access to the local market. Shen Wenbo decided to promote Chinese enamel in Nigeria and suggested that he would personally bear the risks and financial liabilities for a trial at the company, and encouraged and helped his Nigerian colleagues make use of machines and production technology from China. The enamel industry in Nigeria started to use Chinese enamel and thus broke the monopoly of the German products. He has also actively introduced other Chinese products to Nigeria.