Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Counting Beans: Some Empirical and Methodological Problems for Calibrating the African Presence in Greater China

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Counting Beans: Some Empirical and Methodological Problems for Calibrating the African Presence in Greater China

Article excerpt


With more than 50-odd journal articles published on the African presence in China, this area of study has now become an established sub-discipline within the larger discipline of Africa-China relations studies. Many questions are often asked about this migration and diasporization process and we now have fairly good answers to these questions, such as why Africans go to China, the major cities Africans live in and visit, what they do there, and how they are received by the Chinese state and the Chinese people. We know that most of these Africans come to China as traders though a sizeable number also comes to study. These Africans are found in major cities in the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan (what we refer to as Greater China in this paper). Within mainland China, the main cities where Africans are found in are Guangzhou, which has the largest and most vibrant presence, Yiwu, Shanghai and, of course, Beijing, the capital of the country. We are also beginning to construct elaborate profiles of African lives and their interactions with ordinary Chinese and the Chinese state. Many works including Bodomo (2012) for most parts of Greater China, Li Zhigang et. al. for Guangzhou etc, Bodomo and Ma (2012) for Guangzhou and Yiwu, Bodomo and Silva (2012) for Macau, etc. have painstakingly looked at African presences in all these cities, documenting the opportunities that Africans are getting in their China sojourn, but also the problems they face, such as run-ins with the police for allegedly entering, staying, and working illegally in China.

The question a precise answer to which has however been elusive to date is: how many Africans are in China? Calculating fairly exact or accurate numbers about Africans in China has been an intractable problem and it is the subject matter of this paper to address this problem, not so much to provide accurate figures but to put issues in perspective and to suggest ways we can approach this research problem. Whether or not this enterprise of calculating exact numbers of a large diaspora is a useful undertaking is itself a question that can be raised, and which indeed has been raised. In effect one might ask whether we are indeed not into counting beans here (1).

In subsequent sections of the paper we espouse the problem, provide ways in which we have approached it, and propose ways to move forward on this. We end the paper by going beyond issues of "counting beans" to larger issues about research methods in the humanities and social sciences.

The Problem: Why is it Difficult to Get Accurate Statistics in China?

One of the biggest problems in doing research in China is the difficulty one faces in an attempt to get statistics about foreign residents in China and statistics about entry-exit numbers at border check points. First, there is no central unit for immigration, like the Immigration Departments of many countries, in China, whether at the central Government level or at the provincial Government level. In Guangzhou, Yiwu, Shanghai, or Beijing one cannot just walk to a particular office and ask to be given official government figures about Africans in China or even in that city alone. The nearest source one gets to about the exact official number of foreign residents is a China Daily report of September 16, 2013, that claims that "[T]here were 633,000 foreigners living in China by the end of 2012, up from 525,000 in 2010", with Beijing alone having 118000 of these residents. (China Daily, September 16, 2013) (2)

However, the same report is quick to clarify that "[o]f those who received the permits, more than half are family members who came for a reunion and the rest are mostly professionals, executives and professors, according to the ministry.

Most are from the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and Germany, and mainly live in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou."

This statement would clearly exclude the vast numbers of small-scale African traders who ply their trade in Guangzhou; it would also exclude most African students on government scholarships in China. …

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