Academic journal article African Studies Review

Perceptions of Chinese in Southern Africa: Constructions of the "Other" and the Role of Memory

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Perceptions of Chinese in Southern Africa: Constructions of the "Other" and the Role of Memory

Article excerpt

Abstract: Increasing numbers of Chinese migrants have arrived in southern Africa over the past two decades. Perceptions of and reactions to the Chinese, however, vary from country to country and within countries. This article, based on several years of field and survey research, examines perceptions of Chinese in South Africa and Lesotho. The author argues that in addition to the global context, national political and economic realities, history, and memory shape local perceptions of China and the Chinese people who now reside in these spaces. States and other political actors play a key role in constructions of foreigners. Competition, whether real or perceived, is also important in shaping negative attitudes toward migrants. However, personal interactions and memories can serve as mitigating factors, even in the face of negative news of China or Chinese activities.

Résumé: Un nombre croissant d'immigrants chinois sont arrivés en Afrique du sud au cours des vingt dernières années. Les réactions et perceptions varient d'un pays à l'autre et même d'une partie d'un pays à l'autre. En s'appuyant sur plusieurs années de recherche sur le terrain et à travers des sondages, cet article examine les perceptions des Chinois en Afrique du Sud et au Lesotho. L'auteur soutient qu'en plus du contexte global, des réalités économiques et politiques, l'Histoire et le souvenir du passé influencent les perceptions locales de la Chine et des Chinois qui résident maintenant dans ces contrées. Les états et autres acteurs politiques jouent un rôle clé dans la manière dont les étrangers sont perçus. La compétition, réelle ou perçue, est aussi un facteur important affectant les attitudes négatives contre les immigrants. Cependant, les interactions personnelles et les liens ainsi créés peuvent servir de facteurs atténuants, même au su de nouvelles négatives concernant la Chine ou les activités chinoises.


Many media reports about China-Africa relations would have readers believe that Africans do not like the Chinese. China is often portrayed as a neocolonial power, hungry for African land and resources, its people descending on the continent in hordes to take advantage of poor, hapless Africans, all part of a plan hatched in Beijing by "China, Inc." to take over Africa. The realities, of course, are far more complex, involving a range of Chinese actors in almost all of Africa's fifty-four nations, each with its own distinct political and social history and involving multiple actors often with clashing views and interests. While much of the media and scholarly attention has tended to focus the spotlight on aid, trade, investment, and the politics of China-Africa ties, recently attention has turned to Chinese migrants, African responses to Chinese traders, and crimes involving Chinese.1

This article examines African perceptions of Chinese people in Lesotho and South Africa, two of six southern African countries that have been the sites of my research over the past six years.2 In this article I analyze these two countries as distinct cases, each with its own contested history, actors, and dynamics. Based on this research, Chinese in South Africa seem to fare much better than those in Lesotho. I will argue that views of China and Chinese people are (1) influenced by both global and official/state-level discourses on China (Sautman & Yan 2009) as well as constructions of the "other" (Nyamnjoh 2010); that they are (2) affected by national and local social, economic, and political contexts; but that (3) these perceptions are also mediated by social history, personal experiences, and memory.

The bodies of scholarly work that help us unpack and understand these migration flows and the complex responses of Africans to the Chinese migrants include works on the China-Africa connections, migration, African migration, and Chinese diasporas; however, each of these bodies of literature presents limitations. The scholarly work on China-Africa linkages has tended to focus primarily on the macropolitical and economic dynamics of the engagements rather than on grassroots dynamics. …

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