Prof. Dr. Adams Bodomo, a native of the Ghana region of Africa, is Professor of African Studies (holding the chair of African Languages and Literatures) and Director of the Global African Diaspora Studies (GADS) Research Platform at the University of Vienna, Austria. He founded and directed the African Studies programme at the University of Hong Kong, where he served as Associate Professor of Linguistics and African Studies for 16 years between 1997 and 2013. Prior to that, he served as Lecturer at Stanford University in the U.S. He obtained his PhD from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway, after Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the University of Ghana. Prof. Bodomo is the author of 10 books, including the first book on Africans in China, and about 100 articles in Linguistics and in African and Asian Studies journals. On November 15, 2016, he spoke to Erica Rawles CMC '17.
Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Bodomo
When did Africans start migrating to China? How many have now settled in China? Why do Africans choose to immigrate to China? What opportunities draw them to the country?
History will tell you that Africans have been to China since a long time ago. When talking about recent migration, Africans began to go to China in a critical mass around the turn of the millennium, when China began to open up. During the years 1997, 1998, and 1999, a lot of Africans began to immigrate to China. Many Africans were in Southeast Asia around the time of the financial crisis in 1998. Many of the currencies in Southeast Asia had fallen and China had remained relatively stable economically. So many Africans moved into the provinces neighboring South East Asia, Guangdong being one of them.
As for the number of African immigrants in China, it’s a very controversial issue. Many people, including me, often say that you have up to half a million Africans in China, not just in Guangzhou alone but distributed in greater China – places like Yiwu; Shanghai; Wuhan where a lot of African students are; Changqing; and also Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
The stability of the Chinese market draws Africans to China, especially Guangzhou where a lot of manufacturing takes place. The Chinese manufacture all kinds of goods: high-end goods and low-end goods. Africans are mainly attracted to these kind of cheaper goods that they can buy and then sell back home in Africa for a profit.
There are not very good employment opportunities for immigrants in China. Immigrants can hardly get into the civil service in mainland China; most Africans do not go to China because they want to work in factories there. Most Africans want to do business and trade – buying and selling. That’s the main reason why Africans go there. Of course, there are also study opportunities in China for Africans and some go to study in Chinese universities.
What are some social obstacles that African immigrants in China have to endure?
‘Social obstacles’ is a very broad concept, but I think you’re talking about obstacles they meet in their daily life. Firstly, language and communication is a problem. The vast majority of Africans who go from Africa to China do not speak the Chinese language. While African students who spend a year learning the language will not have any problems after one year, the vast majority of Africans move directly to China from Africa and do face a lot of linguistic problems. Secondly, they face a lot of issues of misunderstanding and discrimination. Some Africans are occasionally discriminated against because of the color of their skin or because of cultural differences.
Sometimes trading partners also have problems and misunderstandings between one another. Another issue, for example, is when Africans congregate somewhere and the police hover around the place expecting trouble. This makes it difficult for Africans to get together and form communities. I wouldn’t say these are daily problems that they face, but they do face these problems from time to time during their stay in China.
The Chinese government makes it particularly difficult to obtain a long-term or permanent visa. Can you talk about China’s policies on immigration in general and on long-term visas for Africans in particular?
China’s policies on immigration are not very clear or transparent. China has not been an in-migration country until now; it wasn’t such a place for a long time. But the world’s second-largest economy cannot exist without people moving in. So yes, people are beginning to move into China and China needs to reform its immigration policy. In most countries, there is a ministry or some kind of centralized government for immigration, but China does not have such an agency. China needs to make its immigration policy more transparent, and create paths to legal and permanent residency and citizenship – and there are some minor steps in this direction already.
Africa also has a growing population of Chinese immigrants. How does China’s treatment of African immigrants influence African states’ treatment of undocumented Chinese immigrants?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure there is a very clear answer to it. I haven’t heard of a government in Africa reacting to China’s treatment of African immigrants by creating a certain policy because Africans are mistreated in China, but I also wouldn’t rule this out. It is possible that this will happen.
For example, my own country, Ghana, has been quite strict on illegal miners in the country. Also, in Nigeria, a long time ago, it was reported that they deported Chinese from Kano. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these things were triggered by of the maltreatment of immigrants in China. However, as I said, no government has come out clearly to say, “Look, we have taken this action because we can literally measure the way Africans are treated in China.” This is not impossible; one day it could happen. As I say in my writing, China must know that the local authority and law enforcement’s maltreatment of Africans in China could have consequences on the way that Chinese are handled in Africa.
China is Africa’s largest trading partner. Does China’s less-than-friendly attitude toward African immigrants have the potential to affect its political and economic relationship with Africa?
It does. Nothing is in vacuum. As I mentioned, it is not the case that on a daily basis Africans are being harassed, but it is occasional. If this continues and becomes constant it would have consequences on trade, diplomatic relations, and the comprehensive policy for Africa-China relations, definitely.
Guangzhou has the largest concentration of African immigrants in one city. With interracial marriages and mixed children, can you see the tolerance for African immigrants increasing or is integration very difficult for the majority? How common/accepted are interracial marriages?
That’s a good question. Such a phenomenon wasn’t common before, but it is now getting more common. There are interracial marriages in Guangzhou, maybe not as much as in Western countries, but in China there are interracial marriages. A few years ago, one of the leaders mentioned to me that you could count about 200 interracial babies in Guangzhou - about 3 or 4 years ago. So it is not that common. To address your question on how easy it is for them to integrate, it is not very easy, but it is getting there.
The kids learn the language very fast and they’re okay, but the path to residency for the non-Chinese parent is a problem. Being married to a Chinese is not a guarantee that the non-Chinese parent will have permanent residency in China. That alone is going to have a destabilizing effect on the family.
Currently, a non-Chinese parent with a Chinese child is subject to deportation. There is no guarantee that you can get permanent residency or even citizenship if you are married to a Chinese citizen. Even the naming of the child can determine its citizenship. For example, if the child is born, and the African parent wants to give him a Nigerian or Ghanaian name, then the child will not take Chinese citizenship but African citizenship and the child can be named as the parent wishes. However, if the child takes Chinese citizenship, the child must take a Chinese name. The child cannot have an African name. So such little things cause difficulties for African immigrants.
It is not easy for interracial kids, but as the problem persists and more and more interracial children are born, China has to face the issue at hand. China must find a way to integrate the children of the immigrants and Chinese and make them Chinese citizens because they are indeed Chinese citizens. They have to take care of them.
China is a very big country and the individual acts of discrimination may differ from place to place. Therefore local authorities have to look at things from a more global, Africa-China perspective. Immigration issues have to be tackled carefully and inclusively; people have to be included. Africans living in China and children born from Africa-China marriages must be accepted and there must be a clear path to Chinese citizenship.
What are the prospects of reforms on this front? What are the practical and reasonable steps China can take to make African immigrants feel truly welcome?
China can make reforms at both the government and local levels. In my writing I mention that the forum for Africa-China Cooperation is a major policy framework under which the Chinese government engages African governments. Within this policy framework, China must adopt a very clear person-to-person policy to form cross-cultural associations and friendship. These things have to be encouraged. At the local level, the Chinese government must give special orders to the local law enforcement, police and security to treat Africans in China humanely even if they break the law. In the same way, African governments must also instruct law enforcement officials to treat Chinese humanely – an illegal miner still has rights as a human being. Local authorities cannot just beat up, harass, and throw immigrants in jail – that goes against human rights. On all these levels the Chinese government must take a more serious person-to-person approach at the local level. If local law enforcement officials are more humane, things can go a long way in helping cement Africa-China relations.