Chinese migrants in Africa: bilateral and informal governance of a poorly understood South-South flow

Mohan, Giles and Lampert, Ben (2013). Chinese migrants in Africa: bilateral and informal governance of a poorly understood South-South flow. In: Regional Governance of Migration and Socio-Political Rights: Institutions, Actors and Processes, 14-15 Jan 2013, Geneva, Switzerland, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.



The paper examines the social and political dynamics of Chinese migrants in Africa. Implicit in much of the literature on ‘China in Africa’ is a power relation in which the Chinese hold the whip hand. Moreover analytical attention has focussed overwhelmingly on aggregate ‘South-South’ flows of trade or FDI, or bilateral projects as opposed to the activities of the myriad independent Chinese entrepreneurs that have migrated to Africa. While we do not want to reverse the structuralist lens to say that Africa/ns have endless options we want to examine how African social and political agency plays into these unfolding relationships. Our argument is that the increased Chinese presence in Africa does not represent some form of harmonious ‘South-South’ cooperation but Africans are managing the relationship in ways that create significant opportunities for their development. Based on recent fieldwork in Angola, Ghana, and Nigeria, the paper addresses a number of key dimensions around the governance of this migration. Our data show African state institutions, firms and individuals contesting and shaping these engagements in ways that benefit them. Much of the relationship is brokered, and subsequently governed, by pacts between Chinese and African elite state actors. These tend to be relatively unaccountable and non-transparent processes with the Chinese investments bolstering the legitimacy of African regimes. These relationships are presented by the Chinese as ‘win-win’ and not interfering in domestic political processes, yet they do intervene and increasingly so in contexts where security of investments and personnel are threatened. This was amply demonstrated in the recent Libyan evacuation though this only covered labour migrants on official contracts and not independent migrants. That said where the quality of Chinese investment is held to account by African states and civil societies we generally see better developmental impacts. Central to much of this are the differences in the national laws and enforcement regimes of the ‘host’ societies, around labour, immigration and investment. This holds a potential lesson for managing ‘China-Africa’ relations in that a strong legislative base with effective enforcement can deliver development dividends from small scale investments besides the big infrastructure projects heralded in the press. Beyond these more formal inter-state relations we see migration and investment governed in a number of informal ways, notably organisations such as local associations of market traders. It is often these forms of agency that spark the formal governance system into action. Many successful Chinese firms have local patrons who give credibility, contacts and protection. We have evidence of African firms employing Chinese labour, expertise and technology. African entrepreneurs actively encouraging Chinese investment outside of the formal, bilateral arrangements drive some of this. In this sense governance of Chinese-African migration is national and/or informal rather than regional.

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