A transformative presence? Chinese migrants as agents of change in Ghana and Nigeria

Lampert, Ben and Mohan, Giles (2018). A transformative presence? Chinese migrants as agents of change in Ghana and Nigeria. In: Giese, Karsten and Marfaing, Laurence eds. Chinese and African Entrepreneurs: Social Impacts of Interpersonal Encounters. Leiden: Brill, pp. 147–169.

URL: https://brill.com/abstract/title/35049?rskey=Z2uuQ...


China’s rapidly expanding engagement with Africa has been heralded as one of the most important developments in the continent’s post-colonial history, and has been ascribed the potential to radically transform Africa’s economic and political position in the world (Moyo 2009). There are many strands to China’s renewed involvement in Africa and, while most attention has focused on high-level diplomacy, trade and investment, it is increasingly recognised that the growing presence of Chinese migrants on the continent is a key factor in determining how China-Africa relations unfold. As Chris Alden (2007, 128) has argued, “The behaviour of thousands of newly settled Chinese businessmen and the conduct of the African communities in which they live and work will matter as much as the diplomacy and concessions made at the government level.” Consequently, studies of Chinese migrants in various African countries are emerging and these have begun to deepen our understanding of the nature of this migration and how those involved organise their economic activities and operate transnationally (Haugen and Carling 2005; Ho 2008; Dobler 2009; Huynh et al. 2010; Giese and Thiel 2014). Yet our knowledge of how the Chinese presence is impacting upon African development remains limited.

In attempting to better understand the impact of migration on development, we turn to the relationship between migration and social transformation. This has been conceptualised most coherently by the sociologist and migration scholar Stephen Castles (2009 and 2010) and his work broadens and complexifies the often narrow, normative and over-simplified debates about the developmental role of migration that have re-emerged over the last 15 years. The notion of social transformation therefore offers a more sophisticated framework for exploring the dynamics and effects of migration and reminds us that migration is profoundly embedded in wider processes of social change, being both a driver and an outcome.

Our analysis begins by discussing in more detail the potential and limitations of migration and social transformation approaches. While these approaches offer a more nuanced and contextualised understanding of migration and its effects, their focus has been on South-North migration rather than on South-South flows. Furthermore, we argue that these conceptualisations need to expand to incorporate the agency of local actors with whom migrants interact and the way these relationships and their outcomes are shaped by the politics of class. In developing this argument, we draw on our data to chart some of the social changes and new social relations with which the expanded Chinese presence is involved. We argue that, while many of the social, economic and political effects of the Chinese presence are significant, they are not necessarily transformative in and of themselves. However, we contend that the ways in which these effects are entwined in localised social, economic and political dynamics mean that they have the potential to contribute to broader processes of transformation, although not always in ways deemed positive or progressive. Here, we aim to demonstrate that the impact of Chinese migrants is incorporated into wider processes of social change through the agency of local actors and the politics of class – factors that have been underplayed not only in social transformation perspectives on migration but also in the emerging body of work on resurgent China-Africa relations (Corkin 2013; Mohan and Lampert 2013).

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