Since the end of formal colonialism in Africa, 'development process' has been influenced by a gamut of ideas, from nationalisation and privatisation to institutional strengthening and now sustainable development. Throughout, foreign actors have played a key role in defining, shaping and directing these processes, with foreign players from the West dominating for most of post-independence period. Beginning on a large scale around early 2000s, China entered the development scene of Africa. Between 2000 and 2005, China-Africa trade rose from $10 billion to $25 billion (Alden, 2005).
Also, China's share of exports from Africa increased from 3% in 1998 to 15% in 2008, and has since surpassed the United States as Africa's largest trading partner (Besada & O'Bright; Songwe & Moyo, 2012). More than any other foreign country in recent history, China has been very aggressive in establishing itself as a critical development player on the continent. Through not-so-discriminate trade relations, investments in extractive and construction sectors, aid and technical assistance, doubts about China's role in the present and future development processes of Africa is now fast disappearing.
Apart from the flows of goods and capital (Adebayo, 2015), however, China-Africa interaction is producing a large in- and out-flows of people, many of who engage in transnational trade (Bodomo, 2010; Politzer, 2008). As a major feature of China's participation in contemporary development process of Africa, transnational traders of African origins are moving in both directions to acquire and distribute large volumes of consumer and industrial goods in local markets. A number of empirical investigations have been carried out to describe the activities of these transnational African traders in China (see Bertoncello, Bredeloup, & Oates, 2007; Bodomo, 2010; Bredeloup, 2012; Lyons, Brown, & Li, 2012, 2013; Mathews, 2007; Mathews & Yang, 2012). These African traders, argues Mohan and Lampert (2013), are active at different levels to negotiate, shape and drive Chinese presence on the continent.
As with other forms of population flow that transform the societies of destination, African eastward migration is creating a new migration reality in China and transforming her public space, especially in big cities in South China (Pieke, 2011). Correspondingly, this flow is attracting a lot of attention from scholars, most of whom partake in writing contemporary African diaspora 'history' in Asia, even if only tangentially, with little or no contribution from African researchers (1). The aim of this paper is to analyse critically the dominant explanations for the movement of African transnational traders to China. Based on critical reading of the growing 'Africans in China' literature, the paper challenges the socio-historical basis of prevailing narratives about African trade migrations to China. Although these narratives highlight the critical factors that drive African mobilities to China, the paper contends that the explanation is incomplete without accounting for the long history of cross-border trading across the continent, thus making the movement an aspect of socio-historical continuity and social change process in post-colonial Africa.
China-Africa Relations and Trade Migration
Although interaction between China and Africa became regular only in the second half of the 20th century, direct contact dates as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) (Anshan, 2005). After the Bandung Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, the China connected with many African countries by signing series of agreements and maintaining friendly ties. As China-Africa relations evolved, China was assisted to secure a permanent sit on the UN (United Nations) Security Council while African governments received aids and economic and educational assistance worth billions of dollars (Cheng & Shi, 2009; Sautman & Hairong, 2007). During the 1980s through the 1990s, the relationship was solidified with the so-called South-South agenda and various anti-hegemonic discourse that Beijing pursued in Africa. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, China has emerged as Africa's largest trading partner (Besada & O'Bright, 2017).
An important consequence of the relationship is the rapidity of flows to and from both continents. At present, statistics about the exact population of Africans in China is not available. Existing 'guesstimate' (Bodomo & Pajancic, 2015) suggests that the population of Africans in China may be as high as hundreds of thousands. In Guangzhou alone, one report claims that around 200,000 African migrants live in the city (The Nanfang Insider, 2015). Many of these migrants are there to trade, unlike African migrants in the Global North who travelled to Europe and America to fill labour gaps (Akyeampong, 2000; Reynolds, 2002). Many Africans who stay back after graduating from Chinese universities also end up conducting China-Africa business (Bredeloup, 2014; Haugen, 2013; Sautman & Hairong, 2007).
Although the China-Africa trade corridor only began to attract attention around the 2000s, African traders were already entering China by the 1980s. As Bertoncelo and Bredeloup (2007) contended, older and more discreet dynamics emerged as early as the mid-1980s in response to market instability in Asia and China's economic rise. These traders anticipated change and rapidly expanded their networks by appropriating new nodes. Two economic logics informed the decision of these early callers. On the one hand, explains Bertoncelo and Bredeloup (2007), Africans trading in precious stones in Asian countries that neighboured China wanted to expand their networks and diversify into other lines of business. Since most of the merchandise traded were smuggled, Africans began to explore safer markets and new business opportunities, both of which mainland China guaranteed. The financial crises that spread throughout Southeast Asia eventually made a move into China inevitable. On the other hand, continues Bertoncelo and Bredeloup (2007), the introduction of direct flight services in major African cities to enhance exportation of Chinese manufactured product into Africa, which was hitherto transhipped through Dubai, constituted a further incentive that encouraged African businessmen to move into China.
Thus, China-Africa relation resulted in new mobility of goods, capital, and people, and led to the emergence of trade relations with distinctly informal and grassroots character (Schapendonk, 2013). Due to the participation of many people from the lower rung of the society, some scholars called the trade an instance of globalisation from below (Lan & Xiao, 2014; Mathews & Yang, 2012). However, apart from trade, these African migrants are major contributors to the growing diversity of immigrant population in China (Li, Lyons, & Brown, 2012; Li, Xue, Lyons, & Brown, 2008; Pieke, 2011). Attracted mainly by China's economic success and opportunities, the immigrants are forming more permanent communities, living in clustered settlements and engaging in specialised occupations (Castillo, 2014; Li et al., 2012; Pieke, 2011).
In making sense of the trajectory of participation of Africans in China-Africa trade, we must be attentive to the facilitation and reinforcement roles of the Chinese state and the unique position it occupies in contemporary economic system (Adebayo, 2015). But more worthy of recognition is the special and strategic way that China's globalism targeted the African continent as a means of consolidating her status in the world capitalist regime (Brautigam, 2008; Johnson, 2014). Yet, the influx of African trade migrants into Chinese society is not entirely the product of China's efforts. Assuming that this is the case, as currently done in most of the extant narratives, perhaps unintentionally, is to ignore the significance of Africa's internal socio-historical processes, as well as the specific agentic forces within the continent, that condition and drive the intensification of trade migration of Africans to China.
Trading Past and Contemporary: Dispersal of African Traders to China
Maintaining a posture that recognises the role of 'what was' in making sense of what is unfolding regarding the formation of new African trade diasporas is crucial. Historical hindsight enriches the analysis being undertaken and positions the analyst to...