Is China the new ‘American Dream’?

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THE US, at the turn of the 20th Century, was the ‘American Dream’ for many, especially after the devastation that followed the end of the First World War. 

The war destroyed empires, created fractious new nation-states, gave a sense of identity to British dominions, led to Soviet communism and enabled the US to become a world power.

At the time it was said, and believed, that there was so much wealth in the US that streets were literally paved in gold — that one could bend down and pick up gold nuggets on the ground.

Devastated by the war, these stories sparked a new era of mass human migration to the US from many parts of Europe and elsewhere, in search of the ‘American Dream’.  

Human migration is defined as: “The movement by people from one place to another with the intentions of settling temporarily or permanently in the new location – typically occurring over long distances and from one country to another – at an unprecedented and exceptionally high rate.” 

Among the various transatlantic migrations, the ‘Age of mass migration’ refers to the voluntary transatlantic migration of European peasants and labourers to the Americas between the mid-19th Century to the early 20th Century.  

The falling costs of migration during ‘open border’ regimes and higher wages offered in the US attracted millions of immigrants to the US.  

Between 1846 and 1940, some 55 million migrants moved from Europe to the Americas. 

Sixty-five percent went to the US.  

As a result, 40 percent of the population growth in the US was due to the inflow of immigrants, mainly from Europe.  

Many other migrants went to Argentina, Canada, Brazil and Uruguay (and Africa).

About 2,5 million Asians also migrated to the Americas, mostly as indentured servants to the plantations of the Caribbean; but some also, notably the Japanese, arrived in Brazil and the US.

In 2011, the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook estimated the total number of immigrants for the year 2010 at 215,8 million or 3,2 percent of the world’s population.  

In 2013, the percentage of international migrants worldwide increased by 33 percent, with 59 percent of migrants targeting developed regions.   

Almost half of these migrants were women; either alone or with their family members and communities.

In recent years, the scenario has changed.  

A new migration is in force, whereby many people are attracted to new economic opportunities being offered in China, even as many Chinese are seeking new opportunities elsewhere, particularly in Africa.

China’s economic relationship with Africa has strengthened over the recent years.  

Many African leaders have welcomed China as a willing and deep-pocketed trade partner. 

In fact, since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner.  

In return for gold, precious minerals, land, oil and agro-production (tobacco), China has shouldered some of the governments’ infrastructural responsibilities, peppering the continent’s landscape with newly-built roads, stadiums, dams, factories, schools and universities — and, in Zimbabwe, a new Parliament building.  

Once itself a British colony, China supported many African countries’ struggles against colonialism during the 1960s and 1970s.  

Since then, ties have strengthened, so much so that the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has paid official visits to Africa on four occasions.

This Sino-Afro relations have received mounting skepticism and criticism from both some Africans and the international community (especially the West). 

China has been repeatedly accused of thwarting Africa’s business potential through the introduction of cheap alternatives to local products and services.  

Those who are sanguine regarding China’s contribution towards the development of Africa express their concerns over the imbalance of this economic relationship and find Beijing’s ‘win-win’ rhetoric insincere. 

Compounding the complexity of Africa’s perception of China’s presence on their continent is the fact that, over a million Chinese migrants have moved to Africa, a move that has revived ‘colonial’ fears amongst many Africans.

However, what is often overlooked of this Sino-Afro trade partnerships is the burgeoning population of African migrants now living in China.  

According to statistics, an estimated 16 000 Africans live in Guangzhou – a southern Chinese city, where many Africans run thriving businesses, and now call home. 

Additionally, over 430 000 Africans were reported to pass through the city’s checkpoints annually, as short-term visitors on buying visits. 

Exporting goods back home to Africa from Guangzhou — ‘the factory of the world’ — has become big business.  

One such entrepreneur was exporting 150 containers per month.  Guangzhou is so popular with African migrants and traders that it has been controversially dubbed ‘Chocolate City’, an African ode to the many Chinatowns across the globe.

Most of the people who make their way to Guangzhou are vendors/traders who buy cheap trinkets and other goods to resell back home at a profit.  

For most of these vendors/ traders, the first stage of their strategy is a journey to the city of Guangzhou.  

Some Africans, who have made this undertaking, have managed to accrue incredible profits; entering China with a few hundred dollars and turning it around into million-dollar companies within a decade. 

Reports from Chinese media say that more than 20 percent of Africans doing business in the city of Guangzhou earn 30 000 Yuan (US$4 838) a month; a figure that is higher than the average wage of a Chinese white-collar employee of the area.

These African entrepreneurs have driven direct exports of manufactured products from Guangzhou city to their various countries in Africa, which has resulted in an increase from about US$165 million reported in 1996, to US$2,1 billion in 2010. 

While Sino-African trade relations are nowhere near parity, this traffic, driven by the need for trans-national trading strategies, could outdo Chinese competitors who are operating in Africa.

The growing presence of Africans in China also highlights the rise of Africans as meaningful global trade partners who are progressively taking control of their destinies instead of waiting for others to broker deals on their behalf. 

Currently, China is the only country to increase its scholarships for African students. 

As a result, a significant number of young Africans have also moved to China to study.  

In 2013, the Chinese Government set out plans to enroll 30 000 Africans on short-term professional training programmes between 2013-2015, and 18 000 African students to pursue full-time degrees.  

There were around 12 000 Africans studying in China with the support of the Chinese Government then.  

African-style Pentecostal churches, to cater for the spiritual needs of the new migrants, have also flourished in China as a result of this influx.  

These churches are particularly visible in Hong Kong where religion is less regulated than in mainland China. 

Today, indigenous African restaurants are also more commonplace in China, as are African hair salons, along with the popularisation of Afro-beats.  Interracial marriages, particularly between African men and Chinese women have also risen, giving rise to many Afro-Chinese children – dubbed ‘blackaneeze’ by Eddy Murphy in one of his movies.

Just like the US in those early days, it would be misleading to suggest China is an African paradise where all African business dreams come true.  

It is not so.  

It is a foreign land where Africans, above all other racial groups, are said to be very unwelcome, and potential business partners are said to treat their African counterparts with a great deal of caution and misgiving.  

Cases of unconcealed racism, fuelled by increasingly tightening immigration restrictions, have been reported, which have resulted in clashes between African businesspeople and the Chinese police.

While the story of how China is short-changing Africa has been repeated oftentimes, one of the entrepreneurial African merchants or scholars who has benefitted from this Sino-Afro relationship and worked hard to achieve his or her own version of the ‘Chinese Dream’ is often overlooked and left untold.

Like the ‘American Dream’ of the past, it is an exciting time for young, entrepreneurial-minded Africans, including Zimbabweans, to pursue their dream in China.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer. She is a published author in her field.  For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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