it’s not just an economic decision

Over the past two decades, there have been many debates about China’s growing engagement in Africa. In these discussions, the more than one million Chinese expatriates, businessmen and workers who come to work in Africa are often seen only as a by-product of a generally “outgoing” China. And they are often studied as isolated sub-groups: expatriates from Chinese public companies, traders, construction workers, etc.

As a result, there is no holistic understanding of the mechanisms underlying emigration from China to Africa.

What motivates these new migrants to come to Africa? Who is most likely to take the step? How have the market and ongoing social changes in China influenced them?

These are questions I have explored in my ethnographic survey of Chinese migrants, based on fieldwork in Ghana between 2016 and 2019. There are currently no fixed data on the number of Chinese in Ghana, although some estimates place it at around 30,000. They are mainly involved in trade, infrastructure and mining.

China’s drastic political and economic changes in recent decades, coupled with its changing position in the global economy, have created a distinct social infrastructure for emigration. I have found that opportunities for social mobility, rather than mere economic incentives, generate flows of emigration to countries like Ghana.

This overview is useful for sociologists and policymakers to understand the drivers of migration, diaspora-country of origin relations, and contemporary migration in countries of the South.

Chinese emigration to the world

Political and economic changes in post-communist China have resulted in massive human movements inside and outside the country. Since the late 1970s, institutional reforms and market developments in China have created a new “mobility regime”. Population movements have been deregulated and even encouraged in some regions for development needs.

China’s rapid integration into the global economy has also opened the door to emigration. In particular, since the 2000s, Chinese emigration to non-traditional destinations in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and other southern regions has increased significantly.

A common explanation is that China’s economic development gives Chinese companies and entrepreneurs competitive advantages in foreign markets, which further fuels the demand for migrant workers.

This perspective highlights the importance of new migrants’ economic ties to their countries of origin, but says little about who is most likely to leave China for Africa. It does not take into account industries, localities and personal characteristics that are linked to migrants and potential migrants. To do this, one must look inside contemporary China, how the aspirations and motivations of migrants derive from China’s political-economic changes and order of social stratification.

“Evicted” to Africa

State-led and market-oriented reforms in China have had many problematic consequences that have led to emigration. At the macro level, after three decades of sustained growth, “the Chinese economy is suffocating with bottlenecks: overcapacity, falling profits, excess capital, shrinking demand in export markets traditions and scarcity of raw materials”, as the sociologist Chin Kwan Lee puts it.

Many industries are facing market saturation and increased competition. Businesses are compelled to explore foreign markets, especially those that are underdeveloped. Over the past decade, China’s economic restructuring and declining competitiveness in manufacturing has forced many export-oriented companies to enter African markets where their products match local demand. The same logic applies to the infrastructure, telecommunications and construction industries. The flow of excess capital and labor to Africa is seen as a “space solution”.

At the micro level, contemporary Chinese society is marked by social inequalities in the distribution of income, wealth and, most importantly, opportunity. The progressive closing of the paths of social ascent pushes individuals, especially those who are marginalized in their microcosm, to migrate in the hope of realizing their dreams in a foreign land.

Africa as a new “social ladder”

As I discovered in my study, venturing into Africa gives migrants the opportunity for social ‘reworking’. It allows them to circumvent social and institutional barriers to achieve a “class leap” in their homeland.

For example, in China, people are labeled by the “hukou,” a residence registration system that classifies people as urban or rural. But in Ghana this does not apply – they are not treated differently under this classification. Their education or family background in China is not a major determinant of social capital in Ghana. Instead, human capital and entrepreneurship are better rewarded.

Social repositioning provides migrants with more than just linear upward mobility in terms of socio-economic status. It also allows flexible identity conversion. For example, some Chinese start their own business in Ghana with a small investment and become independent entrepreneurs over time. Migrants view the fairer opportunity structure and more flexible space for career and identity transitions as more important drivers than incentives such as wage differentials or social benefits.

So I would say that the economic motives for migration have many layers. What Chinese migrants in Ghana hope for is an elevation in their social status.

Where do their journeys lead?

The initial aspirations of migrants are no doubt rooted in the dynamics of China’s stratification. But their aspirations are constantly changing, as are their ties to the homeland.

In the process of adaptation and integration, incentives such as self-esteem and social acceptance are important drivers for settling into the host society. I discovered that many new Chinese migrants felt that life in China was a “mad rush”. The anxiety and frustration of competition and inequality was not the price of a better life, but a loss of meaning. Thus, they are gradually abandoning the “Chinese dream” of higher social status that motivated their departure.

Some Chinese migrants choose to stay on the “new ladder” rather than return to the old one. But it is not certain that they will become permanent settlers in Africa. In fact, they exhibit a very floating character. Many of them become circular migrants between China and Ghana, stage migrants westward or, very often, residents bouncing between various locations.

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