Part 2: African Student-Entrepreneurs in Zhejiang Province

Viola Rothschild

This post first appeared on Viola’s blog , Sinophiles, chronicling her notes/observations on her fieldwork (September 2014-July 2015) researching the African student-entrepreneur community in greater Zhejiang Province.

Without further ado, Part II: a monstrosity of an attempt to summarize some of my thoughts and observations about the African student-entrepreneur experience studying and working (半工半学) in China.

One key takeaway from my research this year is that it’s basically impossible to have a discussion about Africans in China without touching on race. Despite China being home to a wide array of ethnic minority groups, languages, and customs, 9 out of 10 Chinese people self-identify as belonging to just one race—Han. This relative homogeneity, compounded by the fact that China was pretty closed off to the rest of the world until +/-30 years ago, means that Chinese people think and talk about race in a very different way than in places where multiculturalism is engrained a country’s DNA. For all of its ugly history with slavery and systemic oppression, the US is considered an yimin guojia (移民国家 immigrant country), and thus is (supposedly) designed to handle its diverse populace. China, and Chinese people, however, were not prepared for the steady of stream of Africans that started flowing into China via Hong Kong and Guangzhou after the slowing of many Southeast Asian economies in the late-1990s. My African friends and informants tell me they encounter a wide array of responses when it comes to the color of their skin. These fall on a spectrum ranging from awkward curiosity to offensive ignorance to overt racism. Here are a few anecdotes from semi-structured interviews, all of which were repeated (in similar versions) by multiple people, both in the interview setting and less formal conversations:

“When Chinese people hear ‘Africa’ they hear ‘poverty’ and ‘disease’ and ‘uncivilized.’ I’m sick and tired of being associated with that and getting the same reactions. My English is good enough that often I just say I’m from Europe or America because those places are considered cool. Or South Africa because that is one of the ‘good and safe’ places in Africa.” –Female, 31, Sierra Leone


“Chinese people are not racist, they just are not open to our side of the world. Just like in many parts of Senegal and of Africa, they don’t understand China either. At home they say, the yellow people that eat dogs! But they just don’t know. So here, when people stare at me or ask me questions, I try to be patient, especially with small kids. People say things to me all the time. A grown man pointed to me and said ‘you should take a shower, you are black and dirty.’ Or someone asked ‘if your skin is black, what color is your blood?’ But I think Chinese people are very friendly, and China is a safe and peaceful country. But it’s like Africa, or anywhere in the world. If you come here and are cool to them, they will be cool to you. If you are not cool to them, they will not be cool to you.” -Male, 28, Senegal

“White foreigners are called ‘laowai’ (老外 old outsider)but black foreigners, no matter where we are from, are just called ‘hei ren’ (黑人 black person). Why is that? To Chinese people we are all the same.” -Female, 32, Tanzania

“It’s not too bad in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai…But one time my family and I went on a vacation to Wuzhen (small city) and I think we were the first black people some people there had ever seen. It was ridiculous. No one did anything bad, but we just felt like the animal in the zoo that everyone is coming to see. People wanted to take pictures and kept touching my children’s hair. We have to think about it differently than if we were in Europe or America. They don’t know any better here.” -Male, 43, Angola

“One time I was in Beijing with my friends. The President of our country was giving a speech and we were going because my uncle is a minister, and my mom was here too. It was raining really hard and we were trying to get a cab. We saw an empty one at the stoplight and I ran up to it and knocked on the window and the look the driver gave me was so scared. He locked the doors and just waved his hand and didn’t look at me. As soon as the light changed, 10 seconds later, he pulled over and picked up Chinese passengers. He didn’t say anything, but just the look he gave me, I could tell.” -Male, 27, Senegal

Based on these stories, and many, many more, it’s clear that a lot of Chinese people have a very stereotypical and ill-informed perception of Africans. But also, more than a few of my informants chalked these offensive comments and questions up to ignorance rather than racism. Which is it? Can it be both? Does lack of exposure excuse otherwise categorically racist attitudes and/or behavior? Who am I, as an American/half white-half Chinese person to be researching and drawing conclusions about this sort of stuff, anyways? Short answer: I’m not sure.

English speech competition at ZJNU-Africa featured prominently

It’s also important to remember that the number of African immigrants in China (probably around 20,000, but it depends on who you ask) pales in comparison to the number of Chinese in Africa. As China has become the continent’s largest trading partner—exchanging $160 billion of goods a year—more than a million Chinese have relocated to Africa in the last decade. Over the last few years, in order to cultivate and expand trade relations, there have several high-level diplomatic exchanges and soft-power initiatives aimed at improving Sino-African relations. One of these soft-power initiatives is, of course, sponsoring African students to come study in China.

In terms of general lifestyle, the way African students are treated by the school and by their fellow students (at least at my university, I can’t speak for others) is indicative of a trend where diversity is celebrated in a nominal, official way, but there is actually little real engagement to foster more-than-surface-deep understanding. For example, there is not much integration between the African students and Chinese students. Caveat: “African students” are not a homogenous entity on their own, and are actually split into several cliques formed based on language and national identity. As a sort of physical manifestation of this separation, our dorm, the International Students’ Apartment, is sequestered in a remote corner of campus and most Chinese students have no idea where it is. Similarly, despite being home to one of China’s most reputable Institutes of African Studies, most African students reacted with surprise and confusion when I told them that was my affiliate department. They simply have no idea it exists, even though it seems like it would be a great, and totally accessible mutual resource.

That’s not to say that the African student community and Chinese student community are entirely segregated. Several of my African friends have Chinese tutors, or do a language exchange if they’re English speakers, play pick up basketball or soccer with Chinese students, and a couple have Chinese girlfriends. For the most part though, interactions are artificially sanctioned. Once or twice a semester, there are African Food and Culture festivals put on by the International Student Association that give African students an opportunity to share a little bit about their country’s culture with their Chinese peers. Tons of Chinese students go, have a good time and take copious amounts of pictures. I’d be heartened—until I’d scroll through my WeChat feed or talk to Chinese friends after and they’d be like “WOW! Africans are so good at dancing!” and tended to quickly retreat to simple stereotypes they’re comfortable with.

Dance performance at African Food and Culture Festival

Sadly, this was even the case with students studying Africa. In the fall I was taking a few classes in the Institute, and got to be good friends with some of the graduate students. When I asked them if they had any friends from Africa and they’d look surprised and say “Oh, no way!” Or, I’d ask why they are studying Africa, and for many of them they’ll say it was because this is where the funding was, or that they didn’t get accepted to their top two choices, or that this is where they need people. Someone inside the Institute actually described this phenomenon—for both students and faculty—as a ‘dragonfly’ approach where students and scholars are kind of flitting from topic to topic, field to field, purely based on demand, resource allocation and publication opportunities.

Former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa (in office 1995-2005) visited ZJNU in September 2014

But as much as it seems like I’m painting this in a negative light and throwing the Institute under the bus, regardless of the reason, these Chinese universities are putting way more money and effort into the study of Africa than most Western countries. I’ve worked with some really great Chinese professors, and they’re bringing in scholars and experts from all over the world. So I really do want to stress that despite some of their shortcomings (which I think they’re more or less aware of and are working to improve) that they have a good thing going, and I certainly feel lucky to be a part of it.

Administrative Offices at ZJNU

On the business side of things, I did the vast majority of my fieldwork in Yiwu, a landlocked trade city in the heart of Zhejiang Province. In 1984, Yiwu—then a small city with an economy fueled by the chicken feather trade—became the target of a local government development project. Thirty years later, Yiwu is now that largest trade commodity city in the world. I spent the most time in and around the International Trade City (国际商贸城) which is just this unimaginably large, sprawling complex made up of five districts, each of which specializes in it’s own set of commodities—so District 1 has toys, artificial flowers, and jewelry, District 2 has luggage, hardware, and electronics, and so on. Just to give you an idea of how large it is, if you visited each individual shop for three minutes, and you spent 8 hours a day in the market, it would take you a year and a half to get through it. It’s an incredibly strange and vertiginous international world where all the signage is in Chinese, English, Arabic, and Korean, there are Uyghurs grilling whole sheep outside, Muslims whipping out their prayer rugs and iPhones to use their “Point me to Mecca” app to worship in the middle of the market, a whole street of Indian restaurants, and many, many exhausted Chinese migrants from all over the country raising children in their 10 feet deep by 6 feet wide shops crammed with every conceivable sort of merchandise.

Storefront at the African Products Exhibition Center

I encountered (basically) the same on paper vs. reality issues in the market as I did on campus. Nominally, the business environment there is touted for being super foreign-friendly and accommodating. The market area is concentrated rather than spread out so it can be a one-stop shop, there are volunteer translators, a wide array of international money transfer and shipping services, a huge e-commerce platform, a trade-dispute mediation committee that moderates conflicts that occur between Chinese and foreign business people, and even a African Products Exhibition Center (APEC) that was opened on the ground floor of District 5 in 2011.

While all that looks great in the brochure and on the website, in reality, there are still a lot of problems. For example, the shops in the APEC, most of which sell ‘cultural goods,’ (think printed fabric, masks, statues, drums, etc.), were given a 3-year rent-free period when they opened in 2011. Now that that period is up, the business owners are trying to decide whether it’s worth it to stay. Though most of the shops in the African Products Exhibition Center are Chinese-run, there are a few African shop owners, and several of them have complained that the logistics of keeping shop are very unclear. One African shopkeeper (will not identify country to protect anonymity) that recently graduated from a Chinese language program at a nearby University told me, “I came when the market opened in 2011, and they gave us the shop for free for 3 years, but then I didn’t know what happened after that. No one told me. Most of the other African product shops are run by Chinese people, and they all seem to know what it going on. I don’t know about anything and I don’t know who to ask for help. Right now business is bad, Chinese people don’t want this stuff. They say the masks scare them. If I have to start paying for the shop, then I cannot afford it.” Sure enough, just during the 10-month period I was visiting the market regularly, many of the shops shut down. They often just picked up and left without much warning, so I’m not sure if it was purely business related, or had something to do with the management, but it certainly seemed like that beyond this shiny initial offer that gave the city the chance to say that they have an African Products Exhibition Center and are cooperating with all these African countries, there wasn’t a whole lot of follow up or support.

African country banners on display at the Yiwu Market

Similarly, the Trade Dispute Mediation Committee is a branch of the Yiwu Municipal Government that has an office in the market itself, and is designed to adjudicate disputes that arise between Chinese and foreign traders. In June, I had the chance to interview the head of the Committee, Chen Jinyan (陈津颜), and attend one of the committee meetings. Initially, I was very impressed by the big conference room with the world’s flags set up around the table and the high-sounding slogans about compromise and diversity adorning the walls. Then the session started. Despite boasting committee members from several African countries, the Middle East, India, Korea, and many Eastern European countries, the foreign trader’s representative failed to show up. What ensued was comparable to a really weird, really culturally confused episode of Judge Judy. Even though his representative didn’t show (apparently a common occurrence), the show must go on! So I actually had to step in to translate (poorly) amidst the tears and near-table flipping. I talked to the foreign trader afterwards—an Indian guy—and he said he agreed to the resolution just to end the meeting. He wasn’t satisfied with the outcome and was not confident the resolution would be upheld or enforced. Before he stalked off, he said outright that that it was a joke. Maybe I caught them on an off day or something, but based on what I’ve seen and heard from foreigners doing business in Yiwu (African and otherwise), it’s not as user friendly as it’s cracked up to be.

Trade Dispute Committee members

I guess I just want to end by saying that my intention here is really not to add yet another voice to the chorus of primarily Western scholars and commentators that are portraying Sino-African relations negatively. The relationship—in the modern era at least—is still pretty new, and both on a macro level and on a micro level like what I’ve been experiencing, it will definitely take China and Chinese people a while to adjust to this influx of African students and traders. That manifests itself in lots of ugly ways, no doubt, but I think the silver lining is that having these scholarship programs and research institutes, high-level official visits, and open economic channels are good things—and again, in many respects a lot more than the West is offering. Having this kind of institutional and government support is really important, and kind of the first step in a much longer process. I suppose the reason I’m harping on this discrepancy between rhetoric and reality is just because that’s what I’ve been seeing every day. But that said, in the scheme of things, I haven’t been doing this sort of research for a long time, and I’m not a Sino-African relations expert. There are all sorts of nuances and gradations that I don’t understand, and that I certainly haven’t done justice to here. For me though, learning about this stuff and immersing myself in these new places with new people was quite the experience. Ultimately, through further research and analysis, I hope these insights from my time at Zhejiang Normal and Yiwu will shed some light on a different aspect of China-Africa relations, and in some small, tangential way help to improve cross-cultural understanding.

Viola Rothschild is a graduate of Bowdoin College. In 2014-2015, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to research African student entrepreneurs in Zhejiang Province. Viola is now continuing her work on Sino-African relations in a Master’s program at the University of Oxford, and is also working as a remote research analyst for ChinaHouse. 

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