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Question and Answers About Chinese People in South Africa

The Dutch-based new media organization Couscous Global recently posted an interesting little gem of a video on You Tube that asks young South Africans to express how they feel about the country’s Chinese population. It opens with a young Chinese guy asking the question in English and then turns to a racially diverse group of South African teenagers for their responses.  On the surface, it just sounds like kids giggling and fumbling through their answers.  Yet there were some very interesting, and extremely important, points they used to explain why they get along quite well with Chinese immigrants.

  • LANGUAGE: The first young person to answers explains how when she goes to the market in Soweto and notices the Chinese butchers working there speak the local dialect.     I saw this phenomenon myself in Kinshasa where Chinese immigrants regularly spoke Lingala.  The ability to speak the local dialect is a critical advantage that Chinese immigrants in Africa have over their Western counterparts.  This may seem obvious, but when two people can communicate in the same language, so many differences are radically shrunk, e.g. culture, class, race.  It should be noted that in my time in the DR Congo I never met a single Westerner who could speak Lingala.  For the most part, Westerners retain an outmoded expectation that everyone should speak their rather than how the Chinese are going about it and learning local dialects in the communities they live and work.
  • SEPARATION: The first young woman to speak remarked how the Chinese “don’t separate themselves.”  This is another important distinction between how the Chinese live in Africa compared to Westerners.  For the most, and of course there are exceptions, the overwhelming majority of European and American residents in Africa live behind high walls with security guards, barbed wire and an equal sense of “us and them.”   They tend to avoid the local markets in favor of expensive supermarkets stocked with imported food; they avoid public transportation as they commute in bulky 4×4 SUVs and the few relationships they have with locals is either with their domestic staffs or a privileged few that work as their subordinates in Western NGOs or companies.   In contrast, the Chinese approach is entirely different. Generally they do not live in Chinese ghettos, or so-called Chinatowns.  Instead, the overwhelming majority of Chinese immigrants to Africa live in the same, vast neighborhoods right alongside Africans themselves.  They eat the same food, shop at the same stores and squeeze in to the same crowded mini-vans that everyone else takes to get around.  When considering the living standards of Chinese immigrants compared to Africans, it is important to remember that unlike wealthy Westerners, most of the Chinese are at the same socio-economic level as their African counterparts.  Simply put, the class difference is often quite minimal.

The subtleties of this video are what make it meaningful.  The fact that Chinese immigrants are able to form this impression of themselves is an important soft-power tool that will no doubt have a broad impact on overall Sino-African ties.  I received an almost identical response from Congolese who I questioned about their views on the growing number of Chinese immigres. One Kinois resident best summarized popular opinion when said “the Chinese, they are not afraid of us.  White people fear us and hide behind the walls.  The Chinese do not.”

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