Behind the Chinese trader mask

Eye-opening: Emma Chen won the confidence of Chinese immigrant traders. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Eye-opening: Emma Chen won the confidence of Chinese immigrant traders. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Restaurant owner and author Emma Chen has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years and was inclined to believe what she had heard about Chinese colonialism in Africa. But her involvement in a project to survey and interview Chinese traders has been an eye-opener and the journey of a lifetime.

The project, an initiative of the Brenthurst Foundation, documents the experiences of Chinese traders in Southern Africa. Chen, owner of the renowned Red Chamber restaurant, has interviewed almost 200 Chinese traders in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Angola and Zambia over a year. She had played a pivotal role in the project and its success hinged on her remarkable "skills and intuition", said Terence McNamee, the foundation's deputy director.

Seated in her award-winning restaurant in Johannesburg's Hyde Park, Chen said she was surprised to find that most of the traders came from the province of Fujian on the southeast coast of the mainland,  home to fewer than 3% of China's total population. Nearly half of the traders interviewed in South Africa were from Fujian and this figure rose to slightly more than half in Botswana and almost three-quarters in Lesotho.

The project report states that the exodus has been driven partly by diminishing opportunities at home. Since China's admission into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, Beijing has accelerated the restructuring of its economy, emphasising competitiveness and the employment of skilled workers by the private sector.

From the pool of low-skilled labourers who have been retrenched in the subsequent downsizing by major companies, a significant number made their way to Africa in search of better economic prospects. This is especially true of the coastal provinces, such as Fujian, where there have been major adjustments in the manufacturing sector.

"Agrarian reforms in China also created a vast surplus of workers and the commercialisation of the shing industry, coupled with the sharp rise in diesel prices, made it unprotable for many of the province's shermen," the report states.

Chen has also found cultural reasons for the exodus. "I remember one particular guy said to me: 'For a Fujian, you are not a man until you have gone overseas.' It's a rite of passage," she said.

Fujian traders have a reputation for hard work – but also ruthlessness and, in some cases, criminality. The sample suggests that their response to the arrival of other Chinese in their "territories" is generally hostile and sometimes violent. Chen has been further surprised to find that Chinese traders harbour a great deal of resentment towards the Chinese government.

"I must confess … I thought it was possible the government could be behind their [Chinese traders] presence in Africa," Chen said between sips of jasmine tea. "I was shocked to see how anti-government they were. Nobody was even mincing their words. A small few were a bit cautious, but most were very verbal about it."

The respondents complained that, although billions are spent by the Chinese government on infrastructure and health programmes in Africa, no one seems willing to help when Chinese traders in Africa are mistreated – 95% of respondents claimed they have never received any assistance from their respective Chinese embassies. "With rare exceptions, the perception of Beijing among them was extremely negative," the report states.

Strained relations
Given this finding, Chen suspects her Taiwanese accent helped her to earn the trust of the traders because China and the island state have had strained relations ever since the Chinese revolution of 1949.

"People really opened up and told me their life stories and their hardships – and for very little return." She said it was heartbreaking that she could offer no help when several of them asked her whether anybody would hear their voice and their circumstances could be improved.

Chen's research has found that the traders work exceptionally long hours and often sleep in their shops, or eight or 10 people in a commune, to save money on accommodation. They create job opportunities where they operate and generally hire more locals than they do Chinese. They were least willing to talk about their income, but she said it varied from next to nothing for small stall owners to substantial wealth for Chinese landlords.

Few traders use the banking system and many do not pay taxes. They also bribe customs to get goods through without paying the  required taxes. "Everyone is doing it," she said. "They are forced to do it just in order to be able to compete."

Chen made a concerted effort to address Chinese traders about this. "I asked them what they are giving back to South Africa," she said. "Chinese culture is all about being reciprocal."

But bucking the system also makes the traders soft targets for corrupt police. It was not uncommon for the police to follow containers destined for Chinese shops from depots, especially at Christmas time, Chen said. The traders would be blackmailed and had to hand over large sums – between R20 000 and R50 000 – to get them off their backs. "Many traders said they had guns pointed at their heads if they refused to pay."

It is hardly surprising that Southern Africa is not the first choice for many Chinese traders, because of many factors such as poor healthcare. But because not everyone is willing to come here, there is more opportunity. "As one Chinese proverb explains: if you don't venture in- to the cave of the tiger you will not get the tiger cub," said Chen.  

Although many traders are un-able to speak English, they feel language is not necessarily a barrier, but something that can be overcome. In Lesotho, for example, Chen came across a group of traders who, although unable to speak English, had become fluent in what they only knew as "the local language".

Crime affects these traders in different ways. "In most countries we interviewed, entertainment is an issue, especially because people were afraid to go out at night," Chen said. "In South Africa and Zambia there were legal casinos and quite a lot of people seek entertainment there. In most places, however, the Chinese traders limited their movement to their shops, the wholesaler outlets and their places of residence. To avoid crime and corruption, few would risk getting out unnecessarily."

Blue skies
Perhaps most worrying is that tension between Africans and Chinese is increasing. "Whenever there is a shortage in resources, there will be antagonism towards those who are different," Chen said. She worries about a possible violent outburst in the near future.

The traders appreciate some aspects of living in Africa – "the weather, the blue sky and the space". But they feel that many Southern African governments do not encourage them to settle.  

"Many traders bear the difficulties of having to live apart from their children for years. Most of them would not bring their children to their host countries because of the poor education standard in many Southern African countries, except perhaps South Africa."

Most plan to return home at some point. As Chen said: "The leaves of a tree always fall down to its root."

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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