Last week 53 South African students left for China to pursue studies at various universities on full scholarships from the Chinese government. In the 2014 calendar year, the Free State province sent 239 students to China.
Individual cities have scholarship agreements with China, as do higher-learning institutions, and there are also at least 100 – and possibly far more – South African students paying their own way at Chinese universities.
Nobody knows exactly what that total is, but there are at least 1 000 South Africans currently studying in China, making up perhaps as much as a tenth of all Africans studying in that country.
The number is growing rapidly, not least because of the excellent feedback those in China give to their peers back home.
“Everyone I speak to, I say to them: ‘You have to apply; you have to come here,’?” said a South African studying in Fujian province. The student asked not to be identified. “I tell them how it is – it is better than I could have imagined.”
South African medical students in Cuba have complained about conditions there and about money shortages and even, on occasion, food. South African students in Brazil and Russia speak of language barriers and an attitude of cultural superiority. By contrast, those in China on government scholarships report what they consider luxurious conditions, excellent teaching and a warm welcome.
As long as they remain students, those good conditions are likely to continue; students are explicitly considered future agents of “soft power” for China on the African continent, analysts agree, and treating them well is part of a long-term strategy.
Should those students think about staying on in China as professionals, they may find the environment less conducive. Africans in China have been finding life increasingly difficult over the past seven years, and the current upheaval in the Chinese economy could spell trouble.
“It is normal for countries with economic problems to blame immigrants for some of their woes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the discourse evolves in this direction,” said Adams Bodomo, professor of African studies at the University of Vienna, on possible changes in attitude.
In 2012, while at the University of Hong Kong, Bodomo published the first comprehensive book on Africans in China, as opposed to the reams written about China in Africa.
In it, he highlighted how concerned Africans are about intensifying immigration crackdowns, a phenomenon that seems to have started in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and since accelerated.
Before then, immigration was handled in rather slapdash fashion; even though Africans flocked to some centres in China in their hundreds of thousands, those numbers were minuscule compared to the millions of Chinese flowing into Africa.
“Among the problems China encountered in its rapid development, immigration problems remain marginalised and have not raised serious concern,” one research paper published in South Africa stated in 2012. In China itself, however, Bodomo and his team were even then reporting on a different reality.
Those Africans in China who could plausibly do so, such as white South Africans or Arab North Africans, would claim not to be from the continent unless it suited their specific purpose.
Black Africans without that option reported being singled out and harassed, “disproportionately selected at border checkpoints for extra inspections by customs officials and constantly asked to produce their identity papers”.
Considering the number of Chinese immigrants coming into various African countries at the time – and what Africans considered the good treatment those immigrants received – this caused some unhappiness.
“There is a saying among the Dagaaba of northern Ghana,” Bodomo wrote in 2012, “that if a man visits his friend and his friend roasts a fowl for him to eat, the man is expected to show the same hospitality on a return visit by also roasting a fowl for his friend. It seems that there is hardly anyone roasting fowls for Africans in China.”
The experience is not universal: scholars and analysts point out that Chinese reactions to Africans are mixed, and anything from geography to class will determine whether that reaction is xenophobic, tolerant or somewhere in between.
For traders and businesspeople, however – as opposed to students – available data suggests that experiences of China tend towards the negative, coloured by language barriers, racist incidents and the like.
South Africans, used to a slightly different standing from other Africans when abroad, are no exception. “When I tell people I’m from South Africa, they say: ‘Ah, you are African, yes,’” says the South African student in Fujian province. “Nowhere is South Africa special … I may as well be from Nigeria or Mozambique; it’s the same here.”
Like students, African businesspeople tend to remain in China for short periods, seldom more than three years. Those who remain in the country longer, in contravention of strict visa requirements, find themselves enmeshed in a patchwork of regulations that require businesses in some areas to check foreigners’ visas before doing business with them.
And so a steady flow of traders return from China with largely negative sentiments towards that country, even as a smaller group of students return with glowing reports and a likelihood of welcome future investment by, and trade with, China.
What net influence that has on African sentiment towards China is not clear; attitudes vary enormously between African countries and from year to year, and the concerted scholarship programme is not yet old enough to show its effect.
If, however, economic troubles continue in China, there is the possibility of an equalisation of attitudes between some African countries and China: African countries where Chinese immigrants are seen as competitors for scarce resources and as strangers to be feared.
Already there are early signs of stories doing the rounds in China that are eerily reminiscent of persistent urban legends in places like Angola, legends that paint Chinese immigrants as mercenary and rapacious.
“[Chinese] friends tell me there is one story they keep hearing about how Africans come here with Aids and rape woman to spread it” as a form of biological-economic warfare, the Fujian student says. “They laugh at it. For now.”