There are no precise figures on the size of the Chinese population in Africa. Given the fluidity of this immigrant population and the weak immigration controls in most African societies, reliable numbers are impossible to obtain. There are very sophisticated networks that serve as pipelines for people to make the long journey from China to Africa, and not surprisingly, most of these are out of sight of Western observers. Nonetheless, without any foundation, a number of journalists and academics have speculated that the population now hovers around a million Chinese living across Africa. If accurate, there are now more Chinese living in Africa than there were French residents at the height of the French colonial period in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to authors Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.
Despite the impressive size of the Chinese population on the continent, there is remarkably little investigation into the social and cultural aspects of this community. The overwhelming majority of analysis about the Chinese in Africa, including on this blog, focus on the geo-political and economic impact while essentially ignoring the often poignant human stories of the individuals who have made this long inter-continental journey.
“You have a lot of young people who have to come of age in Africa where it is very difficult to find a partner and this creates a whole other dynamic within the [Chinese] community.”
Solange Chatelard, Sino-Zambian relations scholar
In this edition of the ‘China in Africa Podcast,’ Sino-Zambian relations scholar Solange Guo Chatelard details why traditional Chinese marriage and relationship customs are critical to understanding the social glue that binds the Chinese diaspora in Africa. While it goes without saying that immigrants of all kinds bring along their social customs, Chatelard explains that in Africa there are unique challenges confronting Chinese immigrants that often frustrate their ability to easily replicate longheld relationship, courtship and marriage customs.