Trapped in trade. The Chinese immobility paradox in Africa
(GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies)
Paper short abstract:
While the omnipresence and success of Chinese merchants in Africa are usually attributed to high mobility, ethnographic research suggests that they are largely immobilised - both spatially and socially. Specific economic strategies and social practices often put social mobility abroad on hold.
Paper long abstract:
In recent years large numbers of Chinese merchants have occupied dominant economic positions across Africa, are generally portrayed as highly mobile and flexible - and hence successful. Ethnographic research conducted in West Africa (2011-2015), however, suggests that the majority of Chinese merchants in Africa (entrepreneurs and employees alike) are trapped in a state of liminality and stillness. I argue that their subjectivities are characterized by multiple dimensions of immobility and stasis rather than mobility. Entrepreneurs feel stuck in temporary destinations, unable to return to China rather than moving back and up the social ladder by means of anticipated quick profits. Employees are immobilized by sets of institutional constraints including employment arrangements, behavioral norms and immigration regimes - their spatial mobility highly restricted, their social mobility at least postponed.
Drawing on a large corpus of qualitative data I will demonstrate how the initially successful economic strategies universally employed by Chinese merchants across Africa and beyond tend to become major obstacles for mobility - both spatial and social. I will discuss how behavioral inflexibility within the Chinese socio-cultural context results in an ethnic cluster in stasis, with severely limited ability to adapt social practices to local contexts and to develop alternative economic strategies. I will elaborate how individual social isolation and alienation from Chinese society during prolonged stays in Africa further limit mobility choices. Finally, I will shed light on the specific immobilizing effects that employment relations in Chinese trading companies - typically family businesses - have on Chinese migrant employees.
Being stuck. Stillness in times of mobility