Victims and Victimizers: A Microhistory of Chinese Settlers in Africa

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When it comes to the current Sino-African relationship, the question often asked is if China is a neo-colonial force in Africa or not. This question elides the complexity of collaboration, negotiation and exploitation. What I try to achieve in this essay is to shift the scale from a macro (nation to continent) model to that of a micro level by analyzing how Chinese laborers (in both state and private sectors) and the narratives they construct, offer a much more complex interactions between microhistory and China’s inroad into Africa. In the first chapter, I borrow Miriam Driessen’s description, tasting bitterness, or in my words, enduring hardships, to demonstrate the struggles Chinese workers face in the construction sector where criticism of China’s land-grabbing and resource-gathering in Ethiopia is most visible.1 Through interviews with managers and workers of RCE,2 a Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), I observe that the Chinese companies’ exploitive labor practices in Ethiopia often brought lawsuits to the companies and made the Chinese laborers endure hardships in Africa. Building on Chapter One’s theme of enduring hardships, in Chapter Two, I then analyze four individual actors in agriculture who are independent of the Chinese state’s project in Africa. The goal is to examine if they share experiences during their stay in Africa that are similar to Chapter One’s migrant workers in the state sector. I first examine the migration intentions of individual migrants using Edwin Kangyang Lin’s small pond migration theory. I then turn to Driessen’s tasting bitterness again to complement Lin’s analysis of migration intentions and use her concept to shed light on the migrants’ commitment to enduring hardships. Based on the microhistory of Chinese diaspora in Africa, I argue that the current Chinese migration to Africa is an unintended consequence of the rise of China in the world system and that these settlers are both victimizers and victims of this fast-changing circumstance. My project complicates and disrupts the oft-cited West vs. China dichotomy that obfuscates the everyday struggles and survivals of the Chinese diaspora in Africa.






Luk, Shingho (2020). Victims and Victimizers: A Microhistory of Chinese Settlers in Africa. Capstone project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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