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Xiaoying Zhou

Chinese Netizens Ignorant Of Their Country's History, Image In Africa

Arresting 100 Chinese nationals is a sure way to inflame netizens

Crackdowns on foreigners have spread to the Birthplace of Humanity. On May 24, China’s Global Times reported that Nigerian police had detained nearly 100 Chinese citizens in the cities of Kano and Lagos. According to Nigerian authorities, this crackdown was aimed at all foreigners who were living or working in the country illegally, and not specifically targeted at the Chinese.

But Chinese netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, clearly perceive it as retaliation for Beijing’s own recent moves targeting foreigners. @刘承华 weaves everything together perfectly in one tweet: “China ousts a journalist from Al-Jazeera; the U.S. kicks out teachers from the Confucius Institute. Beijing cleans out illegal foreigners; Nigeria detains Chinese laborers. Now that China allows visa exemption for foreigners staying in China for less then 72 hours, the U.S. State Department reversed its directive regarding the Confucius Institute…What complicated connections!”

And the dance continues. Eighty out of 100 Chinese citizens were released from Nigerian authority recently. Some are comforted by their compatriots’ release. Most netizens, however, are still indignant at the government’s compromising attitude.

A popular post retweeted by many on Weibo summarizes China’s diplomatic strategy with a parody of a famous quotation from Mao Zedong: “When the enemy advances, we hold our grounds; when the enemy retreats, we hold our grounds; when the enemy is fatigued, we hold our grounds; when the enemy pitches their camp, we hold our grounds (敌进我忍,敌退我忍,敌疲我忍,敌驻我忍)”—in a word, the government has dealt lamely with its various disputes this year.

China and Africa in history

The increasing media coverage of Chinese in Africa corresponds with China’s increasing economic engagement on the continent. Chinese migration in Africa started to soar since the mid 1990s. African trading communities have also existed in Southern Chinese cities such as Guangzhou since as far back as the year 2000. Today, Guangzhou locals would call districts concentrated by African merchants “chocolate city” (巧克力城). (Here’s a good translation of a photo album on African traders in Guangzhou by the blog ChinaSmack.) In 2009, China overtook the U.S. to become Africa’s biggest trading partner.

Zheng He, China's official voyager in the Ming Dynasty, went as far as East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

China and Africa actually go a long way back. Among all African countries, China has the longest and deepest ties with Mauritius. Some Chinese set sail to Mauritius during the 18th century, and their Sino-Mauritian descendants make up about 3% of Mauritius’ total population today. Some Sino-Mauritians immigrated to the Seychelles in the late 19th century. Around the same time, Johannesburg also saw waves of Chinese as well as Taiwanese migrant workers.

In the 1960s, Chinese engineers helped build infrastructures in Africa in the spirit of Socialist brotherhood. For example, the Tazara line, the railway linking Tanzanian port Dar es Salaam with Zambian town Kapiri Mposhi, was a project sponsored and executed by China in the early 1970s.

Mutual perception after a new wave of emigration

Along the new wave of Chinese emigration to Africa since the mid 1990s, talk of Africa starts circulating online again, some by mainstream news portals, some by individual “Africa hands” (非洲通) who claimed to base their writing on years of observation while working in Africa.

As early as 2009, Liu Zhirong (刘植荣), then a Chinese staffer of a World Bank project in Ethiopia, wrote a blog entry, “Chinese in the Eyes of the African People.” (For a partial English translation by Global Times, click here.) In this entry, Liu lists nine characteristics his African friends think typical of the Chinese. Most of these generalizations are far from positive. The last notes are made about the Chinese’s lawlessness, faithlessness, and the general feeling that the Chinese are stirring up the African market and are stealing jobs from Africans—most netizens who have commented on the Nigerian detention, it seems, want to deny this fact. 

Such attitudes are perhaps a source of surprise for Chinese netizens, who normally see Africa as not just economically “backward.” It might shock them to know that African workers are very keen on protecting their labor rights when Chinese companies ask them to work for more hours than local labor law stipulates. It might also shock them that while China’s GDP is greater than any African nation, Liu reports in his blog entry that 32 African countries nonetheless have a higher minimum wage than China. But despite Liu’s blog entries’ popularity in 2009, netizens commenting on Nigerians’ detention today seem oblivious of the facts above.

Liu Zhirong got famous in 2009 for his two blog entries about Chinese in Africa

But even for Liu, sentiment mirroring that of most netizens still can be seen in his blog entry, “Why Africans Still Discriminate against Chinese.” Liu complains that Africans are not particularly brotherly towards the Chinese, even though the government has given them ample aid. To explain this discrepancy, Liu argues, “It is mainly because we have not colonized Africa{{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]主要原因是我们没有对他们殖民.[[Chinese]]).” Caucasians are treated nicely in Africa because they have shown their supremacy during their colonization. Chinese, however, don’t get enough respect because they haven’t been bossy enough—this, at least, seems to be the very undertone of Liu’s blog entry.

Comparing netizens’ reactions today, Chinese’s perception of Africans and African countries don’t seem to have gone through any fundamental changes. Most Chinese workers in Africa are still not fluent in English (or French), though more educated Chinese youth are going discovering on the continent. So perhaps these educated youth will bring further understanding of Africa back to China, where extreme nationalism and racism, blatant or implicit, still reign. 

[Thanks to Yale student Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent for providing research guidance.]

[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that "敌进我忍,敌退我忍,敌疲我忍,敌驻我忍" is a parody of Sun Tsu's Art of War. The author incorrectly understood the popular Weibo tweet without knowledge of the quotation's real originator. We apologize for this error. ]

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.
  • http://www.facebook.com/xiaomu.zeng Xiaomu Zeng

    Maybe you should google “敌进我退“ before accusing other people of being ignorant. 

    • superdoo

      looks like that whole sequence is a parody, or did you not pick tat up? or do you just want to pick at minor points because the rest of the article didn’t suit your particlar outlook?

    • Fleur

      Hi, do you mean the quote actually comes from Mao Zedong and not Sun Tzu? If so, I apologize for the mistake—I simply translated this popular Weibo tweet without looking into the real author. Thanks for pointing this out!

  • http://www.facebook.com/xiaomu.zeng Xiaomu Zeng

    Maybe you should google “敌进我退“ before accusing other people of being ignorant. 

    • superdoo

      looks like that whole sequence is a parody, or did you not pick tat up? or do you just want to pick at minor points because the rest of the article didn’t suit your particlar outlook?

    • Fleur

      Hi, do you mean the quote actually comes from Mao Zedong and not Sun Tzu? If so, I apologize for the mistake—I simply translated this popular Weibo tweet without looking into the real author. Thanks for pointing this out!