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New Chinese Migrants: Love Affair with the ANC

With the ongoing influx of new migrants from across mainland China to South Africa (and the African continent), the politics of being Chinese in South Africa and the politics of Chineseness continue to morph as various (and increasing numbers of) people negotiate for power, privileges, or simply survival. One of the primary elements of Western narratives of “China-in-Africa” has been the influence of a rising China over African leaders: China is criticized for buying influence from corrupt and unsavory dictators.11 At the same time, the Chinese in Africa also seem to be wielding influence as and when they can, exploiting their Chineseness when it suits them. However, this has also been a double-edged sword because their identity as Chinese (and stereotypes of ethnic Chinese) also leaves them vulnerable to crime, corruption, and criticism.

Rising China and Its Influence on South Africa

South Africa and mainland China began the current stage of their official relationship relatively late, in 1998. From 1949 until 1998, the government of South Africa officially recognized Taiwan. To further complicate matters, the ANC had established its own ties to the People’s Republic of China as far back as the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, with the Sino- Soviet split of the 1960s, the ANC chose to align itself with Russia, while China maintained its support for the more radical Pan Africanist Congress. With the end of apartheid, loyal ANC cadres engaged in fierce debates about changing recognition from Taiwan to mainland China. At the end of the day, those supporting PRC recognition won the day with both moral and practical arguments: (1) Beijing had always supported African freedom movements whereas Taiwan was a partner to the apartheid government; and (2) China’s huge population and growing economic engine promised greater long-term economic benefits for South Africa (for more, see Park and Alden 2013; Alden and Wu 2014). Since establishing official ties, a multifaceted relationship between the two countries has continued to grow and China is now one of South Africa’s principal economic partners.

In recent years, both opposition leaders and ANC insiders and loyalists have criticized the ANC government for kowtowing to China. South Africans were particularly angered by the ANC government’s (mis)handling of visa requests for the Dalai Lama.12 There have now been three incidents—in March 2009, October 2011 and October 2014—when the Dalai Lama was refused a visa or when his visa application was so delayed as to cause him to cancel his trip. Responses to these events from people ranging from Patricia de Lille, the then mayor of Cape Town, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu were almost unanimously hostile to the Zuma-led government for ostensibly succumbing to pressure from Beijing. The most recent incident also elicited a petition with more than 10,000 signatories, all repudiating the government’s decision. All this opposition seems to have had little impact on the ANC’s love affair with China. For government leaders, it would appear that business deals, including both trade and investment, take precedence over all other matters.13

As indicated by Ross Anthony in a Centre for Chinese Studies commentary, the South African government has done its cost-benefit analysis and China appears to be the big winner (see note 14). The Chinese government and the CCP are doing their part to woo their ANC counterparts, often through the distribution of all-paid trips to China, either for short business trips or for longer “educational” jaunts. By all accounts, Chinese investment in South Africa is growing, but South African investment in China is also keeping pace (Alden and Wu 2014).14

Criticisms of the ANC because of the Dalai Lama episodes illustrate that most South Africans are concerned about China’s lack of democracy and the Zuma government’s sacrifice of South African sovereignty. The increased entanglements at the level of both the state and the political parties are also reflected on the interpersonal level.

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