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New Chinese Migrants and the ANC

Sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words. In the run-up to the last South African elections in 2014, a political poster was seen on a lamp-post in Cyrildene, Johannesburg’s new Chinatown. It is unclear who was behind the Chinese-language ANC campaign poster (Fig. 2.1). Regardless of whether it was the brainchild of an ANC official or some wealthy and influential Chinese business leader, it certainly speaks to some sort of courting in the relationship between members of new Chinese migrant communities and the ANC.

Researchers examining these newer Chinese migrant communities in and around Johannesburg have described the presence of prominent local ANC officials at Chinese community events and Chinese-owned shops in Cyrildene featuring photos of ANC leaders. In the course of my research, I also came across one Chinese migrant from Fujian, not five years in South Africa, who showed me his ANC membership card. He explained that flashing his card worked to his advantage in many business interactions. Across small towns and in large cities across South Africa, there is growing evidence that Chinese migrants are learning that to do business in the country it is beneficial to have friends in high places. In South Africa, this means making friends within the upper echelons of the ANC. And, increasingly, it would appear that some in the Chinese migrant business community are playing the “China card,” using their Chineseness and exploiting the close ties between South Africa and China for their own benefit.

Being Chinese in South Africa also comes with costs. While Chineseness can be used as a trump card, it can also be used to target ethnic Chinese. At one end of the spectrum, South Africans can be guilty of stereotyping and discriminating against the Chinese. At the other end, increasing numbers of the Chinese have been murdered and have been victims of other crimes. Most South Africans are unable to distinguish between Chinese groups. As such, there has been a tendency to paint all the Chinese with one brush, disregarding differences in citizenship, language, and legal status, as indicated by the outcry in the CASA affirmative-action case. Chinese people, as in the past, are seen as part of China, even if they happen to be third- or fourth-generation South Africans. In this vein, grievances against China also become grievances against Chinese people.

Racialized stereotypes have resulted in an increasing number of attacks against the Chinese. It is true that some Chinese are victimized by other Chinese as business competition or criminal syndicates spiral out of control.

ANC campaign poster in Chinese, as seen in Cyrildene, Johannesburg

Fig. 2.1 2014 ANC campaign poster in Chinese, as seen in Cyrildene, Johannesburg

Exact figures are unknown because the South African police no longer track the ethnicity or race of perpetrators and victims. However, newspaper accounts would seem to indicate that Chinese-on-Chinese crime is significant enough to warrant attention. According to the only scholar to have studied Chinese triads in South Africa, Peter Gastrow stated, “Violence aimed at settling turf battles or at extorting money is perpetuated primarily by members of the respective groups ... some contract killings have been performed by professionals brought in from China ... Access to firearms is not difficult in South Africa” (Gastrow 2001). Chinese criminal syndicates have been active in South Africa since the 1980s (ibid.).

The Chinese are also targeted by corrupt government officials and common criminals. In a study ofxenophobia in South Africa, immigrant retailers from China and the Indian subcontinent complained that they were constantly harassed by police officers and other authorities for bribes (Park and Rugunanan 2009). While the study found that Asians in South Africa are not primary targets of xenophobic violence, they are seen as “soft targets” for extortion and petty crime. Because so many of the new Chinese migrants are engaged in the retail sector, they are vulnerable to robberies, break-ins and looting. The targeting of the Chinese is exacerbated by rumors that they keep large quantities ofcash on their persons, in their shops and in their homes. This sort of stereotyping puts all the Chinese (and those who appear to be Chinese) in danger. Such was evidenced in the tragic tale ofAlan Ho, a 77-year-old Chinese South African shopkeeper who was found dead, bound and gagged, in his shop in Johannesburg. Police hypothesized that he had been tortured because the criminals believed he was hiding money somewhere in his shop.15 While Chineseness and links to “rising China” might be used strategically to get ahead in business, they can sometimes also be used against people as racialized stereotypes, perpetuating myths of wealth and hordes of cash.

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