SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

The steady growth of Chinese migrants to South Africa in the past decade provides an opportunity to use Sen's (2001, Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press) capabilities approach in the field of immigration. This theoretical framing reveals that the Chinese employ, what I call, a small pond migration strategy – utilizing mobility to maximize their social, economic, and human capital. I argue that the Chinese move to South Africa because of a desire to venture out of China and pursue freedoms associated with being one's own boss. Once in South Africa, they choose to stay because of comfortable weather and a slower pace of life, despite losing freedoms associated with high crime in Johannesburg. The findings suggest alternative ways of understanding factors of migration as well as a model that explains migration from more developed countries to less developed ones.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

If you have not experienced crime or being robbed in South Africa yet, then you haven't really (zhen zhen de) lived here! We all accept that this will happen to us eventually.

No, money is not good to make here (bu hao zhuan). Look around. It is so quiet, and it is like this most of the day. How can we make money? Some months, when it is really bad, we even lose money!

These quotes from recent Chinese migrant shop-keepers in Johannesburg, South Africa represent common responses I received when asking about their daily lives, interactions with South African society, and economic situations. In 2009, estimates of the Chinese population in Africa sat between 580,000 and 820,000. Three years later, that estimate has increased to over one million, South Africa being the largest recipient of Chinese migrants with approximately 350,000 Chinese in 2009, and at least 500,000 in mid-year 2011 (Statistics South Africa, 2011). The most recent Chinese migrants are mostly low-educated peasants and unskilled laborers who come from mainland China to engage in small-scale shop-keeping. Given China's growing economy, the physical distance between China and South Africa, the striking ethnic differences between Chinese migrants and the majority of South African citizens, as well as self-expressed difficulties Chinese people face while living in South Africa, why have Chinese people increasingly moved away from a rising world power to this poorer and less developed country, and why have they decided to remain in South Africa upon arrival? In other words, what factors go into the decision-making process of Chinese migrants in South Africa, and what meanings do they ascribe to their mobility decisions?

Standard explanations for migration give us some purchase on these two questions. Economic incentives (Hatten and Williamson, 1998; Massey et al., 1998) in a globalized world economy (Sassen, 1988, 1998a,b) are important, as are established social networks that perpetuate migration (Massey, 1990; Menjivar, 2000). Politically and legally, relative low barriers to entry also help to explain why Chinese migrants choose South Africa instead of a country in the global north (Massey, 1999a,b; Zolberg, 1999). More recent research goes beyond the initial move from home country to destination country often using a quantitative approach to represent the migration decision-making process. These studies consider the economic investment involved in migration (Khwaja, 2002), the social networks and capital in both the place of residence and the place of destination (Alberts and Hazen, 2005; Haug, 2008), and the value of immobility (Fischer, Martin, and Straubhaar, 1997) as important factors in explaining a migrant's decision-making process. While these factors are helpful in examining the case of Chinese migrants in South Africa, they fail to capture the rhetorical strategies and meanings that Chinese migrants construct concerning their migration to and settlement in South Africa.

The present study applies Sen's (2001) capabilities approach to the field of international migration as a framework to uncover the rhetorical strategies and meanings Chinese migrants ascribe to their migration experience. This framework gives focus to the perspective of migrants concerning their use of mobility as a tool to improve their lives. It contributes to existing research in two ways: first, the framework acts as a way to bridge the gap between south–south and south–north immigration research, where currently each subfield sees its phenomena as distinct and separate from one another with little overlap or cross-conversation; and second, it provides an alternative to using aggregate national statistical data as the primary way to analyze and explain motivational factors of migration.

Based on in-depth interviews and participant observation in Johannesburg, I find that in addition to those factors isolated by traditional theories of migration, recent Chinese immigrants decide to come to South Africa to gain life experience (adventuring outside of China) and to seek out the possibility of attaining self-employment (becoming their own boss). Results reveal that the Chinese migrants who choose to stay in South Africa do so because they want to continue to pursue their dream of self-employment and because they experience a more comfortable life due to a slower paced living, better weather, and a cleaner environment. These less tangible factors are important freedoms and capabilities that not only help explain the migration pattern between China and South Africa, but also serve to make more complete existing migration theory. Although the conditions in South Africa, especially well-documented problems with crime (SAPS Strategic Management, 2013), lead to Chinese migrants forfeiting certain freedoms (such as going out at night), results show that migrants adapt and adjust, and those who remain choose the possibility of saving up money and becoming one's own boss over the freedoms they forfeit. In the end, while existing literature provides statistically generalizable data on social and economic factors that affect migrant decision-making, the case of Chinese migrants in South Africa reveals an additional factor: the migrant's own understanding of his or her mobility as a strategy for improving his or her life. Migrants are people with individual agency and to thoroughly explain their behavior in choosing one living space over another, one must account for the stories they tell about how and why they made their decision. In the specific case of Chinese migrants in South Africa, migrants knowingly and deliberately search out poorer towns and regions so that they can take advantage of more favorable economic situations and maximize their social, economic, and human capital. I refer to this migration strategy as ‘small pond migration,’ based upon the American idiom, “big fish in a small pond.”

Background

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

In the past decade, Chinese migration has grown quickly to become increasingly commonplace all throughout China. According to the most recent data, internal migration primarily to coastal provinces has exploded to the point where China has a third of all internal migrants in the world, and the number of rural Chinese migrants working away from home has reached 160 million or 12 percent of the country's population (Chan, 2012). This growing floating Chinese population has translated to overseas migration as well. While Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia has slowed, destinations such as Europe and Africa are experiencing significant increases in Chinese immigration (Skeldon, 2011). In the case of Europe, Chinese emigrants are less skilled than those going to older and more traditional destination regions such as North America or Australasia. These immigrants work in the European trade or manufacturing sector (Skeldon, 2011). With China becoming Africa's leading trade partner, Chinese immigration to the continent has also increased (Politzer, 2008). Estimates of Chinese in Africa range from 580,000 to over 800,000 with the overwhelming majority of Chinese found in South Africa (Park, 2009a,b). Chinese immigrants to Africa can be divided into four categories: temporary labor migration linked to Chinese development and investment in Africa, small-time entrepreneurs, in-transit migrants, and agricultural workers (Politzer, 2008). The largest group of Chinese immigrants in Africa is made up of temporary labor migrants who utilize private employment agencies who provide migrants with proper visa and travel documents to work in construction or other manual labor (Park, 2009a,b).

While Chinese labor migration is a major trend in recent Chinese emigration around the world, Africa is seeing an increase in its second largest group of Chinese immigrants: small-time entrepreneurs. These migrants were not entrepreneurs in China, but upon migrating, began engaging in entrepreneurial activity. ‘China shops’ import cheap but quality Chinese goods and sell them to the local population – everything from clothing to travel accessories, from everyday household appliances to toys and games for children (Park, 2009a,b). The establishment of these Chinese shops in Africa has snowballed creating more demand for Chinese immigrant labor because shop owners prefer to trust their business with family and friend networks rather than local labor (Østbø and Carling, 2005; Ma Mung, 2008).

South Africa has had several waves of Chinese immigrants throughout its history, waves which can be broken down into three groups: Chinese South Africans whose families came as early as 1900 (approximately 10,000), Taiwanese South Africans who set up businesses in the 1970s and 80s (approximately 6,000), and new Chinese migrants who came from the People's Republic of China since the 1990s (over 500,000; Park, 2009a,b). This paper focuses on the largest group of Chinese South African immigrants – the mainland immigrants who have arrived in the past two decades. This group is predominantly formed by small-scale entrepreneurs from mainland China who set up Chinese shops importing Chinese-made goods (Huynh, Park, and Chen, 2010).

Of the most recent group of migrants, the majority live in Johannesburg, an economic hub for all of southern Africa. Due to the rapidly increasing saturation of Chinese shopkeepers in Johannesburg, however, this third wave has begun to move out to more rural areas and neighboring provinces (Park, 2009a,b). Chinese small-scale entrepreneurs can be further subdivided into three categories: the first-movers who emigrated in the early 1990s, immigrants who came during the mid- to late-1990s from business connections with Taiwanese factories, and traders and peasants who started moving in the late-1990s and are now increasingly coming from all over China (Park, 2009a,b). The first-movers have had large success in establishing wholesale businesses and importing goods from China. Large wholesale businesses are mostly found in Johannesburg, which has over ten Chinese wholesale centers with hundreds of Chinese wholesale stalls (Park, 2009a,b), but new wholesale distribution centers have recently opened in both Cape Town and Durban, two major coastal cities in South Africa, as well as Bloemfontein, located in the rural center of South Africa. Many of these first-mover entrepreneurs have either returned to China or migrated to more developed countries, employing a step-wise migration strategy (Paul, 2011). Immigrants in the second group from the 1990s have built extensive business networks and have become involved in industries such as mining, manufacturing, and property development, as well as expanding wholesale and importing to neighboring countries in southern Africa (Park, 2009a,b). The final group of ongoing migrants is the largest and has spread throughout South Africa, searching for holes in the retail and wholesale market where their small shops can survive (Park, 2009a,b). Many of these migrants come to South Africa through family and friends who sponsor them and provide work visas for their stay in South Africa. This paper focuses on this last and largest group of ongoing Chinese migrants to South Africa.

Theoretical Framing

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Current theories of migration act as a starting point for framing the case of Chinese migration to South Africa. Existing models focus on three sets of factors: economic, social, and political. Economic models focus on individuals and wages (Hatten and Williamson, 1998), household risk minimization (Massey et al., 1998), entrepreneurship (Waldinger et al., 1990), economic investment in the act of migration (Khwaja, 2002), and a bifurcated labor market (Sassen, 1998a,b). Sassen, in particular, provides a political–economic model that emphasizes capital venture flows and historical connections (Sassen, 1988, 1998a,b). Social models pay special attention to social capital and social ties (Menjivar, 2000), social networks in the country of origin and country of destination (Alberts and Hazen, 2005; Haug, 2008), and how networks snowball and accelerate migration flows (Massey, 1999a,b). Finally, political and legal constraints can channel migration by making some destinations more difficult or easier to enter than others, influencing the countries’ migrants target (Massey, 1999a,b; Zolberg, 1999; Torpey, 2000). These migration models provide a strong foundation for knowing what factors to test when attempting to explain existing migration patterns. A limitation of existing theories of migration, however, is the relative absence of the measures of migrants’ understanding of their migration decisions, plans, and experience. In this paper, I argue that additional information concerning how migrants interpret and understand their experience will increase the analytic power of perspectives on international migration.

Of all existing frameworks, social network theory provides the most purchase on explaining Chinese South African migration because of its attention to the importance of social ties. Social network analysis focuses on seeing people as nodal points connected to one another and analyzing the effects of these relationships (Scott, 2013). In the field of immigration, this has taken the form of research on social ties, social capital, and social embeddedness (Portes and Sensenbrenner, 1993; Menjivar, 2000). Social networks decrease the barriers to entry and the costs of migration for new immigrants arriving in the destination country. When it comes to entrepreneurship, social networks help migrants start businesses by lowering the entry barriers for small-scale entrepreneurs (Waldinger et al., 1990). While this paper does not use a network analysis of Chinese immigrants in South Africa, it does draw on the importance of social ties in helping Chinese migrants have an easier time migrating to South Africa and establishing their small businesses. As suggested above, however, social network theory is limited in its emphasis on the perspective of migrants and how migrants understand and ascribe meaning to their decision to migrate. This perspective sheds light on why Chinese migrants chose specifically social networks in South Africa rather than choosing to utilize other networks they have around the world.

Much South to south migration research focuses on instances of forced migration, wage labor migration, and seasonal labor migration (see for example Yang, 2003; Ratha and Shaw, 2007a,b; Bakewell, 2009; Rimmer, 2009), but Chinese migration to South Africa is none of these. In general, three of the largest factors found to determine south–south migration are proximity, social networks, and income (Ratha and Shaw, 2007a,b). With proximity, while 80 percent of all south–south migration happens between countries that share a border (Ratha and Shaw, 2007a,b), China is nearly halfway around the world from South Africa, resulting in presumably higher migration costs than migration between bordering countries. Available data indicates that excluding cases related to the breakup of the Soviet Union, only 19 percent of south to south migrants move from a country with higher overall income to a country with lower income, an indeterminate portion of these migrants being refugees and asylum seekers (Ratha and Shaw, 2007a,b). The movement from China to South Africa falls within this 19 percent.

Sen's, 1993 capabilities approach for development, when applied to migration theory, provides a useful framework for understanding the case of Chinese migrants in South Africa, as well as migrants’ decision-making process in general. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen (2001) shows that the end goal of development has always been increasing the individual's capability to live a better life. Development should not be confined to national projects enhancing infrastructure or employing fiscal and monetary policies to generate higher gross national product. Instead, development should be defined to include any action where the end goal is to increase the capabilities, freedoms, and choices that individuals have to live the way they want to live. In other words, Sen provides an alternative view that sees increasing political freedoms, economic facilities, and social opportunities all as important parts of development, a process which is situated in individuals’ ability to pursue better lives (Sen, 2001:36–40).

Sen defines these capabilities as “a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve…various lifestyles” (Sen, 2001:75). A capability set, then, is all the choices and potential life trajectories from which an individual can choose, and Sen's capabilities approach seeks to evaluate not only what life path the individual takes but also what potential options the individual has open to him or her. Sen also recognizes that in many cases development projects may empirically result in increasing one set of capabilities at the expense of another (i.e., suspending rights to promote a transition to capitalism); however, he contends that, in theory and ideally, all capabilities can increase together, making democratic and education-based development the most ideal development path. Applying this development approach to immigration means holding two key tenets as foundational to understanding international migration: (1) migrants move primarily to improve their capabilities sets (migration as a strategy to increase freedoms); and (2) mobility is one of the best and most effective ways to quickly and fundamentally change one's capability sets (mobility as a development strategy).

This analytic approach provides a more fruitful theoretical frame for understanding migration patterns by pushing migration theory beyond economistic explanatory factors and toward a narrative approach that understands the migrant's experience as a journey of increasing one's freedoms. Explanatory factors for migration are complex and multiple, almost always including some level of trade off, where the migrant loses some capabilities to gain others. Narrative data complement more objective-based approaches to explain motivations for migration by identifying more clearly which freedoms migrants seek to increase through migration.

One of the problems with a narrative approach, especially when the person is speaking about oneself, is that the data are inherently subjective. While this might be considered a weakness in measurement within the narrative framework, it is, at the same time, its strength; narratives are our access point to the rhetorical strategies and meanings that the migrants themselves attach to their mobility. Because migrant narratives are inevitably told after the fact, it is always possible that the reports are altered because of memory and the passage of time. But this does not undercut the importance of narrative data revealing factors of migration, since migrants’ evolving understanding of their own migration experiences influences their future decisions regarding mobility (Roth, 1989; Richardson, 1990; Vandsemb, 1995; Czarniawska, 2004).

The approach I outline here builds on complementary arguments about capabilities in subfields that focus on small-scale migrant entrepreneurship, ethnic enclaves, and remittances, as well as scholarship documenting more deliberate mobility strategies. For example, when explaining Filipino migration to the Gulf States and Singapore, Paul (2011) elaborates on the idea of stepwise migration, where migrants move to stepping stone countries as a way to accrue capital with the ultimate goal of moving to countries in the developed world. This serves as one example of how migrants utilize mobility strategically to improve their capabilities. Unlike the Filipinos that Paul studied, however, Chinese migrants to South Africa do not use a stepwise migration strategy, but instead employ almost the opposite, what I call a “small pond” migration strategy.

The American idiom, “A big fish in a small pond,” is used to describe a person who is important only because he or she is situated in a small sphere of influence. If one were to take this “big fish” and place it in the ocean, it would cease to have much importance, because it is not really that big a fish, and the ocean is vast. To take the idiom in the opposite direction, if a medium-sized fish in a large pond moves to a smaller pond, it will no longer have to compete with the bigger fish from its original pond and now has the chance of becoming the biggest fish around. If someone wants to become a “big fish,” he or she doesn't actually have to grow bigger; he or she can just move to a smaller pond.

The small pond migration strategy is where migrants move from a more developed place to a lesser developed country or region to take advantage of characteristics of the receiving place, which effectively increase their existing social, economic, and human capital. Through the use of small pond migration, Chinese migrants who move to South Africa experience an almost immediate increase in the utility of their capital, which translates into more freedoms. Unlike stepwise migration (Paul, 2011), where the migrant focuses on moving to a more developed place, in small pond migration, migrants focus on advancing their socioeconomic status, moving to areas where they can maximize the effectiveness of their existing capital. When Chinese migrants explain their choice to move, the fact that South Africa is less developed is the very reason for wanting to go there. This way of thinking is exhibited in a Chinese proverb that parallels the “big fish in a small pond” idiom: shan zhong wu lao hu, hou zi cheng da wang. This proverb means, “In a mountain with no tigers, the monkey becomes king.” While the English idiom holds a derogatory connotation that a big fish in a small pond is still unimportant, the Chinese proverb has the opposite connotation and praises the monkey for taking advantage of the mountain's lack of tigers.

Using a capabilities approach to understand a migrant's decision-making process reveals that Chinese migrants in South Africa employ a small pond migration strategy which helps explain both why they come to South Africa and why, for those who stay, they choose to remain in South Africa. Traditional and quantitative approaches are simply unable to account for the importance and effect of such a mentality. Therefore, while social network theories, economic frameworks, and decision-making models provide the groundwork for understanding why Chinese migrate to and choose to remain in South Africa, I argue that, on examining the individual's own narrative about the freedoms they gain from moving, an additional and important factor that helps explain the peculiarities of this case is revealed.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

To understand the narrative of Chinese migrants in South Africa, I spent a total of 6 months in South Africa conducting in-depth interviews and participant observation in three major cities: Johannesburg, Durban, and Bloemfontein. These locations were selected for their diversity and representativeness of the various Chinese communities in South Africa. Johannesburg has the largest Chinese population in South Africa with a well-developed Chinese retail and wholesale sector (Park, 2008). Durban has recently expanded in its Chinese retail and wholesale centers serving the southeast regions of South Africa. Finally, Bloemfontein is a major rural hub for the South Africa heartland where Taiwanese and Chinese migrants who do business in Lesotho reside. Prior to this 6-month research endeavor, five summer trips were made spread out across 7 years (since 2006) to work with the Chinese community in South Africa. These trips included academic projects, such as working with the University of Witwatersrand as a research intern, and more informal interactions, such as working with Chinese missionaries and churches, while learning about the Chinese community through immersion and regular interaction. While this paper does not explicitly draw on these experiences, the research does utilize previously established relationships with the Chinese in South Africa to gain access to the community. Rather than starting from scratch, I was able to quickly immerse myself in the Chinese shop-keeping community and so take advantage of a full 6 months of research.

This article primarily focuses on data from 3 months spent in Johannesburg. Most of the respondents from the other two field sites, Durban and Bloemfontein, were from a province in southeast China (Fujian Province) and have a distinct community and culture often separate from other Chinese migrants in South Africa. As a result, they ascribed different meanings to their mobility than the other mainland Chinese migrants in Johannesburg. Because of limited space, I focus on this latter group who has increasingly moved to Johannesburg over the last decade to participate in the vibrant retail and wholesale market. Twenty four formal in-depth interviews were conducted while spending several hours a day at six different Chinese retail/wholesale malls across the city, casually talking and interacting with Chinese shopkeepers. In two other cities, Durban and Bloemfontein, an additional 18 in-depth interviews were gathered and several hours a week were spent conducting participant observation in Chinese malls and Chinese churches. Although the interviews and observations drawn on for this paper come from Johannesburg, data from Durban and Bloemfontein generally supported the findings discussed here. I choose not to rely heavily on data from Durban and Bloemfontein because I am unable to discuss the nuances and differences between these cities in the limited space provided.

Through the use of in-depth interviewing and participant observation, a deep narrative of the lives of Chinese migrants was obtained and insight into their perspective on their life decisions became clear, especially those regarding migration. Interviews were conducted with people from the most recent group of Chinese immigrants, as defined by Park (2009a,b), those who have arrived in South Africa over the last decade with the goal of becoming self-employed small-scale shopkeepers. I chose to focus on recent Chinese shopkeepers because they represent the largest growing group of Chinese people in South Africa.

The city and suburbs of Johannesburg are the largest receiving area of incoming Chinese migrants to South Africa. With two Chinatowns, Johannesburg's Chinese communities are the most established in terms of history, growth, and social connections. The city itself is a major business hub for the entire region of southern Africa, making it an ideal place to conduct wholesale businesses. Many of the earlier arriving Chinese migrants set up successful wholesale businesses in Johannesburg. The more recent migrants go to Johannesburg in part because they have social connections with these earlier arrivers. Because the more recent arriving Chinese are unable to set up equally successful wholesale businesses, most have gone into retail shops that also provide for some smaller and more local wholesale customers.

Before locating sites for in-depth interviewing and participant observation, a geographical profile of the city was created, identifying key Chinese shopping areas, living spaces, and social communities. This was done not only as a way to understand the Chinese community in Johannesburg, but also as a way to ensure that the research covered the diversity of different Chinese migrants in Johannesburg. Because Chinese migrants have different experiences depending on when they arrived in South Africa and from what parts of China they came from, shopping centers chosen for research needed to be diverse (from upscale to rundown and from newly opened to well-established), increasing the odds of interacting with different Chinese migrants arriving in South Africa at different times from different places. Ultimately, twelve shopping areas were identified. These shopping areas came in many forms including massive warehouses, where each storeroom was converted into a wholesale shop; local indoor shopping malls redeveloped to showcase at least 70 percent Chinese-owned shops, indoor flea market-like malls with anywhere from two- to four hundred stalls, and a new Chinatown which consisted of one street spanning five large blocks with street vendors, outdoor markets, indoor restaurants and entertainment, an assortment of small convenience stores, and other service shops, like hair salons and doctor's offices.

Once these Chinese communities were identified, I started spending time in each of these locations and speaking informally to some Chinese shopkeepers to develop a profile of each area, including the extent of wholesale versus retail shops, the year the place first opened, and an estimate of the amount of business that came through. Five Chinese malls were selected covering the full range of different Chinese shopping spaces, especially in terms of length of time opened, size of the mall, and amount of customer traffic. This was done to ensure that the research would not result in bias where all the respondents were only representative of a subgroup of Chinese shopkeepers (such as only those who arrived early and were successful or only those who arrived recently and have struggled). Variation in Chinese shopping scene was sought to obtain a broad representation over the entire Chinese shop-keeping population in Johannesburg.

To maximize representativeness and minimize selection bias, shops in each shopping center were randomly sampled using stall numbers and a random number generator. I conducted interviews in the morning, when the stalls first opened and customer traffic was still low, to maximize my response rate. All interviews were conducted in Mandarin, and most were recorded.1 I, being of Chinese heritage, many shopkeepers were open toward me, and because I also conducted participant observation in the Chinese malls, other shopkeepers noticed me talking with their neighbors and so felt comfortable engaging with me in an in-depth interview. Over two-thirds of all migrants asked for an interview agreed to participate in some capacity. Because some conversations were interrupted and did not last long (<15 min), they were excluded from the final total of 24 in-depth interviews. In accordance with a narrative approach that seeks to understand the thought process behind migrants’ decision-making, interview questions focused on encouraging respondents to tell stories about their experience of life in China, their decision to move to South Africa, and their experience of South Africa so far. This would help get at the salient issues for Chinese migrants and as to why they chose to migrate, without explicitly asking the question.

In addition to asking migrants to compare their lives before and after migration, interviews explicitly asked them to evaluate different capabilities and freedoms to see whether any of them added value to their migration experience. Based on Sen's capabilities approach (2001) and the way it has been operationalized in past research (Nussbaum, 2000; Sen, 2005; Klasen, 2006; Anand, Santos, and Smith, 2009), I asked about their daily work environment, their social life, their interactions with migrants and local South Africans, their knowledge and experience of political freedoms, their health and access to health services, their access to any government services, and their experience of gender or racial discrimination. Interviews also asked open-ended questions about the best and worst parts of living in South Africa and living in China. This allowed respondents to talk more about whatever they felt was most important in their decision-making process and provided a space for the respondents to verbalize any other capabilities that my questions may not have brought up. Finally, interviews covered migrants’ future plans – whether they planned to move back to China, stay in South Africa, or move somewhere else. This was to further interrogate their way of understanding mobility and how they employed it as a tool to improve their lives. I would sometimes revisit interviewees and have follow-up conversations with them, although these conversations were not recorded.

Of the 24 interviewees, ten arrived in South Africa within the last 3 years, seven arrived between 3 and 8 years ago, and seven respondents have been in South Africa for more than 8 years. Twelve males and 12 females were interviewed ranging in age from 19 to 55, with four respondents between 19 and 29, eight respondents in their 30s, nine respondents in their 40s, and three respondents over 50. Twelve interviewees had some high school or only middle school education, nine interviewees had completed high school, and three interviewees had some form of higher education, either a university degree or attended technical school. All but two of my respondents came from coastal provinces in China. These provinces were fairly evenly distributed all along the eastern coast of China, from Liaoning in the north, to Guangdong in the south. Table 1 summarizes the social demographic information of Johannesburg respondents.

Table 1. Demographic Information of Johannesburg Interviewees
 # Of Respondents% Of All Respondents
Gender
Male1250.00
Female1250.00
Number of Years in South Africa
<31041.67
3–8729.17
More Than 8729.17
Ages
19–29416.67
30–39833.33
40–49937.50
Over 50312.50
Education
Some High School or Lower1250.00
Completed High School937.50
Post-High School312.50

Interview data was analyzed not only in terms of the respondents and their characteristics, but more importantly, in terms of their responses to the key questions discussed above. After translating all the interviews, each interview was reviewed and coded so that each respondent's answer to key questions could be categorized and sorted. Once all the interviews were coded, I looked for patterns among the responses to key questions to see how often respondents brought up certain themes. I then went back to read through the interview transcripts to get a sense at the nuances of these patterned responses. Although the stories of each respondent were different, the experiences and salient issues for Chinese migrants were similar. Quotes selected in this article were based on commonly held patterns that emerged from the interview data based on the approach to analysis described above.

The participant observation portion of my research design focused on understanding not only the way migrants conducted business in South Africa, but also Chinese social life in Johannesburg. Beyond the shopping areas, days were spent observing and interacting with Chinese people in Chinatown, eating with local Chinese at hot pot restaurants and shopping in their markets. In part because of my Chinese heritage and ability to speak Mandarin, a rapport was quickly established with Chinese shopkeepers. In some cases, my previous involvement with the Chinese South African community and Chinese churches enabled me to hear stories about shopkeepers through personal connections with members of the church.2 To avoid bias, however, I never interviewed anyone known personally or who knew me personally from my previous community involvement – as stated above, the interviews were gathered through a sampling process that was kept as random as possible. But these connections provided unique insight into the Chinese shop-keeping community. In the shopping malls, social interactions were observed between shopkeepers, and participation took the form of helping out with some of my interviewees’ shops by translating from English to Chinese, watching the shop while they ran errands, or moving boxes and stock. Through participant observation, I engaged in many smaller conversations with shopkeepers and asked similar questions as in my interviews. These conversations were often in a small group context, and it was helpful to gain group perspectives on various interview topics.

Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Common Explanatory Factors for Migration

Factors long associated with migration, especially income differentials, social networks, and lower barriers to entry, play an important role in encouraging Chinese migrants to move to South Africa. In terms of social networks, relationships with family, relatives and friends helped lower the barriers to entering South Africa. When asked how they decided on South Africa and what other places they had considered, all but one respondent said they based their choice on having family and friends in South Africa. When generally discussing where they might go next, migrants frequently said they needed a relative or friend to already be in the potential destination. A 24-year-old young man who came to Johannesburg from Fujian province reported, “I would go to Cape Town to do business there. It seems nice and it's supposed to be safe, but I have no opportunity there. Yes, thinking about going is just thinking about going (xiang shi xiang), but if you don't know anyone there, how can you go?” This response, delivered as if it were an obvious fact, was typical of the way migrants talked about their decisions of where to move. A few migrants had the option to go places other than South Africa when they decided to leave China – places including Argentina, the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. They had relatives in all these places (in some cases, more relatives than in South Africa), but in the end, they chose South Africa because it was cheaper not only to fly there but to live there as well. A combination of their global social network and the costs of migration limited the array of potential places the Chinese migrants could move. However, while social networks lowered the barriers of entry and narrowed the options of Chinese migrants, just having friends or family in a foreign country was never stated as a sufficient reason for moving. Once migrants decided they wanted to move already, their social networks helped make it possible.

Income differences between China and South Africa, although experientially small for most Chinese migrants, seemed to be an enticement to move to South Africa. When asked about how much respondents earned in China, the reported average income per month was around 1,250 RMB (about $200), ranging from 800 RMB a month to 2,500 RMB a month. On the other hand, migrants’ experience of making money in South Africa varied considerably depending on date of arrival. All those who had arrived over 10 years ago stated that making money was easy and were now living comfortable, if not rich, lives. Chinese migrants who arrived more recently talked about it being a little easier to make money in South Africa, but did not rave about income increases. All those who arrived over the past 2 years said they were not making any much more money than they already had been making in China – some were making less, and some were even losing money. However, the majority of migrants did say that, before deciding to come, they had heard it was easy to make money in South Africa. The evidence suggests that perceived income differences matter, even though the migrants’ actual experiences of income improvements are marginal, especially for recent migrants.

In terms of push factors for migration, the migrants’ narratives did not point to many problems happening in China that forced respondents out. Indeed, many migrants denied such motivations. Asked what problems in China made them feel like they should leave, many migrants immediately responded that there were no problems in China. “No, no, it's nothing like that. There's no problem with living in China,” said one middle-aged woman who had lived in South Africa for 2 years. In several interviews, respondents elaborated that they merely saw an opportunity to travel outside of China and decided to try it out, emphasizing that it was their free choice to leave China. Of the minority of respondents who did mention problems in China, the main problem articulated was the competition and pace of life in China. One 32-year-old man who lived in South Africa for 8 years said, “I feel like China's lifestyle was too complicated and chaotic (fu za). When I came to South Africa, I felt like the lifestyle here is very peaceful (ping an).” Importantly, China's complicated lifestyle was not a push factor for this respondent, because he did not realize how chaotic things were in China until after arriving in South Africa.

Besides a chaotic lifestyle, some respondents discussed high living costs and the inability to save money as being issues in China. These respondents mentioned a lack of economic opportunities opened to them saying, “In China, there are economic opportunities, but not for those of us who are uneducated, like me.” However, when casually talking to Chinese shopkeepers, most said it was not a major problem. “Yes, if we need to survive and continue living in China, it's fine,” said a woman with 4 years of residence in South Africa. A woman next to her elaborated, “This is not really a big problem, because you can definitely find a job and live in China, but if we're only making 2,000 a month, after food costs, living costs, car, phone, we end up with so little left that we can't really develop (fa zhan).” The desire to leave China, then, focused not so much on the inability to find a job – they did not feel that something was necessarily pushing them out of China – but a desire to save up money so that they could find opportunities to improve and “develop (fa zhan)” their life.

Adventuring Out

Social networks, barriers to entry, and income differences play a role in explaining Chinese migration to South Africa, but although these are the most common factors usually used to explain migration, they were not the most common self-identified reasons Chinese migrants gave for coming to South Africa. Instead, respondents emphasized factors that are impossible to quantitate: the desire for adventure and exploration outside of China, the goal of being one's own boss, and, for some, the enjoyable South African lifestyle that motivates Chinese migrants to stay in spite of hardships. One interesting aspect about the narrative data I collected was the surprising commonality of the responses. Once research moves away from quantifiable data and starts investigating individual desires and motivations, one would expect the great variety in migrants’ backgrounds, personalities, and circumstances to produce an equally wide variety of explanations for why they chose to move. However, in my interviews and participant observations, I found that these three highly subjective desires – for adventure, for self-employment, and for a comfortable lifestyle – were nonetheless mentioned over and over again without any prompting as migrants described their decision-making processes.

The desire to explore abroad (guo wai) serves as a starting point that motivated many Chinese migrants to take the opportunity to go to South Africa when it presented itself. One of the most surprising discoveries in my interviews and participant observation was how Chinese migrants had such a positive feeling about traveling abroad. When asked why they wanted to come to South Africa, 22 out of the 24 interview respondents mentioned, to some degree, the idea that they had never been outside China, and so they could not refuse the opportunity when it came. One young man from Fujian Province told me that “in China, at least where I am from, I feel like everyone has a picture of guo wai as very ideal and wonderfully beautiful (wan mei). So if you are not really poor and have the opportunity to go abroad, of course you will take it!” At first, I thought this view was specific to the Fujian Province, where because of a long history of established ports and outside influence, they would have a particularly positive view of guo wai (Pieke and Mallee, 1999; Chu, 2010). I quickly discovered, however, that even those in the Liaoning Province in northeast China had a similar view. The language Chinese migrants used to describe this desire for adventure and exploration not only centered around a feeling that things outside of China were simply better, but also that while they were still young, they should “have a look and try things out” (shi shi kan and chuang chuang), implying that going on the journey itself, even if things did not work out in their favor, was in itself beneficial.

This resonates with Fong's (2011) finding that Chinese students want to study abroad so that they can gain access to capabilities generally open only to those in developed countries. Unlike Fong's college students, however, Chinese migrants in South Africa were not fixated on going to a developed country and admitted that, in many ways (especially crime, governance, and infrastructure) South Africa was far less developed than China. Instead, the very act of exercising and experiencing the freedom to travel abroad anywhere seemed to be reason enough for them to adventure out. Being able to prove that they could indeed leave China was seen as a privilege not openly accessible to all, and in some ways this in itself was an increase in their capability sets.

Being One's Own Boss

Hearing about the success of migrants in South Africa helps draw some more economically minded migrants to South Africa, but the main economic motivation is not just making more money but specifically about entering a new social class, one in which the migrant is not working for others but working for him- or herself. Being one's own boss was a highly valued goal of Chinese immigrants in South Africa. Migrants discussed their economic motivations not simply as a journey to earn more money and go where the money was good. Instead, they described their journey with a distinct goal of saving up money so that they could open their own shop/stall. After a few days with one migrant, he explained why he planned to open his own shop saying, “You can choose how hard you want to work. Some people are really ambitious and they want to open up five shops, one in every mall! If you want to work that hard, you can. But if you are satisfied with just one or two shops, then you probably don't have to work as hard… If you are successful, you can just hire people to work in your shop, and so you can really have freedom to do things you enjoy.” Of the 16 respondents in Johannesburg who did not own their own shop, only one interviewee did not plan to open his own shop.3 The dream to become self-employed helps explain why even though income differences between China and South Africa were low, the small differential was enough to entice migrants to come because the cost of opening up a shop in South Africa was also low, making the risk also lower. So even though Chinese migrants would not be earning very much more, they knew it would still be possible for them to save up over a few years and open their own shop.

The dream of becoming one's own boss was one of the central factors encouraging Chinese migrants to come to South Africa. Chinese shopkeepers indicated that they knew nothing about the South African Chinese community, geography, weather, culture, and history before deciding to go to South Africa. One of the two things that Chinese migrants knew about South Africa prior to migrating was the country's Chinese shop-keeping scene (the other common response being about the country's crime, which I discuss later in the next section). They had heard stories about how easy it would be to set up their own shop from earlier arriving Chinese migrants who had experienced massive success in the Johannesburg wholesale industry. Their decision to choose to go to South Africa reflects some basic self-awareness of a small pond migration strategy. When migrants had the option to go to other countries more developed than South Africa, they ended up in Johannesburg because they believed they could take advantage of the “smaller pond” and achieve economic freedom in the form of self-employment. One young man at the age of 25 had the option of going to meet his uncle in Greece but said, “If I went there, it would cost me most of my savings just to fly there! Plus, my uncle told me roughly what the monthly living expenses were like… if I go there, I will be stuck working for him forever. South Africa is much cheaper and I can save money and open my own store here.”

One Chinese migrant who had become a successful business owner explained, “Here in South Africa, it is so much easier to be the boss (lao ban). If you have money, you can be a boss. There are so many Chinese here who work for a year and then become a big boss right away!” Nearly all the low educated Chinese migrants I spoke to, both in interviews and in participant observation, described their journey as beginning with working at someone else's shop (usually a relative) for the first couple of years after arriving in South Africa and then being able to open their own shop. This was the plan for all the Chinese migrants I spoke to who arrived in the past 2 years. Respondents emphasized that the difference between being an employee and owning one's own shop was huge. “You can't compare the difference between working (for someone else) (da gong) and being the boss (lao ban)!” Often times, for respondents over the age of 40, the discussion about owning one's own shop revolved around retirement. Chinese migrants saw being a boss as a secure way to enter into retirement, and they looked forward to making enough money to move back to China, open a shop there, and retire. The 47-year-old migrant from Hebei who gave up his chemistry job to move to South Africa explained his actions saying, “(Owning a shop) makes enough money to take care of you and your family, and it gives you something to do when you get older, so that you're not just bored doing nothing.” The dream of self-employment was so important and powerful that many were willing to sacrifice economic earnings in the short-run for the hope of becoming one's own boss in the long-run.

Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Danger and Crime

Chinese migrants come to South Africa hoping for an adventure in the outside world and dreaming of becoming their own boss. However, when they actually arrive in South Africa, migrants report that they experience many setbacks, some of which are so serious that they cause migrants to give up and go back to China. The main challenge Chinese migrants have to deal with is the high crime rate in South Africa in general and Johannesburg in particular.

Chinese people consistently refer to Johannesburg as a dangerous (wei xian) place, where it is not safe to walk around at night. Shopkeepers retold horror stories of fellow Chinese from neighboring stores who were severely beaten and robbed, sometimes losing hundreds of thousands of South African Rand after just withdrawing money from the bank. Police corruption was also considered normal to South African life. The police were often described as worse than black criminals4 because Chinese people never felt safe from those who were supposed to protect them and because there was nothing they could do to fight the police. In the end, many respondents said, “It is better to just pay them than get into big trouble.” While at a Chinese mall conducting an interview, I met two middle-aged women in a shop who, after hearing about my project, could not resist telling me all about the terrible crime and corruption in South Africa. They said, “The black people who sell things on the street around this shopping mall hire people to come and steal from our shops. And we can't do anything about it because when they bribe the security guards here.” When I asked about them going to the police, they told me, “The police? What can they do? We have a saying in China, that the police there are like the mafia, but here in South Africa, the police are the mafia!” After talking with them for over a half hour, I was on my way out of the shop when they ran up urgently to stop and tell me, “When you write your thesis, make sure you do not tell anyone anything about us or our shop or anything!” They were afraid of the local police and hired guards would find out and cause trouble for them. This was just one example of the many difficulties that Chinese migrants faced in dealing with crime and corruption.

For most Chinese migrants, race relations only surfaced in relation to problems with crime. When I asked migrants directly about racism and their relationship with different racial groups in South Africa, they had very little to say about the issue, claiming that they got along fine with black workers and because of language barriers could not interact much with local South Africans. But when the issue of crime came up, Chinese migrants often described the situation in racialized terms. The majority of the stories they told would include some remark about how “black criminals” would target Chinese people because they believed Chinese people had lots of money. Besides crime, race was not a salient issue for Chinese migrants. This does not mean that racial identity and race relations is not an important part of the lives of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa (Park, 2008), but rather that the Chinese people I interacted with rarely brought up the issue of race relations in our conversations.

According to persons interviewed, many Chinese returned to China because of the high crime rate in South Africa and its impact on profits in enterprises owned by Chinese migrants. One respondent expressed a common feeling held among most Chinese people that “if the crime was not so bad, South Africa would actually be a wonderfully beautiful (wan mei) place to live!” Crime and corruption were universally cited as the biggest problems in South Africa. Even if Chinese migrants did not experience crime first-hand, and many of those I spoke with had experienced only small incidents or none at all, everyone lived in fear of crime. Shopkeepers kept warning me that I should never go out at night, and if I do, to be sure not to walk anywhere, not even a block. Many respondents said, “We are too scared to go out at night, so we just go to work and then go home and hide in our homes at night.” Although most individuals seem to experience relatively little difference in their social activities when comparing China to South Africa, some respondents described their lives in China as going out regularly or weekly with friends and family, while in South Africa, they would be lucky to go out even once a month because of fear of crime. While joining in a conversation between neighboring shopkeepers, they told me several stories of their family members who had returned to China even though they were making more money in South Africa because they could not adjust to the lifestyle of living in fear of crime.

Market Saturation

In recent years, there have been so many Chinese migrants coming to South Africa to open their own shops that the wholesale and retail markets are starting to reach a saturation point. While conducting participant observation in different Chinese malls, migrants told me that 7 years ago, there were only three or four Chinese shopping malls. At the time of the research in 2012, there were over twelve different Chinese shopping areas, most of which opened since 2009, with a couple newly opened in 2011 and 2012 with further plans for expansion. Every migrant I interviewed in Johannesburg complained about the oversaturation of Chinese shopkeepers. They told me stories about how their profits have dwindled with each passing year. One woman who had lived in South Africa for 7 years said, “The money used to be great – easy to make. Now, there are some months that we lose money! At the beginning and end of the month, around Christmas and New Year's, you can still make good money, but months like this month? It is very difficult.” While the first movers experienced easy success opening their own stores and making lots of money, migrants who arrived within the past 2 years struggle to make a profit and in some cases lose money from their entrepreneurial efforts. All the migrants I spoke with knew of at least one friend who decided to go back to China because of the oversaturation of Chinese shops, either deciding that they had made enough money and would try their luck in China or giving up on achieving the success they had hoped for.

Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Weather and Environment

In spite of the difficulties they encounter in terms of crime and bad business, at the time of my research, the number of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa is still increasing. Migrants come, experience hardships firsthand, and still decide to stay in the country. The experience of weather, environment, and a slower lifestyle, for many migrants, become good reasons to continue living in South Africa, even for those whose economic expectations were not met. When asked what was the best thing about South Africa, nearly every single Chinese migrant mentioned the environment. “South Africa is actually a beautiful country! If not for the crime, I think many Chinese people would come here.” One woman who had lived in South Africa for 7 years said, “The weather here is excellent. In China, the winter is so cold and the summer is so hot – you're just freezing or sweating, and suffering the whole time. Here, it is nice all year round!” At first, I did not take these remarks too seriously, as I thought it was somewhat of a joke – as if they were saying they enjoyed so little about South Africa, the only good thing worth mentioning was the weather. But as I spent more time with Chinese migrants, I realized that not only was this one of the biggest reasons to recommend South Africa to others but it was also an important value that improved their lives. Formerly, urban-dwelling Chinese migrants often remarked about the pollution in China, saying things like, “In China, the pollution is terrible. Here, you have beautiful mountains and a really nice environment. It's nice here.” When asked what the biggest benefit to staying in South Africa would be, a surprisingly common response was the weather and the environment.

A Slower Pace of Life

In addition to these factors, Chinese migrants after arriving in South Africa enjoy and prefer the slower pace of life. They often described the life in China as chaotic and too complicated. When asked specifically why, they mentioned issues of factory work, increased competition (both in school and in finding a job) resulting in increased pressure, and long, busy, and harsh work environments. After arriving in South Africa, many Chinese migrants immediately feel like life is less burdensome and lighter (qing song). One young man who used to be a mechanic in China described the situation well:

Life here is much lighter (qing song) than in China. In China, you have to get up and work at six or seven in the morning and then work until sometimes nine or ten at night. Here, you only work at nine or ten in the morning until around five in the afternoon. Sometimes, we have to stay late to do inventory, but that is only maybe once a month. Plus, the atmosphere in South Africa in general is more relaxed. In China, maybe because there are so many people, you feel like the pressure (ya li) of life is just really heavy – like you have to compete all the time. Here, the culture and the society in general is just more relaxed and lighter (qing song).

Some of these migrants who just arrived in the past 2 years saw the slow pace as a bad thing, saying that life is too simple and boring. But those who have stayed at least 5 years seemed to have adjusted and talked about how they really preferred their lives in South Africa. These migrants commonly hear about how difficult and full of pressure their families’ and friends’ lives are back in China. Although only two respondents mentioned this explicitly as a deterrent to returning back to China, most talked about it as a valuable benefit to staying in South Africa.

The migrants’ experience of a slower pace of life is one of the effects of small pond migration. Whereas some migrants want to move up to bigger ponds (more developed countries) and compete in environments where there is often a faster-paced culture, a small pond migration strategy instead looks to leave these kinds of environments to avoid harsh competition. The entire mobility strategy of moving up to living in a higher HDI country implies that the migrant wants to tackle competition head on. Migrants that choose to stay in South Africa do so because they find that a smaller pond is the right place for them. They enjoy a slower pace of life and even complain about the intense competition that they faced at home in China.

Admittedly, because the scope of this research project is limited to Chinese migrants who were in South Africa at the time I conducted my research in 2012, these responses about the benefits of staying in South Africa come from a self-selected group of those who chose to stay. I heard stories of Chinese migrants whose relatives and friends decided to return to China because the pace of life was too slow or because of the problem with crime. As with any migration strategy, there will always be some migrants who, after trying to employ a small pond migration strategy, realize this was not the life they wanted – the costs associated with moving to a less developed place were not worth the potential benefits.

Each explanatory factor has a specific role in the narrative of Chinese migrants to South Africa. A cultural factor in China creates a desire to explore the guo wai, giving potential migrants a feeling that it is a privilege to adventure out of China. This, along with dissatisfaction with their socioeconomic situation, acts as a starting point. Then, social networks and barriers to entry limit the possible options of where migrants consider going. Many end up choosing South Africa and employing a small pond migration strategy because there is an opportunity to pursue a dream of being one's own boss. Although the most recent migrants experience the harsh reality of the difficulty of achieving this dream, and some migrants do return to China after a time, those who stay point to the hope of becoming self-employed, the weather, the environment, and a slower paced lifestyle as strong reasons to continue living in South Africa despite low economic gains. Overall, Chinese migrants experience an increase in capabilities through exercising their freedom in mobility and exploring guo wai, gaining economic facilities through slight income increases and lower costs in South Africa, and experiencing a better daily lifestyle in more comfortable and peaceful living. Some migrants, especially early-comers, have achieved their dream of stable self-employment and, in this way, have increased their freedoms – not simply by earning more money but also by having the freedom to choose how to spend their time and live their daily lives.

Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

The case of Chinese migrants in South Africa is exemplary of employing a small pond migration development strategy. As stated earlier, small pond migration is one form of migration as development (utilizing mobility to increase one's capabilities set). In small pond migration, migrants move to a lesser developed place because certain characteristics of this place effectively increase the migrant's social, economic, and human capital. While the concept of small pond migration was not explicitly expressed by all respondents, several Chinese migrants did articulate the specific idea of wanting to be a big fish in a smaller pond. When asked where they would consider moving to if they left South Africa, one respondent said, “We aren't considering going to any developed place, like the U.S. or Europe. Instead, the only places besides China we're thinking about are even more backward (luo hou) places, like Mozambique or Zimbabwe.” The most common places that Chinese migrants considered moving to besides China were areas outside Johannesburg, which they called “shan xia” which literally translated means the foot of a mountain. This refers to rural villages between 50 and 300 km away from major cities, like Johannesburg, Durban, and Bloemfontein. The Chinese people frequently talked about how, if the business continued to deteriorate in Johannesburg, they would consider moving to shan xia locations to do business, where they hear from relatives that business is good, despite poor infrastructure, housing, and safety. This way of thinking reveals the Chinese migrants and their desire to employ a small pond migration strategy, where they consider moving to a lesser developed area to face less competition, thereby helping them to achieve their goals.

Small pond migration provides Chinese migrants with rather immediate increases in effective capital. In terms of social capital, Chinese migrants moved to South Africa with the help of family and friends who have already started their own businesses. This provides them a social connection with those who have already succeeded in achieving the goal of stable self-employment. While migrants lived in China, these connections were only useful insofar as they received remittances from South African family and friends. Arriving in South Africa, however, Chinese migrants are now able to utilize these connections for job opportunities and to start their own businesses. Relatives helped to plan visas and even pay for Chinese migrants to come to South Africa. Not only would these earlier arriving relatives provide newly arriving Chinese migrants with jobs in their shops, they would also provide housing and the support needed to transition into a new country. From these early stages, Chinese migrants further utilized familial ties to make more business connections with suppliers and mall owners, and after typically a year or two, they used these connections to venture out and open their own stores. While potential Chinese migrants have always had these social ties to relatives in South Africa, coming to South Africa expands the effective use of their social capital. Here, the characteristic that allows for this expansion in social capital has nothing to do with the geographic place of South Africa, but instead, the specific history of Chinese people successfully doing business in South Africa and a growing Chinese population there (Hart, 2002; Park, 2012).

Chinese migrants also experience an increase in their economic capital. One way this occurs immediately is because of exchange rates and lower living costs. Migrants, even those with less than high school education, were acutely aware of the exchange rate between China and South Africa, saying things like “business is not as good now, because the exchange rate is not as good. When we first came, it was something like 1.5 or 1.6, but now it's more like 1.3.” Also, most migrants, when asked about how their economic situation compared since arriving in South Africa, talked about lower living costs using them to evaluate their real incomes. Migrants would discuss, in detail, the costs of rent, food, and transport and explain how things are cheaper across the board in South Africa. Mostly importantly, South Africa was understood as a good place for migrants’ quest for self-employment, as South Africa had such low investment costs. Overall, Chinese migrants approximated the cost of opening a shop in South Africa as about four times cheaper than in China because of cheaper rent and lack of government regulations. The smaller and less developed economy of South Africa works in Chinese people's favor, providing lower costs and effectively increasing the migrants’ economic capital.

Finally, in terms of human capital, although moving to South Africa does not actually improve one's human capital, it does allow for one's existing education and skills to be more competitive and thereby more effective. Migrants talked about the huge population in China and that to gain access to new opportunities available in China's growing economy one had to be a successful student. On young migrant who came to South Africa shortly after high school said, “Because I did not do well in school, I cannot compete in China's economy.” Although this was not a central decision-making factor in the migrants’ narratives, migrants still felt that despite their low education they had far more opportunities in South Africa. Chinese self-made entrepreneurs had no education or background in business, yet they had no problems opening shops. A man in his thirties who had successfully opened his own shop 8 years ago said, “What education? What do you need to know? Opening a shop is easy! You can learn everything just by doing it.” Respondents felt they could not compete in China, especially with little to no experience in business (prior to coming to South Africa), and several migrants explicitly said that they came to South Africa to gain that experience so they would have a better chance doing business in China when they went back.

Another added benefit revolves around South Africa being an English-speaking country. Although it might seem like a barrier for Chinese migrants to move to a place where they do not know the language, respondents actually saw it as an expansion of their capabilities. The issue of language is unlike the aforementioned examples of capital, where small pond migration results in an immediate and effective increase in capital. But migrants believed it was important for them to learn English as a skill that made them more economically competitive, especially if they were to go back to China, and living in an English-speaking country provided them with the opportunity to more easily learn English. With the exception of the few respondents that had university education, all migrants said they had poor English upon arriving in South Africa. Those who had stayed longer explicitly said they wanted their kids to eventually come to South Africa so that they could learn English. At the same time, however, they did not feel that the lack of complex English skills decreased their effective human capital, because they did not believe their lack of English would prevent them from doing business. When I asked a respondent how they do business without speaking any English, he remarked, “What English do I have to know? Just some numbers and prices… other than that you just point and make it work. We really do not need much English to do business here.” From the perspective of most respondents, moving to an English-speaking country was beneficial because it enabled them to easily learn the language and was not a barrier or hindrance to their economic goals.

Small pond migration as a development strategy is not without its drawbacks – Chinese migrants had to give up certain freedoms to expand other capabilities. In general, a primary reason why most migration patterns are from lower-HDI countries to higher ones is that moving to a more developed country immediately provides socioeconomic structural and living standard benefits (United Nations Development Report Team, 2009). A lesser developed country may come with poorer infrastructure, bad housing, and weak government. In the case of South Africa, Chinese migrants lose capabilities and freedoms associated with the high amounts of crime and corruption in Johannesburg. Chinese migrants’ freedom to go out at night and enjoy social activities is the one major trade-offs they must endure in living in South Africa.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Chinese migrants have journeyed to South Africa to utilize a small pond migration strategy, effectively increasing their social, economic, and human capital. They come to South Africa not only to use this capital to obtain their goal of stable self-employment, but also to experience life abroad, something that exercises their freedom of mobility and has intrinsic value. Although some have returned to China due to low economic returns and high crime, many have stayed because of comfortable weather, beautiful environment, and a slower, less chaotic lifestyle. These migrants have accepted the loss of freedoms associated with crime, such as going out at night, in return for a more comfortable life and the pursuit of their dream of being their own boss.

Applying Sen's capabilities approach to the field of international migration provides a more narrative-focused framework that deepens our understanding of why people migrate and why certain migration patterns exist. Small pond migration, a mobility strategy in which the migrant moves to a smaller pond to effectively gain capital and become a big fish, helps explain the seemingly peculiar case when migrants move from more developed countries to lesser developed ones. Analyzing migration patterns based on a mobility-as-development-strategy framing would prioritize thinking about the way mobility is utilized to improve one's life, rather than focusing on the country of origin and destination. This provides a useful way to compare migration patterns across many geographic locations, such as the divide between south–north and south–south migration patterns, and even cases of north–south migration.

Although the use of small pond migration is not necessarily a new phenomenon (Østbø and Carling, 2005), this case suggests a change in the dynamic of how potential migrants utilize such migration. Prior research has documented Chinese migration to Southeast Asia (Purcell, 1965; Suryadinata, 1997; Chua, 2004). More recent studies have described Chinese migration to Latin America (Siu, 2005; Devlin, Estevadeordal, and Rodriguez-Clare, 2006; Lai and Chee-Beng, 2010). Recent Chinese migration to regions within Africa may constitute new spatial patterns. These patterns may further suggest that forces of globalization (specifically decreasing costs of social contacts over wider spaces, decreasing transportation costs of goods, and increasing linkages across geographic and cultural spaces) open up more possibilities for small pond migration to become a viable development strategy for aspiring migrants and households in the global south. The case of Chinese migrants to South Africa provides evidence for how migrants may employ this strategy.

From a policy perspective, this case reveals the importance of understanding non-traditional factors that influence migrants and their decisions to migrate. Government policies that seek to control migration tend to focus on factors such as labor market structures and migrant family and friend networks (Boyd, 1989). Small pond migration suggests that monetary, fiscal, and trade policies not commonly associated with immigration have major implications for migration patterns. Because of the important role of exchange rates and transaction costs of importing goods for migrant entrepreneurs, governments seeking to control migrants employing a small pond migration strategy could utilize monetary, fiscal, and trade policies to either encourage or curb migration flows. The findings in this case study suggest that currency exchange rates may have a larger-than-expected influence on migrants and their decision making, as these exchange rates affect the migrant's standard of living in the destination country as well as their ability to get the most out of their existing economic capital. Further research is required to understand the relationship between currency and migration patterns.

This case may also anticipate the future for countries and contexts throughout the continent of Africa. Although some historical connections existed between China and South Africa, the first large wave of Chinese migrants came to South Africa 40 years ago when the apartheid government engaged in business partnerships with the Taiwanese government. Currently, the Chinese government invests aggressively in 49 countries throughout Africa with trade flows amounting to $120 billion, making China Africa's biggest trading partner. Just as unplanned Chinese migration flows to South Africa show little signs of slowing, it is likely that Chinese government contracts will increase informal migration networks, providing more places and opportunities for potential Chinese migrants to utilize a small pond migration strategy all over the African continent. Chinese entrepreneurs in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa are an example of the increasing Chinese influence and expansion on the African continent (Østbø and Carling, 2005). Awareness of this growing phenomenon encourages governments to act preemptively to understand the effects of Chinese migration and seek out ways to benefit from it. This also suggests further research on the complex relationship between immigration and trade (White, 2007; Head and Ries, 1998) – specifically suggesting that while international migration results in more bilateral trade, trade may also result in increasing immigration. Because the case of Chinese migrants to South Africa begins 40 years ago, it serves as an important first predictor and potential model for emerging Chinese–African migration patterns.

Notes
  1. 1

    Of the 24 interviewees, six respondents requested not to be recorded. Interviews were on average 35 min and conducted while the respondents were watching their shops. Because these interviews were done in the morning, there were few interruptions.

  2. 2

    Because shopkeepers worked every day of the week, church activities held at night in Chinese shopkeepers’ homes were one of the only social organizations and communities that Chinese migrants could engaged in outside of work.

  3. 3

    He said it was because he did not mind working for other people and because, with increasing market saturation in Johannesburg, he was unsure that opening his own store would be profitable.

  4. 4

    Respondents said that those who committed acts of robbery and violence were always black. Although many of those I spoke to could not distinguish whether these were black South Africans, black foreigners, or both, some Chinese migrants seem to believe they were mostly extremely poor foreigners driven to crime because of their desperate situation.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Background
  5. Theoretical Framing
  6. Method
  7. Findings: Choosing South Africa as Their Destination
  8. Findings: Facing Barriers upon Arrival
  9. Findings: Choosing to Remain in South Africa
  10. Small Pond Migration: Maximizing the Utility of Existing Capital
  11. Conclusion
  12. References
  • Alberts, H. C., and H. D. Hazen 2005“There are Always Two Voices..”: International Students’ Intentions to Stay in the United States or Return to their Home Countries.” International Migration 43(3):131154.
  • Anand, P., C. Santos, and R. Smith 2009The Measurement of Capabilities.” Vol. 1, In Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen–Volume I: Ethics, Welfare, and Measurement. Ed. K. Basu and R. Kanbur. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Pp. 283310.
  • Bakewell, O. 2009 South-South Migration and Human Development: Reflections on African Experiences. Human Development Research Paper, United Nations Development Programme.
  • Boyd, M. 1989Family and Personal Networks in International Migration: Recent Developments and New Agendas.” International Migration Review 23(3):638670.
  • Chan, K. W. 2012Migration and Development in China: Trends, Geography and Current Issues.” Migration and Development 1(2):187205.
  • Chu, J. Y. 2010 Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China. London: Duke University Press.
  • Chua, A. 2004 World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. New York, NY: First Anchor Books.
  • Czarniawska, B. 2004 Narratives in Social Science Research. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Devlin, R., A. Estevadeordal, and A. Rodriguez-Clare 2006 The Emergence of China: Opportunities and Challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.
  • Fischer, P. A., R. Martin, and T. Straubhaar 1997Should I Stay or Should I Go?” In International Migration, Immobility and Development. Ed. T. Hammar, G. Brochmann, K. Tamas and T. Faist. Oxford: Berg. Pp. 4990.
  • Fong, V. L. 2011 Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Hart, G. 2002 Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hatten, T. J., and J. G. Williamson 1998 The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and Economic Impact. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Haug, S. 2008Migration Networks and Migration Decision-Making.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 34(4):585605.
  • Head, K., and J. Ries 1998Immigration and Trade Creation: Economietric Evidence from Canada.” The Canadian Journal of Economics 31(1):4762.
  • Huynh, T. T., Y. J. Park, and A. Y. Chen 2010Faces of China: New Chinese Migrants in South Africa, 1980s to Present.” African and Asian Studies 9(3):286306.
  • Khwaja, Y. 2002 Should I Stay or Should I Go? Migration under Uncertainty: A Real Options Approach. Economics and Finance Working papers, London: Brunel University.
  • Klasen, S. 2006UNDP Gender-Related Measures: Some Conceptual Problems and Possible Solutions.” Journal of Human Development 7(2):243274.
  • Lai, W. L., and T. Chee-Beng 2010 The Chinese in Latin America and the Carribbean. Boston, MA: Brill.
  • Massey, D. S. 1990Social Structure, Houshold Strategies, and the Cumulative Causation of Migration.” Population Index 56(1):326.
  • Massey, D. S. 1999aInternational Migration at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century: The Role of the State.” Population and Development Review 000:303322.
  • Massey, D. S. 1999bWhy Does Immigration Occur? A Theoretical Synthesis.” In The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience. Ed. C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz and J. DeWind. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation. Pp. 3452.
  • Massey, D. S. et al. 1998 Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Menjivar, C. 2000 Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Ma Mung, E. 2008Chinese Migration and China's Foreign Policy in Africa.” Journal of Chinese Overseas 4(1):91109.
  • Nussbaum, M. 2000 Women and Human Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Østbø, H., and J. Carling 2005On the Edge of the Chinese Diaspora: The Surge of Baihuo Busniness in an African City.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(4):639662.
  • Park, Y. J. 2008 A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa. Lanham: Lexington Books.
  • Park, Y. J. 2009a Chinese Migration in Africa. Occasional Paper No. 24, Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs.
  • Park, Y. J. 2009bRecent Chinese Migration to South Africa: New Intersections of Race, Class & Ethnicity.” In Representation, Expression and Identity. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Ed. T. Rahimy. Inter-Disciplinary Press, E-book. Pp. 153168. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/publishing/id-press/ebooks/representation-expression-and-identity/ Accessed on January 28, 2014.
  • Park, Y. J. 2012 Living In Between: The Chinese in South Africa. http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cdm?IDM=875. Accessed on November 2, 2012.
  • Paul, A. M. 2011Stepwise International Migration: A Multistage Migration Pattern for the Aspiring Migrant.” American Journal of Sociology 116(6):18421886.
  • Pieke, F. N., and H. Mallee 1999 Internal and International Migration: Chinese Perspectives. Richmond: Curzon Press.
  • Politzer, M. 2008 China and Africa: Stronger Economic Ties Mean More Migration. [http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=690. Accessed on November 14, 2013.
  • Portes, A., and J. Sensenbrenner 1993Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action.” American Journal of Sociology 98(6):13201350.
  • Purcell, V. 1965 The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ratha, D., and W. Shaw 2007aCauses of South-South Migration and Its Socioeconomic Effects.” Migration Information Source. http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=647. Accessed on November 3, 2012.
  • Ratha, D., and W. Shaw 2007b South-South Migration and Remittances. Working Paper No. 102, Washington, DC: World Bank.
  • Richardson, L. 1990Narrative and Sociology.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 19(1):116135.
  • Rimmer, S. H. 2009 Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Research Paper No. 185, United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees.
  • Roth, P. 1989How Narratives Explain.” Social Research 56(2):449478.
  • SAPS Strategic Management 2013 An Analysis of the National Crime Statistics. Addendum to the Annual Report, Pretoria: South African Police Service.
  • Sassen, S. 1988 The Mobility of Capital and Labor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sassen, S. 1998aAmerica's Immigration ‘Problem’.” In Globalization and Its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money. Ed. S. Sassen. New York, NY: New Press, Pp. 3153.
  • Sassen, S. 1998b Globalizations and Its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money. New York, NY: New Press.
  • Scott, J. 2013 Social Network Analysis, 3rd ed. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Sen, A. 1993Capability and Well-Being.” In The Quality of Life. Ed. M. Nussbaum and A. Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp. 3054.
  • Sen, A. 2001 Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sen, A. 2005Human Rights and Capabilities.” Journal of Human Development 6(2):151166.
  • Siu, L. C. D. 2005 Memories of a Future Home: Diasporic Citizenship of Chinese in Panama. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Skeldon, R. 2011 China: An Emerging Destination for Economic Migration. http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=838. Accessed on November 14, 2013.
  • Statistics South Africa 2011 Mid-Year Population Estimates. Statistical Release, Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.
  • Suryadinata, L. 1997 Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
  • Torpey, J. 2000 The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • United Nations Development Report Team 2009 United Nations Human Development Report, 2009. New York, NY: Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme.
  • Vandsemb, B. H. 1995The Place of Narrative in the Study of Third World Migration: The Case of Spontaneous Rural Migration in Sri Lanka.” The Professional Geographer 47(4):411425.
  • Waldinger, R. et al. 1990 Ethnic Entreprenuers: Immigrant Business in Industrial Societies. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications.
  • White, R. 2007Immigrant-Trade Links, Transplanted Home Bias and Network Effects.” Applied Economics 39:839852.
  • Yang, D. 2003 Remittances and Human Capital Investment: Child Schooling and Child Labor in the Origin Households of Overseas Filipino Workers. Working Paper. University of Michigan.
  • Zolberg, A. R. 1999Matters of State: Theorizing Immigration Policy.” In The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience. Ed. C. Hirshman, P. Kasinitz and J. DeWind. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation. Pp. 7193.