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Chinese Shops and the Formation of a Chinese Expatriate Community in Namibia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 September 2009


The first Chinese migrants came to the Namibian border boom town Oshikango in 1999. Today, there are over 100 shops which sell Chinese goods to Angolan traders in that town of only around 10,000 inhabitants. This article describes their way of doing business and the economic interactions between migrants and the host society. By reacting to the host society's reaction to them, Chinese shopkeepers in Namibia are gradually developing into a migrant society with a distinct social structure. In an increasingly hostile political climate, Chinese entrepreneurs are faced with stronger regulation. This has not had the intended effect of pushing shopkeepers into manufacturing. Instead, it has sharpened social stratification among migrants, with traders better connected to Namibian authorities using their connections as an additional resource. In an optimistic view, the alliance between successful Chinese and Namibian actors could be the germ for a spill-over of Chinese entrepreneurial success; in a pessimistic view, it will create additional rents for some Namibians and give migrants the leverage to evade regulations.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2009

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1 “China shop” is the term used in Namibia, both by locals and by the traders themselves. I use “China shop” and “Chinese shop” indiscriminately here, although one could argue that the two signify different things, as China refers to the merchandise, Chinese to the owners. All China shops in Namibia, however, are owned by Chinese, and virtually all shops owned by Chinese sell the assortment of goods typical for China shops.

2 This is not the place to review the literature on China and Africa; for a first overview see Large, Daniel, “Beyond ‘Dragon in the bush’: the study of China–Africa relations,” African Affairs, Vol. 107, No. 426 (2008), pp. 4561CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Mohan, Giles, “China in Africa: a review essay,” Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2008), pp. 155–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Chinese traders in Africa, see e.g. Haugen, Heide and Carling, Jorgen, “On the edge of the Chinese diaspora: the surge of Baihuo business in an African city,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2005), pp. 639–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ho, Conal, “Living transitions: a primer to Chinese presence in Ghana,” The China Monitor, No. 26 (2008), pp. 911Google Scholar; Kernen, Antoine and Vulliet, Benoît, “Les petits commerçants et entrepreneurs chinois au Mali et au Sénégal,” Société politique comparée, No. 5 (2008)Google Scholar; Lee, Margaret C., “Uganda and China: unleashing the dragon,” in Melber, Henning (ed.), China in Africa (Uppsala: Nordic African Institute 2007), pp. 2640Google Scholar, Basile Ndjio, “Shanghai beauties and African desires. Migration, trade and Chinese prostitution in Cameroon” (forthcoming, 2009); Annette Rihnstrøm Schmidt, “The anti-Chinese tide in urban Zambia” (unpublished MA thesis, Aarhus, 2008). Some estimations about the numbers of Chinese migrants in different countries can be found in Mohan, Giles, “Social relationships of new Chinese migrants in Africa,” The China Monitor, No. 26 (2008), pp. 68Google Scholar.

3 Related aspects are covered in Dobler, Gregor, “China in Namibia,” in Melber, Henning (ed.), Transitions in Namibia. Which Change for Whom? (Upsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 2007), pp. 94109Google Scholar; Dobler, , “Solidarity, xenophobia and the regulation of Chinese businesses in Oshikango, Namibia,” in Alden, Chris, Large, Daniel and de Oliveira, Ricardo Soares (eds.), China Returns to Africa (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 237–55Google Scholar; Dobler, , “From Scotch whisky to Chinese sneakers. International commodity flows and trade networks in Oshikango, Namibia,” Africa, Vol. 78, No. 3 (2008), pp. 410–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Earlier versions of this article were presented at ECAS 2005 in London, at the conference “China and Africa – who benefits?” in Frankfurt, 2007, at ASC Leiden and at the Institute for Social Anthropology of the Free University Berlin. My thanks go to the many people who have commented on preliminary drafts and presentations.

4 Kilby, Peter, “The heffalump revisited,” Journal of International Entrepreneurship, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2003), pp. 1329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 For an overview on the discussion, see Waldrich, Howard E. and Waldinger, Roger, “Ethnicity and entrepreneurship,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 16 (1990), pp. 111–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ibrahim, Gamal and Galt, Vaughan, “Ethnic business development: toward a theoretical synthesis and policy framework,” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 37, No. 4 (2003), pp. 1107–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 The concept of “protected ethnic markets” was developed by Light, Ivan, Ethnic Enterprises in America: Business and Welfare Among Chinese, Japanese and Blacks (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972)Google Scholar; Portes, Alejandro and Bach, Robert, Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)Google Scholar use the term “ethnic enclaves.” See also Waldinger, Roger, Aldrich, Howard and Ward, Robin, “Opportunities, group characteristics and strategies” in Waldinger, , Aldrich, and Ward, (eds.), Ethnic Entrepreneurs. Immigrant Business in Industrial Societies (Newbury Park, London, Delhi: Sage, 2006), pp. 1348Google Scholar.

7 See, among many others: Werbner, Pnina, The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and Offerings among British Pakistanis (New York: Berg, 1990)Google Scholar; Rafiq, Mohammed, “Ethnicity and enterprise: a comparison of Muslim and non-Muslim owned Asian businesses in Britain,” New Community, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1992), pp. 4360CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See Bonacich, Edna, “The other side of ethnic entrepreneurship: a dialogue with Waldinger, Aldrich, Ward and Associates,” International Migration Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1993), pp. 685–92Google Scholar for a critical perspective on this tendency.

9 Angola is one of the richest countries in Africa. Crude oil production reached 2 millions barrels a day in 2008, and the country has now surpassed Nigeria, a country of ten times the number of inhabitants, as Africa's biggest oil producer.

10 For more details on Oshikango and the importance of the border situation for trade see Dobler, Gregor, “Oshikango: the dynamics of growth and regulation in a northern Namibian boom town,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2009), pp. 115–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dobler, Gregor, “On the border to chaos: identity formation on the Angolan–Namibian border, 1927–2008,” in Coplan, David (ed.), African Borderlands. Special Issue of the Journal of Borderland Studies (2009)Google Scholar.

11 I cannot go into the details of other trade networks here. For a comparative perspective, see Dobler, “From Scotch whisky to Chinese sneakers.”

12 For an overview of Chinese emigration policy, see Xiang, Biao, “Emigration from China: a sending country perspective,” International Migration, Vol. 41, No. 3 (2003), pp. 2148Google Scholar.

13 Here is a typical example of a 40-foot container received by a Chinese trader in Oshikango in 2004: 17,088 bottles of perfume, 20,640 umbrellas, 9,600 pairs of shoes and 48,000 belts were shipped by a company in Yiwu on 18 October 2004. The container was sealed by the Chinese customs and shipped by P&O Nedlloyd from Ningbo to Walvis Bay via Singapore and Cape Town. It arrived in Singapore on the vessel London Tower on 27 October and reached Walvis Bay on 15 November. In Walvis Bay, it was loaded on to a truck that drove to Oshikango in about eleven hours.

14 See Dobler, “From Scotch whisky to Chinese sneakers” for a comparative perspective with other migrant groups in Oshikango.

15 See Dobler, Gregor, “Tra prezzi bassi e risentimento. Commercianti cinesi e società locale ad Oshikango – Namibia,” Afriche e Orienti, No. 2 (2008), pp. 118–26Google Scholar. For a similar image of cheapness increasingly linked to Chinese goods and people, see Ndjio, “Shanghai beauties.”

16 See New Era, 16 November 2007. The widespread practice of under-invoicing also seriously questions import and export statistics between African countries and China. For Namibia, I would suspect that the real value of the goods imported from China is at least two times higher than the book value. The same is probably true for many other countries.

17 The level of business rents in Oshikango is as high as the turnover. A normal-sized shop in one of the new complexes costs between N$5,000 and 8,000 a month; some rents are significantly higher.

18 Bräutigam, Deborah, “Close encounters: Chinese business networks as industrial catalysts in sub-Saharan Africa,” African Affairs, No. 102 (2003), pp. 447–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.