Thursday, March 25, 2010

Walking to the Promised Land

In anthropology, the term ‘expansion’ is used to describe the spread of a population into new lands, often much larger in size. The Bantu Expansion was thus the spread of Bantu agricultural peoples from eastern Nigeria into central, eastern, and southern Africa between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. Roughly the same period saw Austronesians expand out of southern China and into most of southeast Asia and Oceania. Finally, the last five hundred years have seen the expansion of European peoples into the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, southern Africa, and Siberia.

Today, a new expansion is under way. In a zone stretching across Africa from Sierra Leone to Somalia, population growth is outstripping the carrying capacity of the land. People are responding to this situation in the same way that people have always responded: by migrating en masse to new territories and a new life.

But how? Isn’t the rest of the world already occupied by other peoples? Yes, but so were the lands colonized by the Bantu, the Austronesians, and the Europeans. What once belonged to one people can be taken by another. It’s really that simple.

This new population expansion at first spread largely into the homelands of the former colonial powers, specifically Great Britain and France. In recent years, especially since the mid-1990s, it has begun to spill into southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as cities farther afield.

Israel, in particular, is becoming a prime destination. There are two reasons. First, it is the only First World nation that abuts directly on Africa. You can literally walk there from demographic hotspots in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. Second, Israel has weak ideological defenses. In a post-national world, it is no longer acceptable to justify Israel’s existence as a land where Jews can live as Jews among Jews. The preferred justification is to present Israel as a haven for ‘victims.’ Unfortunately, this victimology can have unintended consequences.


Since the mid-1990s, 3 to 5 million people have poured into Egypt from sub-Saharan Africa. Although this population movement is widely attributed to the civil war in Darfur and to the continuing low-grade conflict in southern Sudan, there are also many migrants coming from Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, some of these migrants began to infiltrate across the Israeli border with the help of Bedouin smugglers. They were not sent back, as one of them recounted:

“We were taken to the court and the judge said that it will be impossible to send us back to Sudan, which is an enemy country. But she also said that if the state will support us two million refugees will come to Israel and it will be a disaster. Then we were sent to Maasihu Prison, where I stayed for 14 months.” (Yacobi, 2009, p. 3).

The news soon spread to places as far away as Eritrea, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. From early 2007 to the end of March 2008, over 20,000 Africans crossed into the Negev from Egypt (Yacobi, 2009, p. 13). They were split equally between Sudanese and Eritreans with smaller numbers from Central and West Africa (Yacobi, 2009, p. 7).

These African migrants have stirred up divergent reactions in their host country. On the one hand, it is difficult to turn them away when official discourse so often presents Israel as a haven for refugees:

There is wide agreement that one of the turning points in bringing the refugee issue to the Israeli public was when the campaign against the deportation of refugees focused on the Holocaust, pointing out that it was the Jewish people who had needed shelter and protection during and after the Second World War. The Jewish historical experience and Jewish collective memory became a convincing tool in the public sphere as noted, for example, by Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev who said: “we cannot stand by as refugees from genocide in Darfur are knocking on our doors” (Yacobi, 2009, p. 10)

Many Africans understand the power of Holocaust discourse in this debate:

Just before last Passover a group of African refugees volunteered to help Holocaust survivors with cleaning, painting and, more generally, with renovating their flats. This event was covered by the Israeli media, emphasizing the common fate of both Jewish and African refugees. (Yacobi, 2009, p. 10)

The influx of African migrants has thus been facilitated by comparisons with Jewish refugees of another era. This comparison is not accepted by all Israelis, like this commenter:

to be precise the only difference between janjaweed and darfurians is that the janjaweed have won the war .. otherwise the whole story would have been replayed in reverse with the darfurians attacking, raping and ethnic cleansing the arabs… this cannot be said about jewish refugees in europe who did not resist (the conflict in darfur was started by the darfurian separatists, not by the arabs) while the danger for them was a real one … it’s impossible to call the darfurian conflict a genocide and compare it to holocaust as it’s just an ethnic conflict in which both parties widely resort to ethnic cleansing. (Lotan, 2007)

This view seems to be shared by the Israeli government, which is increasingly using the term ‘infiltrator’ instead of ‘refugee,’ as in this speech by the prime minister in January 2010:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday warned that ongoing illegal African immigration posed a threat to Israel, and announced that he will ask the government to endorse a plan to erect a barrier along Israel's border with Egypt to prevent infiltration from Africa.

The barrier is meant to prevent an expected "flood" of African immigrants seeking jobs in Israel, Netanyahu said.

According to Netanyahu's plan, border guards and electronic systems will safeguard the proposed barrier, which will be partly above ground. In addition to the barrier, the government will work to increase law enforcement against employers who hire illegal foreign workers.

Addressing the Manufacturers Association General Assembly, Netanyahu warned that African immigrants infiltrating Israel from Egypt were changing the "demographic landscape" in Israel.

"I don't know if you have been to Eilat and have seen what's going on there. In Tel Aviv there are places you wouldn't recognize, this is something that must be stopped," Netanyahu said.
(JPost, 2010)

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders hope to staunch African immigration by building a ‘smart fence’ between Israel and Egypt, by interning refugees for lengthy periods, and by fining employers of illegal immigrants. As strong as these measures may seem, it is doubtful whether they will have much effect. A ‘smart fence’ can be outmaneuvered by first having a few refugees cross it to tie down the border patrol and then sending over a much larger group farther down the border. Nor will lengthy internment be a real deterrent. Many of the refugees see it as a price worth paying for admission to a First World country (Yacobi, 2009, p. 5). Finally, employer sanctions have a poor record of enforcement in other Western nations.

Israelis in general are also pinning their hopes on an end to the Darfur civil war. But even with peace there will still be an outflow of people from Darfur, as there is from other Sahel regions that have no civil conflict. The truth is that a subsistence economy on arid soil cannot support Darfur’s growing population: up from 1 million in 1950 to over 6 million today. Something has to give, and it is richer countries, like Israel, that will be called on to do the giving.


JPost (2010). PM: Infiltrators dangerous for Israel, The Jerusalem Post, January 21, 2010,

Lotan, G. (2007). Israel: Sudanese Refugees – Like Darfur, as Auschwitz

Yacobi, H. (2009). African Refugees’ Influx in Israel from a Socio-Political Perspective, CARIM Research Reports 2009/04, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Has China come to the end of history?

In my previous posts, I’ve argued that China is entering a demographic transition that is already occurring in other developed countries, i.e., decline of the indigenous population and progressive replacement by higher-fertility immigrants. In this post, I’ll focus on how the initial phase will play out over the next ten years.

The China of tomorrow can be seen in the city of Guangzhou, formerly known to Westerners by the name of Canton. In the past five years, it has taken in a large immigrant community, essentially from sub-Saharan Africa. How large? The Chinese authorities have no estimates, at least not officially. Bodomo (2009) suggests a total of over 100,000. He also mentions sizeable African communities in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao. According to Li et al. (2007), Africans started showing up in Guangzhou after 1998 and their numbers began to take off in the mid-2000s, although the increase seems to have slowed with the current recession. Rennie (2010) likewise suggests a figure of 100,000:

The dream of riches has fuelled a boom in the number of African migrants to Guangzhou. Immigration has increased by one-third each year since 2003, as word spreads that there is money to be made. There are now an estimated 20,000 Africans legally resident in the city – predominantly West African, young and male – and an unknown number of illegal residents and short-term visitors could swell the figure toward 100,000.

This community will likely grow further in the coming decade. The Chinese authorities may try to slow its growth through a carrot-and-stick approach: some kind of amnesty together with a beefing up of immigration control. Such half-measures will probably fail. Illegal immigrants can simply hide among the many who now have legal status. In any case, efforts to round them up will inevitably produce ugly incidents that could harm China’s special relationship with sub-Saharan Africa—her leading source of raw materials. Such measures could strike Africans as being hypocritical:

There’s an irony here. For years, Chinese business, from oil producing giants to individual entrepreneurs, have been encouraged to set up shop in Africa and foster trade relations. In 2007, China invested US$7–billion in the continent. In their destination countries, Chinese are welcomed with open arms. […] That warm welcome has not been reciprocated in Guangzhou, where African businessmen have
few rights and little legal protection.
(Moxley, 2009)

This relationship with Africa will become all the more crucial over the coming decade. China already imports a third of her crude oil from Africa and that figure could easily rise to a half. At that point, the tail will start wagging the dog. Even a temporary cessation of African oil would severely hurt the Chinese economy.

So, five years hence, the African community in Guangzhou will likely have swollen to over 300,000. Similar communities will have taken root elsewhere in southern China. By then, both push and pull factors will come into play. The push factor: hundreds of millions of potential migrants in a zone stretching from Sierra Leone to the Horn of Africa. The pull factor: a return by China to high rates of economic growth. The inevitable will happen. The trail has already been blazed and there will be plenty of people at both ends to make the journey easier.

Finally, China’s own demography will facilitate the insertion of immigrants. By the year 2030, her population will peak in absolute numbers and start to decline, slowly at first and then at an ever faster pace. Deaths already outnumber births in Hong Kong and Macao, and this ‘population sink’ will probably spread to most of urban China over the coming decade. Vacancies will open up in the job market and in housing estates, especially if China continues to ride a wave of strong economic growth. There will be plenty of niches that immigrants can move into: vacant tenements; risky or low-paying jobs in construction and services; etc. Meanwhile, rising food prices will keep more and more Chinese on the land. There will still be migration from rural areas, but it won’t be enough to quench the thirst of China’s ‘bubble economy’.

And so, in high-growth urban centers, a process of population replacement will set in. On the one hand, an aging and often childless indigenous population; on the other, a youthful immigrant community with fertility well above replacement. Much of urban China will take on a multiracial look with many districts becoming minority Chinese. If this trend continues, China will cease to be a vehicle for a specific people, culture, and civilization. It will become an administrative unit—a managerial state that exists to maximize the return for its ‘shareholders.’

For some pundits, such a scenario is nothing terrible. We have come to the end of history and now it is China’s turn. If Chinese individuals wish to go on being Chinese, they can do so in their spare time with their own money. Collective purpose no longer exists. There is only never-ending self-enrichment.

Has China come to the end of history? Such an assertion carries more than a touch of human vanity. History goes on regardless of what we proclaim. And it is doubtful whether the current good times will go on forever. Like the rest of the world, China will hit the wall of peak oil, even with all the resources of Africa. Its aquifers will dry out or be hopelessly contaminated. Its shrinking farmlands will no longer yield enough food. Sooner or later, Nature herself will cry out ‘Enough!’

And sooner or later, an aging, diverse, and increasingly non-Chinese population will no longer have the dynamism or unity of purpose that once made China so successful. People will begin to suspect that the secret of her success lay not only in a particular economic system, but also in the Chinese people.


Bodomo, A. (2009) The African Trading Community in Guangzhou (广州): An Emerging Bridge for Africa-China Relations, accepted (October 2009) for publication in China Quarterly.

Li, Z., D. Xue, M. Lyons, & A. Brown. (2007). Ethnic Enclave of Transnational Migrants in Guangzhou: A Case Study of Xiaobei.

Moxley, M. (2009). Big trouble in Little Africa, The Walrus, Jan. 19, 2009.

Rennie, N. (2010). Africans in China: Sweet and Sour in Guangzhou. The Africa Report, February 1, 2010.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

China and interesting times. Part III

In my last post, I predicted that China will undergo the same kind of demographic transition that is occurring in other developed countries. This transition will be characterized by:

1. Fertility rates well below the replacement level.

2. A heavy influx of immigrants from poorer regions of the world with higher fertility, mainly sub-Saharan Africa but also parts of south and southeast Asia.

3. A process of population replacement that will be most apparent in the large conurbations of southern China. Many urban districts will become minority Chinese.

This scenario may seem hard to believe. After all, with a billion or so people, the Chinese have a long way to go before becoming strangers in their own land. Yet this scenario does seem plausible if one looks at its underlying causes:

Fertility decline

For thirty years now, China has had a fertility rate well below replacement level (1.6 children per woman for the whole country and significantly lower for non-Muslim Han). Although this low fertility is often attributed to the 1-child policy, fertility is equally low in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao—where this policy has never been applied.

There is no reason to believe that the fertility rate will rise in the near future and every reason to believe that it will fall further. Fertility has already fallen to the 1.0 mark in the urban areas of southern China, and these areas tend to be at the forefront of cultural changes that later spread to the rest of the country. In many ways, China is undergoing a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ similar to the one that swept through the Western World in the 1960s. Everyone wants a car, designer clothes, and other showy consumer goods. As in the West, the average Chinese couple will try to fulfil these expectations by having their children later, or by not having any at all.

Whatever the prospects for continuing fertility decline, China has already had thirty years of sub-replacement fertility and women now reaching childbearing age themselves come from 1-child families. There is no longer any momentum left in Chinese population growth. China, particularly southern China, thus seems poised for substantial population decline and this decline, combined with high economic growth, will open up room in the job market and in housing estates for migrants from elsewhere.

In the past, these migrants came from rural China. Will this internal migration continue? To some extent, yes, but it will probably not be enough to fill the looming labor shortages. With rising prices for food and other commodities, many rural people will choose to stay put. Furthermore, labour shortages will be most acute in those industries that offer the lowest wages and the poorest working conditions. The temptation will be strong to fill those jobs with workers from abroad. Similarly, housing vacancies will open up in old, substandard tenements that are disdained by upwardly mobile Chinese but not by immigrants.


And such immigrants will show up on their own. Since the year 2000, there has been a marked rise in immigration, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa. Guangzhou alone has an African community of over 100,000 people. This immigration is partly due to the wide gap in living standards between China and sub-Saharan Africa. But it is also due to the special relationship that has developed between these two world regions.

Since 1991, the Chinese foreign minister’s first visit abroad each year has always been to the African continent. When the Chinese leadership realised that increasing amounts of oil, gas and other minerals were needed to sustain the booming economy, resource-rich Africa again garnered much attention from China’s decision-makers. After China lost its long-cherished status of energy self-reliance in 1993, the pressure of supply diversification forced major Chinese national oil companies to scour the world for petroleum. […] China’s crude oil imports from Africa have increased at an astonishing rate of 23 per cent annually since 1993, reaching 53 million tons (mt) in 2007. As a result, Africa’s share of China’s crude imports rose sharply from 18.5 per cent in 1993 to 32.5 per cent in 2007. In most of 2006, Angola even surpassed Saudi Arabia, to become China’s largest overseas crude oil supplier. In 2007, China imported an unprecedented 25 mt of crude oil from Angola, a level only 5 per cent lower than the quantity coming from Saudi Arabia. (Tu, 2008)

There is increasing worry among Chinese policy-makers about the fragility of this special relationship, in particular its vulnerability to incidents of anti-black racism in China. According to Tu (2008):

The absence of open debate about such discrimination poses an important challenge to China’s interactions with African countries, especially at the societal level. Thus, to prevent unchecked spread of racism in China, a top-down paradigm shift of China’s decision makers is urgently needed, a bottom-up soul-searching process of Chinese civil society as a whole is also required.

Interestingly, although Tu refers to an “unchecked spread of racism”, he makes no direct reference to the rapid growth of the African community in China. There seems to be a tendency to frame the debate in terms of controlling ‘racism’ rather than controlling immigration. This tendency is all the more unusual because Bodomo (2009) found little evidence of anti-African discrimination in Guangzhou. In fact, local Chinese tended to excuse behavior in Africans that they would not accept in other Chinese. This came out in an interview with a shop assistant who mainly deals with Africans

Before working in this shop, Ms Li dealt with Chinese customers in a similar type of shop. When asked the difference between doing business with Chinese and Africans, she complains about the Africans. Firstly, she mentions that many of the African customers do not keep their promises. For example, they may request the company to supply them goods within a week but they do not come and collect their goods on time. Secondly, after producing goods for them, they may say they do not have the money in hand. According to her, some Africans, who believe in Christianity, sometimes handle things “in the name of God”. Besides, getting along with African customers is also hard for her. It is because to Ms Li, the Africans are too direct when meeting someone of the opposite sex. She recounted her experience of being asked by her African customers to give them her phone number and address even during their first meeting with her. Some even declare: ‘I love you’ to her even on their very first day of meeting, a behaviour she can hardly bear with as a Chinese.

Another factor is the emergence of Africans themselves as a lobby for further immigration. Bodomo (2009), himself an African established in China, makes this point in his survey of the Guangzhou African community:

As the Guinean leader pointedly indicated, “Chinese [leaders] think that Africans can do business in China without being in China and this is an error. 90 per cent of Africans in Guangzhou act as some kind of intermediary between the local businessmen in Africa and the Chinese factory, the Chinese businessmen there. Without Africans in China there is no business between Africa and China.” This was one of the clearest statements as evidence in support of our theoretical argument about Africans in Guangzhou acting as bridges for business connections between Africans and Chinese.

… Both the Chinese government, on the one hand, and the African governments, on the other, could harness these important roles played by the community, and address the challenges they are facing, such as unrealistic visa and residency restrictions (they are given only 6-month visas, for instance) and generally unclear paths to permanent residency and citizenship, to enhance the growing economic relations between Africa and China. The African trading community in Guangzhou serves as a salient emerging bridge between Africa and China that cannot continue to be ignored in efforts to effectively develop socio-economic relations between Africa and China.


Bodomo, A. (2009) The African Trading Community in Guangzhou (广州): An Emerging Bridge for Africa-China Relations, accepted (October 2009) for publication in China Quarterly.

Tu, J. (2008). Sino-African relations: Historical development and long-term challenges, China: An International Journal, 6(2), 330-343.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

China and interesting times. Part II

In China, besides Beijing, African communities have become a reality in cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong (Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2007, Bodomo 2007a). There are now more Africans and people of African descent in southern Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, Macau and particularly Guangzhou (Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2007, Bodomo 2007b, Li et al 2008) than in any other part of China.

… One common theme cutting across most of the earlier studies on modern African communities in China mentioned above is an emphasis on the novelty of the situation. While it is true that Africans have existed in China, including students and diplomats, among others, for a long time, we have never had, until now, a massive presence of Africans of all walks of life actually migrating to China to start up businesses serving Africans and Chinese alike. A key word that cuts across most of these studies is “emergence”, signifying the novelty and freshness of the phenomenon of African migration into China and the formation of communities there (Bodomo, 2009).

In recent years, China has emerged as a major world power and predictions are being made that it will soon become the world’s leading economy. This trend is a source of much pride for the Chinese themselves, who feel their nation is finally coming into its own after years of stagnation and foreign domination. But the pride may be short-lived. With the world’s lowest fertility rates, a booming economy, and economic dependence on a continent that has the world’s highest fertility rates, everything is in place for rapid population replacement. The past decade has already seen the establishment of a large African immigrant community, which numbers over 100,000 in Guangzhou alone (Bodomo, 2009). If current trends continue, China will eventually become a mere administrative unit—a managerial state—like so many other countries. It will no longer be a vehicle for a specific people, culture, and civilization.

This prediction should come as no surprise. Although world fertility rates have declined over the past half-century, this decline has been spread very unequally, with most of it being in Europe, East Asia, and their respective overseas populations. In particular, Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced very little fertility decline, with the result that its population growth greatly exceeds the growth of its economic base. Many sub-Saharan Africans thus have no choice but to move elsewhere. Whereas this current of emigration used to flow mainly toward the ex-colonial powers, particularly France and Great Britain, it is now spreading to other destinations. North Africa has ceased to be a zone of transit for these emigrants and is becoming a de facto zone of settlement, particularly Libya but also Morocco and Algeria. The same is true for much of southern Europe: Spain, southern Italy, Malta, and Greece. Large communities are also appearing in Israel, the Gulf States, Mumbai and elsewhere in south and southwest Asia. In short, what will happen to China should be no cause for surprise, except for those who think the future is like the past but only better.

And it is unlikely that there will be much resistance in China, at least not initially. The Chinese state and its increasingly globalist business class are committed to the goal of making their country number one both economically and politically. This goal cannot be reached without access to new sources of raw resources, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, any moves to staunch immigration from that continent will necessarily be postponed, watered down, or done as surreptitiously as possible. Surreptitious measures, however, cease to be effective once an immigrant community reaches a certain size, since illegal immigrants will simply hide among the large numbers of legally established residents.

Does this mean that population replacement will proceed unopposed in China? No, it doesn’t. But such opposition will not come from the Chinese state. Nor will it be framed in terms of traditional Chinese nationalism. It will probably come from anti-globalist groups or individuals and be framed in terms of a neoracialist ideology whose origins, ironically, will be non-Chinese and probably American.


Bodomo, A. (2009) The African Trading Community in Guangzhou (广州): An Emerging Bridge for Africa-China Relations, accepted (October 2009) for publication in China Quarterly.

Li Zhi-gang, Xu De-sheng, Du Feng, Zhu Ying (2009). The local response of transnational social space under globalization in urban China: A case study of African enclave in Guangzhou, Geographical Research, 2009-04,