Part 1: African Student-Entrepreneurs in Zhejiang Province

Viola Rothschild

This post first appeared on Viola’s blog , Sinophiles, chronicling her notes/observations on her fieldwork (September 2014-July 2015) researching the African student-entrepreneur community in greater Zhejiang Province.


part1-2Jinhua (金华)is a prefecture-level city in central Zhejiang province with a population of about 5 million (so, tiny by Chinese standards) that you almost certainly have never heard of. Our big claim to fame is smoked ham, a popular local delicacy. As a relative metric for modernity, we only have one Starbucks, and JUST got connected to the high speed rail line, so while I’m not totally in the middle of nowhere, Jinhua is still a good 10 years (at least) behind Beijing and Shanghai. Why would I sentence myself to 10 months in such a place? My Fulbright research project, broadly, is on African immigration into China. Guangzhou, a megacity in the south is home to Asia’s biggest African population (the exact number is the subject of a hot debate), but the research scene there seems to be pretty saturated. Jinhua, though relatively unknown, has a few things going for it. 1) It is home to Zhejiang Normal University, which has a fairly reputable Institute of African Studies. ZJNU is a large teaching university that has 30,000 students, including 200+ African students from a wide array of countries. And 2) Jinhua is about 30 minutes away from Yiwu, an even smaller city that happens to have the largest trade-commodities market ever. Traders from all over the world flock to Yiwu, and in recent years it’s become a huge destination for traders from Africa. Yiwu now hosts China’s second-largest African population. So, for those reasons–even though it might not seem like it–Jinhua is the place to be. As far as the project goes, my research is still in it’s nascent stages. Basically though, I’m focusing specifically on African student-entrepreneurs (meaning students that are enrolled at a Chinese university and doing business at the same time). I’m interested in their backgrounds, motives, aspirations, and on a larger scale, how they serve as conduits for developing Sino-African relations as economic and political ties continue to thicken.

part 1-3
ZJNU campus and library

On a day-to-day level, what that has actually meant for me is spending a lot of time really getting to know African students, traders, and student-traders. I live in an international students dormitory with students from all over the world, including about 60 from Africa, so I’m pretty well situated to do that. Through hanging out and cooking in the dorm, occasionally going to the clubs, heading up to Yiwu pretty frequently and following my friends/informants around the market as they make deals, I’m basically trying to understand what sort of challenges they face when it comes to doing business and studying in China, and getting a sense of what their experience here is like.

part1-4When I first got here, it was difficult to explain to people what exactly I was doing. Turns out “can I research you?!” isn’t a great conversation starter (I’d like to think I was a little more tactful than that…but realistically, I probably wasn’t). Particularly given the patronizing and paternalistic tone the West often takes when dealing with African countries, African students weren’t exactly lining up to talk to an American about their challenges and experiences. Somewhere along the way–after countless failures and awkward encounters–I realized that it was unfair to ask them to open up to me if I wasn’t going to open up to them. So I think partly due to me backing off a bit with the clinical research approach, and partly just because time elapsed and people acclimated to my presence and personality, I’ve ended up making a lot of friends. But while the upsides of living with many of my informants and this sort of “deep hanging out” (Geertz) are obvious, it’s often tough to know where to draw the line between being friends and also being upfront with my research plans and goals. At this point I’ve completed about 20 semi-structured interviews, but I’d say that the most valuable interactions by far are the every day run-ins in the laundry room or the coffee shop. It’s not just an isolated 45-minute interview where I’ll never see them again– my informants are also my friends, and I’m interacting with them constantly. But this can get tricky sometimes. Like if someone tells me something personal that’s super interesting, but maybe a little sensitive (especially because many of them are doing business on student visas) so I can’t really use it in my research. Or, another recurring theme has been clearly maintaining the line between being friendly and appearing romantically interested or available, especially because many of the students are right around my age and the vast majority are male. I’ve gotten more than one marriage proposal. I have made a ton of mistakes–alienating and offending informants, getting into uncomfortable situations, violating Fieldwork Ethics 101– but I think that the most important and interesting part of this year, by far, has been getting to know people, and learning to navigate “the field” across a whole new range of cultures and backgrounds.

Cooking green stew with some friends from Sierra Leone in our floor’s communal kitchen

There’s no way I can do justice to the characters I’ve met, their stories, and their incredibly wide range of their experiences, but below is a highly concentrated introduction to my research based on initial findings:

Who are these student-traders? And why China? They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but I’d say that the majority are younger (24-35), middle-class men from all over the African continent that are pretty well connected politically and financially. There is a misconception that the Africans coming to China are poor and are looking to take refuge here—but that is totally inaccurate. Many already have family and/or business contacts in China when they come to study. Some are recipients of a Chinese Government Scholarship (awarded by the central government or the provincial government), but others are self-funding. They come to China for a variety of reasons. Maybe they didn’t get accepted to their first choice program in Europe or America, or they couldn’t find a good job or were unhappy in their job at home, or perhaps their friend or relative went to China and then encouraged them to come too–usually it’s a combination of one or more of these factors. Some students come with the intention to do business, but others come to study and are swept up in the tide of opportunity. This word “opportunity” comes up in pretty much all of my interviews, whether it’s used to describe the prospect of seeking their fortune and striking it big in China, or the competitive advantage they’ll have when they go back to their home country with a few years in China under their belt, or simply the exposure to a totally new culture, language and experience.

What is a typical trajectory for an African student-entrepreneur in China? It depends. There are all sorts of subcategories, but there seems to be two major groups that are determined based on funding status and intentions. However, neither of these factors are static, so it’s even less clear than it may seem. Broadly speaking, there are the scholarship sponsored students-turned-traders and the self-funding student-traders that came to China with the intention of doing business. The students-turned-traders are mostly Chinese Government Scholarship recipients that are doing two or three year programs studying International Business or International Trade. Their focus is studying and learning Chinese, but many complain that the school doesn’t provide enough practical opportunities for learning, so they take things into their own hands. Because of the proximity to Yiwu and the accessibility to existing contacts, there are few barriers to entry. They’ll usually start on a very small scale where they’re maybe buying 200 pairs of shoes at a time to ship back to someone in their home country to sell at a significant markup. Most of these students see studying as a main priority and are trading for the experience more than anything else. After graduation, some will continue trading if they’ve managed to tap into something bigger and open an office or work as a middleman in Yiwu, but most will return to their home country with their own networks and experiences doing business in China. Then there are self-funding students, most of whom came to China with the intention of trading. This category is subdivided into those students that are taking a huge personal and financial risk to get a student visa that will allow them to stay in China and work (illegally), and students that are being sponsored by a (usually family) business to learn Chinese. The former depends on business success as a means to continue their studies and establish a foothold working in China, so for them trading is higher stakes. For the family/business sponsored students, they are expected to study Chinese and learn the business so they can be an asset later. These students are usually committed to spending a longer time in China –unless their business fails.

A Chinese shipping and logistics company meets with international students in Yiwu

What’s an example of a successful student-entrepreneur? “Samir” from Sudan stopped going to university at home because of the low quality of education, and started working for his father’s company. After a few years, he wanted to go back to school, and went abroad to Malaysia, but after a while was turned off by the party-oriented lifestyle there, and sought a new opportunity. Samir came to China in 2011 on a Chinese Government Scholarship to study Chinese Business. He started off just studying, but was frustrated with the lack of practical learning, and was constantly hearing about the opportunities in Yiwu from classmates. One of his friends hooked him up with a guy that was working as middleman for Sudanese buyers. Because of the abundance of goods and buyers in Yiwu, the environment is generally collegial rather than competitive, and the middleman agreed to show Samir the ropes. Being a middleman basically entails learning to taking orders from clients (primarily in Sudan) and then communicating directly with Chinese suppliers to get the best deals. When the deal is complete, he is also responsible for figuring out shipping and logistics. Obviously being able to speak Chinese is a huge advantage. After spending his first two years in China learning Mandarin, taking Chinese Business classes, and working in Yiwu, Samir finally landed his first client. In an interview in his office in Yiwu, he told me: “I had one client who wanted kitchenware, and I did a good job. My Chinese is good, and I was able to make a good relationship with the suppliers, and they do not cheat me. Some even give me credit–that can only happen in China! So the client told his friends, and then I started getting calls from people. More and more until I had enough business to get my own office. Now I have three Chinese employees, and I want to keep getting bigger. Now that I have good relationships with kitchenware sellers, I hope to form better networks with other people too, and maybe get into small electronics or textiles or something. Soon I will have customers from all over the world, not just Sudan.” Samir’s business is expanding rapidly, and he says he will stay in China “as long as it takes.”

Coming up in Part II: much more about the African student-entrepreneur experience in China. Generally, how are Africans treated in China? And more specifically, what challenges do they face on campus? In business? 

Viola Rothschild is a graduate of Bowdoin College. In 2014-2015, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to research African student entrepreneurs in Zhejiang Province. Viola is now continuing her work on Sino-African relations in a Master’s program at the University of Oxford, and is also working as a remote research analyst for China House. 

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