Number of Chinese Workers in Africa Drops Substantially

Johannesburg, South Africa — The number of Chinese workers across Africa has hit its lowest level in more than a decade, new data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics show.

From a record high of 263,696 workers on the continent in 2015, only 88,371 were recorded in 2022, the most recent year on record.

The China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, which analyzed data from 2009 to 2022, attributed the drop in numbers partially to the pandemic as Chinese workers left during that period and the country only reopened in early 2023.

But the plummeting numbers are also due to a variety of other factors, experts said, including oil prices and the downscaling of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road Initiative, which initially saw thousands of Chinese sent out across the continent to work on large infrastructure projects.

Uptick expected?

“We have no data for 2023, but anecdotally we hear that more postponed projects are resuming. Yet we are unlikely to see the high numbers of the past,” said Deborah Brautigam, director at the China Africa Research Initiative, when asked whether the numbers could have rebounded last year and might continue to do so.

Yunnan Chen, a researcher at ODI Global, a U.K.-based research group, was also bearish.

“It might be that some construction has restarted since 2022, but we know the number of overall Chinese-financed projects has been in decline for a number of years, and the last few years have put a damper on any new project deals. So I wouldn’t expect any dramatic increases in these numbers anytime soon,” she told VOA.

The five countries with the most Chinese workers in 2022 were Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While still leading in the number of workers, Algeria and Angola also saw the biggest drops.

Algeria had more than 91,000 Chinese workers in 2016 while Angola had a peak of 50,000. By 2022, only about 7,000 workers remained in each country.

Brautigam told VOA the huge drops “are explained by the price of oil. They’re both highly reliant on oil exports and they use this oil to pay for nearly all government spending.”

In Angola, after its civil war ended in 2002, the Chinese helped the country rebuild, with the Export-Import Bank of China pledging $2 billion in oil-backed loans. But then global oil prices fell and Angola become mired in debt.

The country’s president, Joao Lourenco, who was first elected in 2017, has sought to diversify the economy and reduce reliance on China, resulting in fewer Chinese projects and workers.

But more Chinese workers may soon be in Angola’s future. During a visit to Beijing on Friday, Lourenco and China’s Xi agreed to upgrade bilateral ties, which will allow for more trade and investment.

Bucking the trend

Not all countries in Africa have seen recent declines in Chinese workers, however, with the DRC, Egypt and Zimbabwe being the most notable outliers.

Egypt had more than 7,000 Chinese working in 2022, compared with around 2,000 pre-pandemic. The DRC had more than 8,000 in 2022, a rise from around 3,000 in 2012. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has been stable with around 1,000 Chinese workers over the past four years.

“Zimbabwe is especially interesting as there is a big near-completion steel plant and other minerals processing going on,” said Lauren Johnston, an expert on China with the University of Sydney, noting China was becoming less dependent on African oil and was shifting toward green energy and minerals.

Zimbabwe has huge deposits of lithium, one of the critical minerals needed for the move to electric vehicles, and China has invested heavily in the industry there.

“There are large value-added mineral-processing facilities being constructed in Zimbabwe and also power projects which are needed for mining and mineral processing,” Brautigam noted.

The DRC is likewise rich in minerals, particularly cobalt, and in Egypt, the Chinese are building the government a whole new capital outside Cairo.

Local jobs boost?

China has often been criticized for failing to aid job creation in Africa or equip locals with new skills, despite its massive projects. While large numbers of local workers have indeed been employed, it’s often been in the most basic of roles, while more senior jobs have been reserved for Chinese.

“Generally, Chinese projects do hire local laborers,” said Chen.

“Usually at the beginning of projects there is a higher proportion of Chinese engineers and skilled labor, but over time this tends to shift, as more local laborers are hired,” she said, noting however that the majority are in unskilled roles.

Even as China sends fewer of its own people to Africa, hiring Africans for higher-paid, skilled jobs by Chinese companies may not happen immediately, said Brautigam.

“What they need to increase is hiring managers locally,” said Brautigam. “But this will take time and the development of Chinese language skills among local managers.”

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