When Yang Jie left home at 18, he was doing what people from China’s hardscrabble Fujian Province have done for generations: emigrating in search of a better living overseas.
What set him apart was his destination. Instead of the traditional adopted homelands like the United States and Europe, where Fujian people have settled by the hundreds of thousands, he chose this small, landlocked country in southern Africa.
“Before I left China,” said Mr. Yang, now 25, “I thought Africa was all one big desert.” So he figured that ice cream would be in high demand, and with money pooled from relatives and friends, he created his own factory at the edge of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. The climate is in fact subtropical, but that has not stopped his ice cream company from becoming the country’s biggest.
Stories like this have become legion across Africa in the past five years or so, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese have discovered the continent, setting off to do business in a part of the world that had been terra incognita. The Xinhua News Agency recently estimated that at least 750,000 Chinese were working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of deepening economic ties between China and Africa that reached $55 billion in trade in 2006, compared with less than $10 million a generation earlier.
Even when Mr. Yang arrived here in 2001, he said, he could go weeks without encountering another traveler from his homeland. But as surely as his investments in the country have prospered, he said, an increasingly large community of Chinese migrants has taken root, and now runs everything from small factories to health care clinics and trading companies.
During the previous wave of Chinese interest in Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, an era of radical socialism and proclaimed third-world solidarity, European and American companies held sway over economies in most of the continent. Here and there, though, the Chinese made their presence felt, often in drably dressed, state-run work brigades that built stadiums, railroads and highways, crushing rocks and doing other labor by hand.
Today, in many of the countries where the new Chinese emigrants have settled, like Chad, Chinese-owned pharmacies, massage parlors and restaurants serving a variety of regional Chinese cuisines can be found; the Western presence, once dominant, has steadily dwindled, and essentially consists nowadays of relief experts working international agencies or oil workers, living behind high walls in heavily guarded enclaves.
At first, this new Chinese exodus was driven largely by word of mouth, as pioneers like Mr. Yang relayed news back home of abundant opportunities in a part of the world where many economies lie undeveloped or in ruins, and where even in the richer countries many things taken for granted in the developed world await builders and investors.
Conditions like these often deter Western investors, but for many budding Chinese entrepreneurs, Africa’s emerging economies are inviting precisely because they seem small and accessible. Competition is often weak or nonexistent, and for African customers, the low price of many Chinese goods and services make them more affordable than their Western counterparts.
You Xianwen sold his pipe-laying business in Chengdu, in southwest China, this year to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to join a startup company with a Chinese partner he had met only online. “Back where I come from we are pretty independent people,” Mr. You, 55, said. “My brothers and sisters all supported my decision to come here. In fact, they say that if things really work out for me, they would like to move to Africa, too.”
Mr. You said he had considered other African countries before settling on Ethiopia, including Zambia. “Luckily I didn’t decide to go there,” he said, explaining that he had been frightened by the recent anti-Chinese protests in that country.
His new business, ABC Bioenergy, builds devices that generate combustible gas from ordinary refuse, providing what Mr. You said would be an affordable alternative source of energy in a country where electricity supplies are erratic and prices high.
Mr. You’s partner here, Mei Haijun, first came to Ethiopia a decade ago to work at a Chinese-built textile factory and has since married an Ethiopian woman, with whom he has a child. “When I first came here you could go two months without seeing another Chinese person,” he said. “But it is a different era now. There’s a flight to China every day.”
The pickup in air traffic between China and countries like Ethiopia now has Chinese companies scrambling to add new routes, as the Chinese government and big Chinese companies increase their stake in Africa.
Much of that activity reflects an intense appetite for African oil and mineral resources needed to fuel China’s manufacturing sector, but big Chinese companies have quickly become formidable competitors in other sectors as well, particularly for big-ticket public works contracts. China is building major new railroad lines in Nigeria and Angola, large dams in Sudan, airports in several countries and new roads, it seems, almost everywhere.
One of the largest road builders, China Road and Bridge Construction, has picked up where the solidarity brigades of an earlier generation left off. The company, which is owned by the Chinese government, has 29 projects in Africa, many financed by the World Bank or other lenders, and it maintains offices in 22 African countries.
On a recent Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Beijing brimming with Chinese contractors, workers from Road and Bridge and other companies swapped notes on the grab bag of countries they work in, and debated about the difficulties of learning Portuguese and French in places like Mozambique and Ivory Coast.
Africans view the influx of Chinese with a mix of anticipation and dread. Business leaders in Chad, a central African nation with deepening oil ties to China, are bracing for what they suspect will be an army of Chinese workers and investors.
“We expect a large influx of at least 40,000 Chinese in the coming years,” said Renaud Dinguemnaial, director of Chad’s Chamber of Commerce. “This massive arrival could be a plus for the economy, but we are also worried. When they arrive, will they bring their own workers, stay in their own houses, send all their money home?”
In Zambia, where anti-Chinese sentiment has been building for several years, merchants at the central market in Lusaka, the capital, said that if Chinese people wanted to come to Africa, they should come as investors, building factories, not as petty traders who compete for already scarce customers for bottom-dollar items like flip-flops and T-shirts.
“The Chinese claim to come here as investors, but they are trading just like us,” said Dorothy Mainga, who sells knockoff Puma sneakers and Harley Davidson T-shirts in the Kamwala Market in Lusaka. “They are selling the same things we are selling at cheap prices. We pay duty and tax, but they use their connections to avoid paying tax.”
Although Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped in Nigeria and in Ethiopia, where nine were killed by an armed separatist movement in May, the growing Chinese presence around the continent has produced few serious incidents.
Misunderstandings are common, however, and resentments inevitably arise. Africans in many countries complain that Chinese workers occupy jobs that locals are either qualified for or could be easily trained to do. “We are happy to have the Chinese here,” said Dennis Phiri, 21, a Malawian university student who is studying to become an engineer. “The problem with the Chinese companies is that they reserve all the good jobs for their own people. Africans are only hired in menial roles.”
Another frequent criticism is that the Chinese are clannish, sticking among themselves day and night.
In Addis Ababa, in what is a typical arrangement for most large companies, the 200 Chinese workers for the Road and Bridge Corporation live in a communal compound, eating food prepared by cooks brought from China and receiving basic health care from a Chinese doctor.
“After a day off you wonder what you’re doing here, so we like to keep working,” said Cheng Qian, the country manager for the road-building company in Ethiopia. He added that his family had never visited him during several years of work here.
Sometimes, the Chinese approach has created serious frictions with African workers. At a leading hotel here in Lilongwe, breakfast guests stared as an agitated Chinese traveling salesman, sweating profusely, screamed at his staff minutes before his pitch on nutritional supplements was set to begin.
“You say it is not your fault, but the way you are doing things is just stupid, stupid,” the man sputtered before a clutch of African assistants, who looked humiliated. “You people are unbelievable.”
When the salesman finally left the room, members of the restaurant staff gathered near the door and vented their disgust. “We don’t need people like that to come here and colonize us again,” one said.
After nearly seven years in Malawi, Yang Jie, the ice cream maker, seems to have learned better. Greeting his workers at the ice cream factory, he begins the day by asking, “How did you sleep last night?”
One quickly replied, “Very well,” sounding a bit formal.
“Don’t tell me a lie,” Mr. Yang answered with a sly, friendly smile. “It’s O.K. to tell me your worries.”