By Jinghao Lu and Cobus van Staden
Why is the Internet so important in the lives of Chinese migrants to Africa? Many scholars have pointed out that the Chinese employees of Chinese enterprises in many African countries are willing or encouraged to live an isolated lifestyle away from interaction with the local community. As compensation, the companies usually provide fast internet connection allowing the Chinese staff to download video and to stay in contact with their families at home.
If online communication becomes many Chinese workers’ only outlet outside of their work community in Africa, scholars should pay more attention to the role the internet and social media play in shaping the Chinese migration to Africa. However, the main barrier to conducting extensive research on this topic is language, as Mandarin is the major language used by the Chinese internet users, or so-called netizens.
Understanding the unique social media tools Chinese netizens use is also important. Due to the fact that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are not available in China, a number of products were developed to specifically accommodate more than 500 million Chinese internet users. Tools such as Tencent QQ (including QQ instant message, QQ Groups), Sina Weibo, Renren, and many topic-oriented web forums are used by many Chinese workers in Africa.
In February, we (Jinghao Lu and Cobus van Staden) conducted initial research on how internet forums influence the decision made by many Chinese to travel to Africa. This research was published in the African East Asian Affairs, (Issue 1, March 2013), published by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University. In our research, we try to categorize the general conversation topics on Chinese web forums used by the Chinese communities in Africa or related to Africa.
We revealed three broad themes in the Chinese netizens’ discussions about Africa.
- Business Information Exchange
The most popular use of social media by Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa is to produce, source or integrate business information relating to Africa. The huge business potential shown by many African economies has attracted hundreds of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs seeking opportunities to fill gaps in the market. Social media is playing a crucial role in creating links among Chinese traders in Africa. Tencent QQ and Alibaba (a leading e-commerce platform for small businesses around the world) are two of the most widely used web tools for manufacturers or wholesalers in China to look for, negotiate and partner with Chinese merchants overseas.
A list of some main themes of business-related conversations on those Chinese web forums includes:
Seeking Collaboration and Partnership: Chinese buyers and sellers use the web forums to seek partnership in the context of China-Africa trade and commerce. The products range from textiles to electronics and building materials. In most of the cases, conversations initiated on the web forums will continue through buyers and sellers exchanging their QQ numbers, which allows the negotiation to be conducted in private.
Introducing Business Models: Chinese web forums provide a platform for businesspeople to learn from each other through discussing business models and techniques, including handling customs, transferring money / remittances, avoiding fraud and dealing with local authorities. Even Chinese illegal miners in Ghana use Chinese web forums to share their experience, stories and ways to operate the small-scale illegal gold mines.
Hiring and Job-seeking: Chinese web forums have served as a de facto job portal for recruiters and job seekers to find each other.
African News: A number of Chinese web forums are dedicated to updating and translating news about African macroeconomic environment, investment opportunities, government policies and local sentiments towards the Chinese communities.
- 2. Perception Towards Africa and Africans
Due to cultural and language gaps and a lack of opportunities to socialize, life in Africa is typically not easy for recent Chinese migrants. Therefore sharing personal experiences and feelings online has become an important part of their social life. Some of the main topics shared on Web forums, QQ and Weibo are listed below:
Perception of Africans: On web forums, a number of Chinese have posted threads complaining about the living environment, security issues, difficulties they experience in managing African workers and other culture-related issues. These sentiments generally receive a lot of support from other Chinese, who chime in with similar experiences.
Interracial dating and marriage: In recent years, an increasing number of threads have started to reveal an important new phenomenon relating to the lives of the Chinese community in Africa – dating and marriage with Africans. Threads dedicated to such topics often attract a lot of discussion. Sometimes they develop into fierce arguments on whether a relationship with an African is reliable and long-lasting.
- Tourism related Information Share
To the majority of Chinese readers Africa is a continent of desert, forest, traditional civilization, poverty, disease, warfare and corruption. Web forums allow Chinese travelers and residents in Africa to upload photos and to share their travel stories with a wider readership that desires to read about the realities in Africa. These stories, from the beautiful scenery of South Africa to local women in Ethiopia and traditional African festivals, have encouraged more Chinese travelers to explore the continent. Some Chinese travelers also launch threads to seek travel companions. A number of Chinese tourist companies have started to utilize web forums to promote their travel packages to Africa. The role these forums play in stimulating travel to Africa presents many opportunities for future research.
PS 1: A list of Chinese internet forums we surveyed
- Baidu PostBar
Baidu is the largest Chinese-language search engine in the world. Baidu PostBar (or Baidu Tieba), allows its users to create a bar (forum) by typing a keyword. The largest bar related to Africa on Baidu is the “Africa Bar”, but country-related bars such as “Tanzania Bar” and “Ghana Bar”, also host a many threads and discussions.
- Tianya Club
Tianya Club is a popular Chinese web forum with one of the most vibrant online communities in China. By January 2013 there were more than 78,297,000 registered users on Tianya. Tianya has the reputation for hosting fierce debates on Chinese social issues and international relations. Its sub-forum “Africa” contained 3,040 threads with 53,758 posts by 6 February 2013.
- Chinese in Africa
"Chinese in Africa" is a web forum with more than 65,000 threads and more than 80,000 members by 2013. The forum was especially active in 2007-08, but since 2010 the volume of the threads and responses has declined. However, it contains records of a large number of conversations documenting the lives, feelings, experiences and business interaction among the Chinese in Africa. The forum is divided into different sub-forums dedicated to topics such as "Life in Africa", "Business Opportunities", "Job-seeking", "Touring in Africa", and contains region-specific forums such as "West Africa", "East Africa” and “Southern Africa”.
Qufeizhou is targeted to Chinese who intend to go to Africa, or has been living or working in Africa. Launched in 2011, the forum is relatively new, but offers an integrated platform containing news, country-specific information about Africa, business, entertainment and opportunities to make friends. By January 2013, there were more than 25,000 members in the community.
- Fob Business Forum – Africa Market
The Africa sub-forum of the Fob Business Forum has generated over 10,000 threads dedicated to information about trade and investment in many African countries. Topics frequently discussed include trade procedures, dealing with African merchants and companies and sharing personal stories.
Sohu’s Africa Circle mainly contains stories and pictures of unique culture and scenery in Africa.
- Country-specific forums
The relative size of the Chinese communities in particular African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa, has led to the development of country-specific web forums. These forums are not exclusive to those who live in these countries. For instance, the “Chinese in Nigeria” web forum has become an important online community for Chinese across West Africa to exchange information and opinions.