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The Unintended Religious Consequence of Chinese Investment in Africa

For many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live and work in Africa, life is often is not easy. Low pay, long hours and extended assignments in unfamiliar cultures often lead to feelings of isolation and disillusionment.

Connections with friends and family back home, largely using WeChat, are often difficult to maintain over extended periods of time, which prompts some to look for comfort closer to home. And in places like East Africa, some of these disaffected workers are finding their way into the evangelical Christian community that is so pervasive in that part of the continent.
Seeing the opportunity to grow their parishes, church leaders are readily embracing this new population with services in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.

In Africa, these newly-converted migrants are part of a much larger community of Christian evangelicals. But after they return to China, they become a potential problem for the Chinese Communist Party that imposes strict regulations on religion and bans any unapproved religious activity.

“Visitors to the coastal province of Fujian, for example, now hear South African accented English and see houses adorned with crosses.  African migrants are also moving to China in larger numbers, many of them practitioners of very evangelistic forms of Pentecostal Christianity who are willing to flout the rules placed on religious activity in China.” — Dr. Christopher Rhodes, Boston Univeristy

Religious control in China is even more severe than it was even just a few years ago. “The CCP has always been anti-religion, but after Xi Jinping assumed Party control in 2012, China enacted a level of religious persecution not seen since Mao attempted to eliminate religion and other sources of dissent during the bloody Cultural Revolution,” said Dr. Christopher Rhodes, a Boston University lecturer who specializes in the intersection of religion, identity and politics in East Africa.

Earlier this year, Christopher explored the issue of converted Chinese migrants returning home from Africa, and the potential political ramifications, in an article for the U.K.-based online publication UnHerd. He joins Eric and Cobus to discuss this important yet poorly understood consequence of Chinese investment in Africa.


Dr. Christopher Rhodes is a lecturer in social sciences comparative politics in the General Studies College at Boston University. Christopher’s primary area of research focuses on the role of identity in politics with a focus on religion with a particular emphasis in East Africa. He is also the creator of the Political Religions blog that is dedicated to bringing an academic’s perspective on the political impact of religion and other forms of identity and belief, including race, nationalism, ethnicity and ideology. You can also follow him on Twitter at @PReligions.

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