South-South Encounters: The Politics of Interactions among Africans and Chinese on the Ground

November 19, 2019

This lecture is part of SFU's 2019-20 Social Science Colloquium on China in the World.

Series conceived and facilitated by Professor Irene Pang, School for International Studies, SFU.


Saheed A. Adejumobi is Associate Professor in the History Department at Seattle University.  He also teaches with Film Studies and the Global African Studies Program.  He holds degrees from the University of Lagos, the University of Oregon, and The University of Texas at Austin where he was awarded his Ph.D.  He has taught at The University of Texas at Austin, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua, China.  Dr. Adejumobi specializes in African and African American History, and African Diaspora intellectual and cultural traditions.  His work also focuses on China-Africa international and cultural relations.


Nellie Chu

Nellie Chu is a cultural anthropologist who currently works as an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke Kunshan University in China. She held post-doctoral positions at the Center for Transregional Research Network in Goettingen, Germany, the Henry Luce/ American Council for Learned Societies, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR School) at Cornell University. She has published in Modern Asian Studies, Culture, Theory, and Critique, and Journal of Modern Craft. She is currently working on a book project that traces the rhythms of mobility and labor among Chinese, South Korean, and West African laborers and entrepreneurs in Guangzhou's fast fashion industry.


This paper introduces the notion of prophetic becoming among West African congregants in an underground church in Guangzhou, China. I examine the discursive constructions of entrepreneurial desire among the congregants. They, in turn, are intimately shaped by their place-based experiences of crossing transnational and oceanic boundaries in order to escape wars, disease, and socio-political crises in their native places in West Africa. While Weber insightfully highlights the faith-based dimensions of capitalist motivation, key aspects of profit-driven action that challenges conventional ideas around rationality and calculation, West African migrants’ journeys of “prophetic becoming” deepens Weber’s analysis of the Protestant “spirit” of capitalism by casting faith not simply a given totality that the congregants possess or do not possess based on one’s calling or Beruf (2002:28). Rather, the West African pastors describe their relationship to God as an uneven, dialectical transformation of the self, whose journey to other-worldy salvation involve on-going uncertainty, divergence, and re-affirmation. As a worlding practice found in “intervals, mediations, passages, and crossings” not only between national border but also between the boundaries of the spiritual and the secular, West African migrants’ experiences of displacement, debt, and discrimination in China and in the material world question and at times reinforce their faith in God.

Huamei Han

Huamei Han is an associate professor and applied linguist at Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Huamei Han’s research centers on language learning, multilingualism, and socioeconomic inclusion of linguistically marginalized individuals and groups in globalization, who often are also marginalized along the lines of race, class, religion, and gender.   Studying multilingual interactions inter-disciplinarily, for the past decade, Huamei has been investigating and theorizing what she calls grassroots multilingualism emerged in private trade migration between China and various African countries, and exploring class mobility and race formation, among other social processes, under globalization. Huamei has been conducting periodical fieldworks with African and Chinese migrant traders, mainly in Guangzhou, China since 2009, in Cape Town, South Africa since 2010, and in Oshikango, Namibia since 2011.


Based on a decade of periodical ethnographic fieldwork in both China and Africa, this paper takes an intersectional approach (Crenshaw, 1989, 1993; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) to highlight the class dimension of global migration, focusing on private trade migration (Han, 2017) observed in southern China and northern Namibia. Specifically, I trace the trajectories of both Africans and Chinese at both sites to explore processes of class mobility/immobility and class formation, intersecting with citizenship, race, gender, and religion, among other social categories, in the semi-periphery and periphery contexts in relation to the core countries in the current capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 2004). After sketching patterns of class mobility and immobility over time among various groups of traders, I analyze class (im)mobility and formation of select individuals of African and Chinese backgrounds, including the multilingual dimension and manifestations, in these (used-to-be) lucrative yet volatile markets in the (semi-)peripheral contexts. Contrasting their limited choices in (im)migrating to and “making it” in the core countries such as Canada, this paper expands the existing theorization of class (Bourdieu, 1984, 1986; Balibar & Wallerstein, 1991; Skegg, 1997) to class mobility and class formation in the current capitalist globalization. I conclude by questioning the logics and ethics of the unequal globalization, and problematizing the roles core countries play in it.

Derek Sheridan

Derek Sheridan is an Assistant Research Fellow with the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. His research interests include China-Africa connections, migration and transnationalism, ethics, inequality, political economy, race, semiotics, knowledge production, global imaginaries, (global) China, and East Africa (Tanzania). His first project, Chinese Migrant Entrepreneurs and the Interpersonal Ethics of Global Inequality in Tanzania, is based on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork studying the everyday lives of migrant Chinese entrepreneurs in Tanzania. The book will examine how Chinese expatriates and ordinary Tanzanians negotiate a "South-South relationship" through the interpersonal ethics of social interactions. His next project concerns the circulation of martial arts culture between East Asia and Africa, and its influence on subjectivities and cultural production (incl. film) in Tanzania.


Chinese migrant entrepreneurs, managers, and employees in Africa often demonstrate an ostensibly paradoxical orientation to the social relationships they develop with locals. Many seek out and develop relationships and friendships which are necessary for facilitating business transactions and capitalist accumulation, but many also avoid or minimize relationships and friendships in order to protect themselves and others from varied perceived dangers. Even migrants who pursue friendships for ostensibly non-material purposes may face restrictions or frictions from the Chinese businesses/institutions they work for, despite normative recognition of the importance of “people-to-people” relationships between China and Africa. These countervailing tendencies complicate any attempt to categorize everyday Chinese-African interactions as either cooperative or conflictual, integrated or segregated, or even instrumental and affective. Instead, these tendencies suggest the need to problematize the concept of relationality as applied to both critical theories of political economy and ethnographic theories of ordinary ethics. This question is particularly relevant in Tanzania, where the narrative of Sino-African friendship as an anti-imperial alternative to global relationships was historically most strongly conceptualized and institutionalized, but which has since been adjusted to describe the new capitalist modes of trade and investment between China and Africa. Based on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork among Chinese migrant entrepreneurs, managers, and employees in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania between 2013 and 2016, I examine and compare three situations involving countervailing tendencies to both establish and limit relationships. The first involves a Chinese migrant’s failed attempt to purchase gold in a context where the majority of traders are assumed to be fraudulent. The second involves the advancing of Chinese-produced commodities on credit in the wholesale trade against the risk of default or pilferage. The third involves Chinese migrants whose efforts to form friendships are discouraged by other Chinese speaking or acting on behalf of their “safety” in Africa. Comparing these situations demonstrates both the structural imperatives to relate in order to accomplish transactions, and the limits on relationships due to the vulnerabilities of interdependency and uneven wealth. I ask whether these countervailing tendencies are better understood as “contradictions” or in terms of an “affirmative non-dialectics” (Singh 2014) of unresolved doubleness. The answer to this question has implications for the ethical/political assumptions different actors make about the supposedly distinctive character of South-South capitalism.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

3:30 - 5:30pm
Reception to Follow

SFU Harbour Centre
515 West Hastings, Vancouver
Earl & Jennie Lohn Policy Room 7000