“Big Fish in a Small Pond”: Chinese Migrant Shopkeepers in South Africa

by Edwin Lin

University of California, Berkeley

International Migration Review

Volume 48, Issue 1, pages 181–215, Spring 2014

The steady growth of Chinese migrants to South Africa in the past decade provides an opportunity to use Sen’s (2001, Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press) capabilities approach in the field of immigration. This theoretical framing reveals that the Chinese employ, what I call, a small pond migration strategy – utilizing mobility to maximize their social, economic, and human capital. I argue that the Chinese move to South Africa because of a desire to venture out of China and pursue freedoms associated with being one’s own boss. Once in South Africa, they choose to stay because of comfortable weather and a slower pace of life, despite losing freedoms associated with high crime in Johannesburg. The findings suggest alternative ways of understanding factors of migration as well as a model that explains migration from more developed countries to less developed ones.


If you have not experienced crime or being robbed in South Africa yet, then you haven’t really (zhen zhen de) lived here! We all accept that this will happen to us eventually.

No, money is not good to make here (bu hao zhuan). Look around. It is so quiet, and it is like this most of the day. How can we make money? Some months, when it is really bad, we even lose money!

These quotes from recent Chinese migrant shop-keepers in Johannesburg, South Africa represent common responses I received when asking about their daily lives, interactions with South African society, and economic situations. In 2009, estimates of the Chinese population in Africa sat between 580,000 and 820,000. Three years later, that estimate has increased to over one million, South Africa being the largest recipient of Chinese migrants with approximately 350,000 Chinese in 2009, and at least 500,000 in mid-year 2011 (Statistics South Africa, 2011). The most recent Chinese migrants are mostly low-educated peasants and unskilled laborers who come from mainland China to engage in small-scale shop-keeping. Given China’s growing economy, the physical distance between China and South Africa, the striking ethnic differences between Chinese migrants and the majority of South African citizens, as well as self-expressed difficulties Chinese people face while living in South Africa, why have Chinese people increasingly moved away from a rising world power to this poorer and less developed country, and why have they decided to remain in South Africa upon arrival? In other words, what factors go into the decision-making process of Chinese migrants in South Africa, and what meanings do they ascribe to their mobility decisions? Read more http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/imre.12074/full

Source: International Migration Review

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