I’ll confess, I wasn’t originally too excited about a lecture on ‘The Chinese, the Taiwanese, “Fong Kong,” and Labor in South Africa’ and a harsh day at work and a rainstorm didn’t help either. However, I’m quite glad that I attended (alas, I had to leave before Q&A) the inaugural lecture of Sino – Africa DC, which is led by the indefatigable Winslow Robertson (I was quite taken back to see him fiddling with his phone throughout the talk – I only belatedly realized that he was live tweeting the event, I’m officially passé).
Professor Yoon Jung Park, an American of Korean descent, who received her PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand, was a captivating speaker for her diverse, young audience. Dr. Park was until recently a visiting professor at Howard University (where the lecture was held) and has recently taken up an affiliation with Rhodes University in South Africa. She has lived in South Africa for 12 years – originally studying individuals of Chinese descent born in South Africa, but she has broadened her work and is interested in African perceptions of Chinese in South African society.
Dr. Park presented a variety of threads with which to consider the Chinese presence in South Africa. She definitely put together a strong case for a more measured consideration of China’s presence in Africa than one generally finds in Western media.
While many media sources refer to China as ‘dumping’ or ‘flooding’ African countries with their goods, Professor Park noted that Africans themselves important Chinese goods (Nigerians have particularly developed trade networks) and in the case of South Africa, which has a more advanced economy, local retailers import Chinese goods. She also pointed out, quite sensibly, that labor conditions, for which the Chinese are so often attacked, are not much worse in Africa than in China. She also shared a conversation she had with a Chinese retailer in Zimbabwe; Chinese traders in Africa are often criticized for hawking inferior products, however this trader told Dr. Park that she had tried to sell higher quality products, but was not able to find a market for them.
I’ve often been irritated by the messianic praise of AGOA in DC. Therefore I was quite pleased to hear Dr. Park note that location, not ownership is the driving factor in AGOA eligibility. Thus, a Chinese can own a factory in South Africa and reap the benefits of AGOA. I saw this as a student in Namibia, when I toured an apparel factory enabled by AGOA that was run by Koreans (or possibly it was Vietnamese).
Finally, the historic origins of the presence of Chinese in South Africa intrigued me. Dr. Park related that South Africa invited Taiwanese into the country to run textile factories in the 1970s and 1980s. After majority rule, South Africa switched its recognition from Taiwan to mainland China and many Taiwanese left. Dr. Park estimated that from a peak of 30,000 Taiwanese, 6,000 remain in the country. The Taiwanese transferred many of their assets to mainland Chinese when they left the country (though she noted that a good chunk took South Africa citizenship), strengthening their presence in South Africa.
Dr. Park raised a lot of interesting points. Checkout @Winslow_R on Twitter to learn what ‘Fong Kong’ is and more.