Chasing the Dream — in China

Stephen DeAngelis

December 18, 2007

Despite all the tough talk being spouted by U.S. presidential candidates about cracking down on illegal immigration, there are still millions of immigrants dreaming of a better life in the United States. Although America’s open-arms days of “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free …” are a thing of the past, America is still the preferred destination for most of the poor, huddled masses looking for a brighter future. It is not, however, the only destination of which people dream. Where one lives has much to do with the location envisioned in one’s dreams. Where once the U.S. was the preferred location for European and Asian immigrants, it is now the preferred location for Latino immigrants. East Europeans and North Africans are more likely to see “old Europe” as their destination of choice. With increasing frequency, however, people see China as the new land of opportunity. Washington Post Foreign Service writer Stephanie McCrummen, for example, reports that many people living in Chad dream of a better life in China [“Struggling Chadians Dream Of a Better Life — in China,” 6 October 2007]. One reason they dream of China rather than Europe or America is that the Chinese are moving into Africa in a big way looking for natural resources and they are not shy about throwing their money around. McCrummen begins her article in a small store in rural Chad.

“It was midmorning in one of the poorest countries on earth, and the daily traffic of battered trucks, motorcycles and donkeys bounced along the lumpy sand streets of this hot desert town [named Abeche]. Behind the white archways of the old colonial market, Abdulkarim Mahamat, 24, was selling soap and batteries to the few customers who dropped by. Things were rather slow, and the young man explained how he often imagines himself elsewhere — flying off to a promising new land of cheap socks and smoothly paved roads. ‘If I can go to China, life will be better than it is now,’ he said, adding that he has started saving up for his ticket. ‘I’ll make a lot of money, and life will change. I can return to school, build a nice house and have a family. People say that China is a good place and everything is cheap.’ As resource-hungry China cultivates relationships with countries across Africa — most recently here, for oil — African leaders are debating the merits of that growing influence. Skeptics are troubled, for instance, by China’s role in enabling governments such as Sudan’s, which is accused of carrying out a brutal campaign of violence in its western Darfur region. But as that debate goes on, something less tangible is happening on the ground, even in this remote, conflict-ridden region where electricity and plumbing are still luxuries: The idea of China as a symbol of potential prosperity is taking hold, seeping into the consciousness of ordinary Africans and occupying a place that the United States, and to some extent European countries, once claimed. Around here, the American dream is something quaint and unrealistic, while a new kind of Chinese dream, more pragmatic and attainable, seems ascendant.”

Another person interviewed by McCrummen, provided a different and intriguing insight.

“The United States is a nice place to visit,” said Ahmet Mohamet Ali, a trader who had just returned from his first trip to China. “China is a place to do business.”

To people like Mr. Ali, America is the home of Disney World, New York City, and the Grand Canyon. China is the place with a growing economy, a pot of foreign equity, and the desire to cement relations with African businesses. Africans don’t have visit China to come to that perception; they simply have to look around their own country.

“Besides massive road projects, oil contracts and other deals China has struck across the continent, there are smaller signs that the country is beginning to penetrate African societies. On Fridays in the Congolese capital of Kinshasha, for instance, a reliable line forms at the gates of the Chinese Embassy’s visa section. In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, it is relatively easy to find university students heading off to China for business or language courses. Rebels in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region deemed China’s influence significant enough to target a Chinese-run oil facility there this year. Here in landlocked Chad, the notion of China is still rather nascent, as the government only last year fulfilled China’s prerequisite for doing serious business, recognizing China and severing ties with its rival, Taiwan. Since then, huge oil exploration projects have gotten underway, and Chinese money has flowed into government coffers, leaving some Chadians wondering whether they will benefit from the new wealth. At the same time, a kind of excitement and curiosity about China has trickled down.”

Because of Africa’s colonial past, there are few cultural shocks when Africans do business with Westerners. The same is not true when doing business with China.

“Here and there, Chadians have been hired by Chinese companies, leading to their first, awkward encounters with a foreign culture. ‘They eat dogs and snakes,’ said Mustafa Mohamed, who worked a two-way radio for a Chinese oil company, taking lunch orders. ‘They are strange people.’ Mohamed eventually met some Chinese businesspeople, though, and is now pinning his hopes on exporting precious stones to China. He walks around with a notebook, the words ‘Great Stones’ underlined on a page with potential prices listed.”

More often, however, people in Africa perceive China as a land of opportunity because store shelves are stocked with Chinese products — just like store shelves in America. There are also occasional reports from neighbors returning from trips to China. Like modern Marco Polos, they regale their friends with tales about the grandeur, hospitality, and wealth of China. My partner Tom Barnett and I have both made numerous trips to China and we can testify that when Chinese officials want to impress and spoil you they certainly can.

It is not just Africans, however, who are dreaming of a better life in China. Another Washington Post Foreign Service writer, Ariana Eunjung Cha, reports that emigrants from a lot of places see China as a destination of choice [“Chasing the Chinese Dream,” 21 October 2007]. Cha begins her article with the story of an Iraqi who is fulfilling his dream in China.

“For more than three years, Khaled Rasheed and his family spent the nights huddled in fear as bombs exploded near their home in Baghdad. Like generations of would-be emigrants before him, he dreamed of a better life elsewhere. But where? Finding a place that was safe was Rasheed’s top priority, but openness to Islam and bright business prospects were also important. It wasn’t long before he settled on a place that had everything he was looking for: China.”

Besides opportunity, what is attracting people to China is tolerance. Listen to any U.S. presidential debate and you will find tolerance in short supply. Latino and Muslim immigrants feel especially unwelcome in America. The same is not true in China.

“For a growing number of the world’s emigrants, China — not the United States — is the land where opportunities are endless, individual enterprise is rewarded and tolerance is universal. ‘In China, life is good for us. For the first time in a long time, my whole family is very happy,’ said Rasheed, 50, who in February moved with his wife and five children to Yiwu, a trading city about four hours south of Shanghai.”

I’m sure that members of the Falun Gong don’t perceive “tolerance as universal,” but that has more to do with internal Chinese politics than economic prosperity. Besides, the Chinese don’t exactly welcome immigrants with open arms. Only if they arrive with business plans (meaning they intend to create Chinese jobs) and money, are Chinese officials open and tolerant. Cha writes:

“While China doesn’t officially encourage immigration, it has made it increasingly easy — especially for businesspeople or those with entrepreneurial dreams and the cash to back them up — to get long-term visas. Usually, all it takes is getting an invitation letter from a local company or paying a broker $500 to write one for you. There are now more than 450,000 people in China with one- to five-year renewable residence permits, almost double the 230,000 who had such permits in 2003. An additional 700 foreigners carry the highly coveted green cards introduced under a system that went into effect in 2004. China’s openness to foreigners is evident in the reemergence of ethnic enclaves, a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Larger and more permanent than those frequented by expatriate businessmen on temporary assignment, the new enclaves evoke pre-revolutionary China, where cities such as Shanghai bustled with concessions dominated by French, British and Japanese. The Wangjing area of northern Beijing is a massive Koreatown, complete with groceries, schools, churches, karaoke bars and its own daily newspapers. A few miles away, in the city’s Ritan Park, signs in Cyrillic script and vendors speaking Russian welcome people from the former Soviet republics. In Yiwu, a city in the eastern province of Zhejiang that is the home of the world’s largest wholesale market, ‘Exotic Street’ lights up at night with stands filled with smoking kebabs, colorful hookahs and strong sugared tea for the almost exclusively Arab clientele.”

The number of immigrants with which China is dealing is miniscule compared to the challenge faced by the United States (which also might help account for Chinese tolerance); but the trend vector is pointing in the direction of openness and that openness has spurred emigrant dreams. Cha also reports that China’s immigration policies are calculated to support its foreign policy.

“Today, its efforts to woo developing countries are driven by more calculated, strategic goals, most notably its need to secure long-term contracts for oil, gas and minerals to fuel its booming economy. As part of this campaign, China has sought to portray itself as more open to Islam than other non-Muslim nations. Over the past 20 years, the government has gradually allowed its own Muslim minority to rebuild institutions that were devastated by state-sponsored attacks on Islam during the Cultural Revolution. Islamic schools have opened, and scholars of Islam are being encouraged to go abroad to pursue their studies. Unlike Christians, China’s estimated 20 million Muslims are considered an ethnic minority, a status that confers certain protections and privileges.”

Another way that China reaches out to countries of interest is through the provision of scholarships.

“One prong of China’s efforts to strengthen ties with the developing world is scholarships, a program that began in 1949 when the People’s Republic was founded but that has been ramped up aggressively in recent years. In 1996, China offered about 4,200 scholarships. Last year, the number was 8,500. Among the recipients are children of the elites in countries where China hopes to forge friendships. Salissou’s father, for instance, works in Niger’s presidential protocol office; Niger is rich in uranium, which China needs for its nuclear plants. Benjamim Amade, 21, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Xiamen University, heard about the scholarships through his uncle, an ambassador for Mozambique, where China buys timber it needs for construction. The students’ interest in China is fueled by the rags-to-riches stories of self-made entrepreneurs.”

Not only do such scholarships expose potentially important foreigners to Chinese culture they ensure that Chinese becomes a second language for them. Both of those things are important for developing future business relationships. Again the numbers are small when compared to the number of foreigners being educated in the United States, but the trend is headed in the right direction. Cha concludes her article by reminding her readers that China is far from an open society.

“There are limits to China’s welcome. It’s nearly impossible for foreigners who don’t have Chinese ancestry to obtain citizenship, and like anywhere else, China has had its share of racial misunderstandings and clashes with foreigners. The most infamous took place in the city of Nanjing in 1988, when a dispute between a campus security guard and two African students degenerated into a fistfight and ended with African students seeking refuge at their embassies after fleeing a mob that was shouting ‘Kill the black devils!’ Tensions within China’s black community rose again recently after police arrested about 30 African and Caribbean men in an anti-drug operation in Beijing on Sept. 22. Some witnesses accused China of racial profiling and claimed that some men were beaten. Beijing’s Public Security Bureau has denied race was a factor in the operation. In Yiwu, there was anger in the Iraqi community after an Iraqi man, Mostafa Ahmed Alazawi, was found dead in his rented home on March 30. His family wanted him to be buried in China and applied to the city for a piece of land. The city ruled that foreigners could not be buried in China, forcing the family to ship the body back to Iraq.”

Immigration is going to become an increasingly emotional issue around the world including in China. It is an issue in Europe, in the U.S., in Japan, in Singapore, etc. Any place that is prosperous and looks like a location where opportunities abound will attract economic immigration (both legal and illegal). China is just beginning to feel the impact in this area that comes with being economically successful. Globalization’s success rests in some measure on the ability of workers to move freely about the globe, but it rests even more on creating jobs where they are most needed. The hope of the development community, of course, is that enough economic opportunities can be created around the world that unwanted immigration doesn’t have to occur. That is a dream so far in the future, however, that only those most visionary of people see it. Nevertheless, it is a dream worth pursuing.