Mingwei Hunag, PhD Candidate, American Studies, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Abstract: Over the past decade, the liberal U.S. media has eagerly reported the “China-in-Africa” story as one of empire. For instance, Howard French’s 2014 China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa was praised with reviews entitled “The Settlers,” “The Suitors,” “The Next Empire,” and “The Chinese Invade Africa.” Across journalistic discourses, the agents of empire are often ordinary Chinese migrants themselves, as much as Chinese firms and state actors. However, Sino-African relations are far more heterogeneous and complex in their entanglements of race, empire, and capital, eluding easy categorization as ‘neocolonialism,’ or on the other hand, ‘south-south cooperation.’ Based on fieldwork I conducted on Chinese wholesale traders in Johannesburg between 2013-2016, an ethnographic perspective views this phenomenon as something new altogether: emerging itineraries of global capital and neoliberal flexibilities in the 21st century Global South. This talk considers how we might locate the contemporary Chinese trade diaspora in South Africa through the concept of frontiers. Specifically, I theorize the traders I met as ‘flexible pioneers,’ neoliberal sojourners on the fringes of the Rise of China, who chased economic ambitions unattainable to them in post-Mao China in the emerging markets of the Global South. In this talk, I give an overview of the social and economic aspirations that propelled the hundreds of traders I met to Johannesburg. I elucidate how Chinese traders anxiously envisioned Johannesburg as a city of crime and disorder, and turn to the mundane, from the ordinary objects of purses and cars to the daily routines of walking and driving. Everyday practices of mobility and security were inextricable from Chinese global imaginaries of race and development.