Chinese In Lesotho: The Need For Fewer Clashes And More Collaboration

By Dagny Zenovia

China man in Lesotho
Credit: Lesotho Times

Most stories about Chinese immigrants in Africa focus on big cities and big businesses. There is also an impact being made in smaller cities that is felt beyond economics. Lesotho has experienced the challenge of interacting with Chinese immigrants in and outside of business, which has caused some cultural clashes.

Why Are Chinese Immigrants In Lesotho

Chinese immigrants in Lesotho are primarily seeking economic opportunity. As of 2013, the Chinese population in Lesotho was estimated to be 4 to 20 thousand. Apparently, they tend to keep to themselves and keep a distance from the Chinese embassy or government. Instead, they have developed a network among themselves to set up small businesses and send money back to their families in China. It is almost like a business association. Their network gives advice on niche markets and provides support through start-up loans and insurance. It is also these associations that allegedly facilitate these immigrants’ entrance into the country.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment In Lesotho

There is an anti-Chinese sentiment among the people of Lesotho. There are two layers to this. First, on the business side, Chinese shops are accused of several malpractice activities. This includes vending poisonous baby formula and rotten vegetables and operating under fake licenses to avoid taxes. In spite of this, Chinese owned businesses bring competition in prices, inventory, and convenience, which local traders and businesses are not equipped to compete with.

Secondly, on the cultural side, there is a misunderstanding of different values. For example, to the people of Lesotho, a cow holds mystical value because it is considered to be a god. On the contrary, the Chinese immigrants invest in cows as meat to sell.

Historically, these differences have resulted in violence. In 1991, a Lesotho woman was beaten to death by a security guard in a South African owned store. This caused a violent outcry that targeted Asian owned businesses. In 2007, riots broke out with local traders attacking Chinese owned businesses.

These cultural clashes are not shocking. Teboho Edkins, a South African director, illustrates this experience in his new documentary “Days of Cannibalism,” where the linguistic, cultural, and belief differences between these two groups are shown to affect their relationship. Edkins noted that “the Chinese have never known about Africa other than through the West – and the Africans have never known about China other than through the West…this is the first time these two cultures have looked at each other, and it’s based on business.” In the documentary, the radio broadcaster, who is featured in the trailer below, begins with optimism about the Chinese immigrants. However, at the end of the documentary, the radio broadcaster has become disheartened.

Chinese And African Immigration Are Both Seeking The Same Thing

The clash in business and culture is a recurring story for both Chinese immigrants across Africa and African immigrants in China. For example, the short film “Laisuotuo,” by Carl Houston Mc Millan, depicts an African doctor living in China and a Chinese shop owner living in Lesotho. They both experience stereotypes and racial profiling.

Looking at these different accounts, there is a portion of Chinese and African immigrants who are both seeking to escape poverty and obtain opportunities for themselves and the families they have to leave behind. They actually have more in common, as they both are balancing similar struggles. Along with culture and language, there is a lot they could learn from each other, but respect and collaboration need to come first.

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