Chinese Expatriation in Africa: What Do We Need to know?

There are a lack of studies on Chinese expatriates despite the increasing activities of Chinese multinational firms in Africa. With a somewhat negative view of Chinese MNEs in Africa from the media that appears to pick on sensational stories, rather than the more positive aspects (such as job opportunities) of Chinese engagement on the continent, there is a need for more research to be undertaken on what Chinese expatriation looks like. Not only should we be interested in this subject in itself, the dearth of studies on Chinese expatriation is detrimental to expatriation theory as a whole.

There is of course a view that Chinese expatriates keep to themselves, live in compounds and are unable to converse with locals. This may to an extent be true, but there may be reasons for this. Similarly, there may be a view that there is a reluctance to upskill local workers and to transfer skills, knowledge and technology. If this is the case there may be a reason for it.

It may also be that in order to understand Chinese expatriates we have to think differently about the nature of expatriation, that we need to ask different questions, and to take different perspective, to look at why Chinese firms are operating in Africa, to look at the differences in China’s engagement to those of MNEs from Western countries. We also need to ask questions about the cultural synergies between Chinese and African values and thinking. Yet at the same time be aware that these may not be obvious to Chinese expatriates who may receive a minimum of pre-departure training and orientation. Indeed these synergies may also not be apparent to local workers and managers, exacerbated through language differences and lack of language training.


How modernisation theory gets in the way

When advanced capitalist societies are seen as models for all developing nations, and this is absorbed into international management and HRM studies, this creates a problem when considering a phenomenon like Chinese expatriation. It gets in the way of developing new and appropriate knowledge in the international context, not least in trying to understand the different trajectory of Chinese-African engagement, China’s motivation for being in Africa, the way Chinese firms operate in Africa, and the nature of expatriation.

Through the lens of modernisation theory expatriation in Africa can in part be seen as a vehicle for knowledge transfer from North to South, or from West to East. As such it can be seen as an agent of development: modernising out-of-date technology and knowledge that is the lot of a backward Africa. But is this the case if you do not hold any concept of modernisation? If Chinese companies do not come to the continent with assumptions that Africa must ‘modernise’, then will knowledge transfer be seen as an issue? Yet much of the rhetoric of the Chinese government is towards friendship and mutual leaning. Surely this implies knowledge transfer? Or, does it imply knowledge sharing? Doesn’t knowledge transfer assume that one party has superior knowledge to the other party, and that the one has to give it to the other? It’s a two-way process among equals rather than a one-way process with a more knowledgeable and more powerful partner.

If we uncouple our theory about Chinese expatriation in Africa from a Western modernisation lens, then we can start to see the possibilities of mutual learning and knowledge sharing. The nature of expatriation may just be different in a global South-on-South relationship and where in particular Chinese engagement with African countries has been one of anti-imperialism, instead of the imperialist, globalising and modernisation trajectory of Western countries. This isn’t to make a political statement, but purely to point out the factual history of the different relationship, and then to speculate (hypothesise) about the outcomes.

Of course, there is much conflicting evidence about Chinese engagement in Africa, and this must be taken into consideration when developing theory about Chinese expatriation. There also appears to be a disjuncture between the broader strategic policy (or rhetoric) of the Chinese government, and what happens at the operation level of Chinese MNEs (even though most of these MNEs are state owned enterprises).

There is much not to be liked about Chinese expatriation from the local’s perspective. Chinese MNEs tend to rely on expatriates for senior staffing. Therefore there is no way up for local staff, past a certain level. This may cause resentment, but this is by no means confined to Chinese expatriation. So, what is different about Chinese expatiation.

What is different about Chinese expatriation?

While there is evidence that many Western MNEs have more positively instigated selection processes for potential expatriates based on cultural empathy, relational skills and family adjustment, and to base training and pre-departure orientation on these aspects, this doesn’t appear to be important for Chinese MNEs. Rather, selection appears to be based on the potential expatriate’s internal standing, their seniority as well as technical and managerial skills. This lack of cultural and relational aspects of selection and preparation is perhaps not seen as important if the knowledge transfer function of expatriation is minimised within the Chinese experience. Yet with possibly close synergies between Chinese and African values, it is a pity that pre-departure orientation can’t make this more explicit.

However, another function of expatriation, management control, appears important to Chinese MNEs where most firms assign more expatriates to senior positions in international subsidiaries than US and European MNEs. This appears to be the case in Africa. Although there appears to be a realisation among centralized management that Chinese MNEs in Africa need to adapt to local HRM practices, there is a reluctance to give up central control. This may be one of the reasons they are so reluctant to give representation to local trades unions.

Yet the main difference in Chinese expatriation is how we should study it, and not be bound by our assumptions either about Western expatriation, or about how China’s engagement in Africa has been perceived. This needs a paradigm shift. This applies to the motivation of Chinese firms impacted by a lack of modernizing ethos, a presence of political-seeking motives and moderated by an apparent divide between official Chinese government policy of friendship, sharing and mutual learning and what happens at operational level. It also applies to the potential synergies between Chinese cultural values and those of other emerging countries, moderated by a low importance placed on the knowledge transfer role of Chinese expatriates (extending from a lack of modernization ethos), the impact of the relational nature of career development including expatriate selection and lack of awareness of these possible synergies.

However, to unravel these apparent contradictions requires far more research than has been undertaken so far. This is a major challenge for management scholars with an interest in Africa and China, and indeed all those concerned with expatriation.

Please see: Jackson, T and Horwitz, F. (2017) Expatriation in Chinese MNEs in Africa: A Paradigm Shift? International Journal of Human Resource Management , DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2017.1284882.


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