The Intimate China-Africa in Kampala, Uganda

Devon Hsiao and Dr. Caroline Faria
The University of Texas at Austin
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2020.63.4f

Life here is interesting; it is not boring, and we are busy.

This is the response I (Hsiao) received from Mr. Wong, a Chinese business owner along William Street in Kampala, Uganda, when I asked for his opinion on life in Uganda. His response was surprising, because it was much more positive than I had been expecting, given the general tone of articles I read leading up to my research trip to Kampala in the summer of 2018.

China’s political and economic engagement with African states is a hot topic. But it is often simplified in popular debate. China’s role on the continent tends to be positioned as neo-colonial and exploitative, exemplified most recently in a 2019 Forbes article that claims China “wants everything” from Africa, serving China’s “ambitions to write the rules of the next stage of globalization” (Mourdoukoutas 2019). On the other hand, pro- Chinese media portray the relationship as far more democratic, mutually beneficial, and “anything but a debt-trap” (“Why Belt and Road” 2019). What made Mr. Wong’s response so unexpected was how mundane his outlook was. It did not fit into either familiar narrative on China-Africa; he did not seem like he was there in Kampala to try to exploit locals, but neither did he seem overly enthusiastic about helping them, in the vein of “win-win” cooperation. He just seemed like a person trying to make a living.

The intellectual and policy-oriented narratives that dominate China-Africa debate remain focused on macro-level interactions between governments, corporations, and banks, and quantitative data such as the cost of infrastructure projects and the size of certain loans. While important, this scalar emphasis misses an important part of the story. As Mr. Wong’s words above suggest, something far more complex and embodied is really at work. China’s engagement with Africa and vice versa involves people like Mr. Wong, each with their own motivations, concerns, and goals that are separate from grand narratives of mutual development or exploitation. These people are motivated by more mundane concerns, such as how to make a living for their family. A small but growing body of research reflects a recognition of the need for more fine-grained and qualitative analyses (Driessen 2016; Postel 2017; Huynh 2018; Warmerdam and van Dijk 2016).

This project builds on this kind of work, utilizing a feminist geographic framework to understand China-Africa relations. This means that we recognize that those every-day, intimate and or micro-level interactions, are also vital to pay attention to and cannot be separated from the macro geoeconomic and geopolitical. As such, while traditional political economic analyses tend to examine China-Africa from a purely economic standpoint, a feminist geographic approach accepts that economic and social processes are interconnected and mutually influential. Much can be revealed to us if we examine the geopolitical relations between China and countries in Africa via a “global intimate” lens (Pratt and Rosner 2006), one that includes the experiences of Mr. Wong. Several others before us have already begun these efforts, focusing on small Chinese trading communities in places like South Africa (Huynh, 2018; Deumert and Mabandla, 2013). That this body of work connects with wider feminist moves in economic geography to highlight the importance of researching and valuing subjects, spaces and scales that are usually ignored. In this paper, we do so with a focus on small scale traders in Uganda from China. Here in East Africa, a multitude of new infrastructure projects are underway. Uganda is a significant nation in the China-Africa discussion because it was one of the first nations to declare that it intended to model its own development after that of China (Shen and Taylor 2012). The Chinese community there is also relatively less researched, addressed in only a handful of publications (Warmerdam and van Dijk 2016; Arsene 2019).

Popular western media outlets like The New York Times have reported on several hydroelectric projects in Uganda, including the Isimba and Karuma dam projects. In these, China’s involvement is typically framed as “competition” for American firms, where large international actors “scramble” for the “prize” of infrastructure contracts (Wong 2019). This echoes earlier colonial efforts laid out in the Berlin Conference of 1884 to divide up the resources of the continent for European powers. Yet Ugandan media sources often differ in their narrative. For example, journalists in the Ugandan media outlet The Independent argue that China is a better alternative to institutions such as the World Bank (“Museveni Hails China” 2019).

By examining the everyday social and economic interactions of Chinese traders and entrepreneurs in Kampala, and what spaces they occupy around the city, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the global-intimacies of China-Africa engagement. To do so here, we ask: What is the scope and form of Chinese investment in Uganda? What are some of the main ways that the Chinese state, government and individuals are engaging in the Ugandan economy, and how does this contribute to Chinese soft power? And on a more intimate scale: what are the motivations, concerns and everyday experiences of Chinese individuals on the ground in Kampala?


To answer these questions, Author 1 (Hsiao) undertook three main methods of data gathering. First, secondary work on online trade databases and articles was conducted for economic figures and statistics, particularly to examine specific economic sectors where China is active in Uganda, with additional data drawn from Author 2’s (Faria) dataset of research on economic activity in Kampala. Secondly, I (Hsiao) gathered ethnographic observations, including retail geography mapping techniques and participant observation in public spaces and events over two periods of field research in Kampala. Lastly, I conducted interviews of traders along William Street in Kampala, Uganda. This research occurred in January 2019. The data was analyzed collaboratively by Authors 1 and 2.

Informed by feminist and critical methodologies, our work relies mainly on qualitative data gathered through fieldwork, particularly approaches such as in-depth interviews, participant observation and ethnographic methods. However, what is important in our critical framework is not just how data about a phenomenon is being gathered, analyzed and used; the positionality of the researchers themselves must also be addressed. The ‘position’ of a researcher is made up of many factors, such as their personality, history, identity, and other characteristics. Not only does their position affect their insights into and interpretation of data, but actually affects how the researched subjects respond to the researcher’s presence. In order to address the potential for power imbalances between the researcher and the researched, feminist methodologies advocate for collaboration, where fieldwork is an interactive experience (England, 1994). Being aware of how the position of the researcher affects the discourses present in their work is necessary if we are to move beyond single stories of China-Africa.

In the particular context of interviewing and interacting with Chinese in Africa, the positionality of the researcher is particularly important because of the performative nature of speech (Schmitz, 2018); responses from Chinese will vary given who their audience is, and what they are trying to accomplish with their speech and why. The position of Author 1 as a researcher of mixed ethnic background but fluent in Mandarin contributed to the kinds of data able to be gathered as part of this study, as many subjects expressed interest in her and why she could speak their language, which opened the window to conversation and approaching people for interviews and information. To establish trust and mutual connections, Author 1 would inform the merchants during casual conversation that her paternal grandfather was from Shandong province. The highly informal nature of the conversations meant that it was difficult to get traders to stick to the planned interview questions, as many wanted to turn the conversation back to Author 1’s family background. Author 1’s position as ethnically ambiguous and linguistically flexible also allowed her to collect ethnographic data in Chinese-dominated spaces such as the 2018 Dragonboat Festival celebrations by Lake Victoria in Entebbe, or a Chinese soccer tournament by Lugogo Mall, as well as during her normal everyday excursions throughout the city. Coming across Chinese during casual activities carried out without intending to specifically seek out Chinese, such as eating at a popular brunch spot or visiting a craft market for some trinket shopping, provided valuable information on how Chinese navigate the city. Elaine Ho describes a similar method of data gathering, where her position as a Singaporean with connections to China allowed her to conduct ethnographic work on Chinese migration during her everyday life (Ho, 2019).

Political and Economic ties between China and Uganda

China is involved in a wide range of economic and political activities in Uganda. Primarily these include; infrastructural development, educational training, trade relations and manufacturing. Following the first bilateral treaty between China and Uganda, signed in 2004, there have been a number of other agreements between the two nations (“China- Uganda BIT” 2004). In 2006, Uganda and China signed a series of agreements focusing on economy, trade, agriculture, education, and technology, and in June 2019 the two nations agreed to establish their relationship as a “comprehensive cooperative partnership” (“China, Uganda Sign” 2006; “China-Uganda Lift Ties” 2019). In addition to cooperation between the two on a national government level, the Ugandan government has also begun establishing relationships with individual Chinese provinces. For example, in June 2018, Uganda signed a deal with the government of China’s Hunan Province, focusing on collaboration in the “key sectors” of agriculture, mining, energy (hydro power, solar, and wind energy), tourism, and industrialization (“China’s Hunan Province” 2018).

Figure 1: The Huawei building in Kampala; Huawei is a Chinese multinational tech company that sells consumer electronics as well as works on ICT infrastructure programs (January 2019). Source: Author’s own

One of the most visible areas of Chinese economic activity in Uganda is the realm of infrastructure construction. The importance of infrastructure is also reflected in the focus areas of the previously mentioned agreements between Uganda and China, which place emphasis on collaboration in the realms of energy, agriculture, mining, and technology. Uganda hopes to secure loans from China for the Ugandan section of the Standard Gauge Railway. This is a regional project that will construct a railway line across East Africa from Kenya into multiple cities in Uganda, Rwanda, and even South Sudan, which will dramatically increase access to coastal ports like Mombasa in Kenya (Anyanzwa 2019). Currently, only the Mombasa-Nairobi line is operational, although it is operating in the negative; until the viability and sustainability of the project can be evaluated, China has not yet approved the loans needed for the Ugandan extension of the line (Herbling and Li 2019). Other major planned and completed projects include the expansion of Entebbe International Airport and the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, which opened in June 2018 (Ladu 2015). One of the major players in Ugandan infrastructure projects is China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), who worked on the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway. During travel in Uganda, we found the CCCC operating across the country, including in the Murchison Falls National Park in North-western Uganda (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Author 1 standing next to CCCC construction signs in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda (January 2019). Source: Author’s own.

Another major area of China-Ugandan engagement is through education. Opening its doors in 2014, the Confucius Institute at Makerere University is a Chinese government- backed program. It focuses on cultural exchange and language instruction, offering Chinese language courses to Makerere students and the wider Kampala community (“Services” 2019). Furthermore, a teacher-training program is underway at a private school in Kampala, Luyanzi College Bweyogerere (see Figure 3). This is owned by a Chinese woman, Wang Li Hong Sooma, and her Ugandan husband Ayub Sooma. This program is training Ugandan teachers in Chinese language instruction. It is funded by the Chinese government and supported by resources from the Confucius Institute at Makerere (Byaruhanga 2019). The goal of the program is to increase the presence of Chinese language courses available in Uganda, in order to ultimately aid Ugandan students with accessing international education and business opportunities. As of December 2018, 35 secondary schools will offer Chinese language courses, and Makerere University in Kampala has announced plans to offer a bachelor's program in Chinese language and culture by the year 2019/2020 (Wandera 2018).

Figure 3: Author 1 standing in the courtyard of Luyanzi College, Bweyogerere, decorated with Chinese lanterns. The surrounding classrooms are used for Chinese language lessons funded by the Chinese government (June 2018). Source: Author’s own.

Last, and of particular interest to our project, are China-Uganda trading ties, which are centered in the 2006 agreements signed between the two nations. In 2017, Uganda imported $1.15 billion worth of products from China. Of these imports, 47% are machines such as broadcasting equipment, phones, and semiconductor devices; 9.2% are textiles such as used clothing; 8.4% are chemical products such as pesticides; 7.3% are plastics and rubbers; and 4.9% are footwear and headwear (“What Does China Export” 2017). In turn, only 5.9% of Uganda’s total exports go to China, worth $44.6 million. Products imported from Uganda by China include tanned equine and bovine hides (48% of imports from Uganda), other oily seeds (17%), coffee (6.1%), and scrap plastic (5.2%) (“What Does China Import” 2017). Recently, Chinese companies have ramped up manufacturing in the country. In 2016, the China-Uganda Agricultural Industrial Park opened. This is one of several China-backed industrial parks in Uganda. Another is Tian Tang Industrial Park, which has four factories that work with steel, foam, and wood (Huaxia 2019).

Given the increasing partnerships between China and Uganda, Chinese companies, politicians and individuals have significant and growing influence in the country. However, most of the media coverage and exposure we receive is concerned with specific groups of highly visible Chinese: diplomats, officials, employees of large corporations, and those in the construction business. What about Chinese traders in the city, those that interact with ordinary Ugandans more intimately on a daily basis? Drawing on the work by Nagar et al. on economic geography, we want to refocus on the voices that are most often excluded in economic analysis, such as migrants and those engaged in informal sectors of the economy. Below, we focus on this group of Chinese migrants in Uganda. We ask: where are they located in the city? Who are they, where are they from, and what are their drivers for moving to Uganda? And, lastly, what are their everyday experiences of life like in Uganda?

Locating the Chinese in Kampala: Traders on William Street

The location of Chinese businesses around the city of Kampala can reveal to us a lot about their lives. Are they all concentrated in one space, like a ‘Chinatown’? How can their proximity, or lack of it, to other Chinese businesses impact their relationships with other Chinese, as well as local Ugandans? How accessible are their businesses to local customers?

To answer these questions, Author 1 began by using business permit records to map out Chinese businesses in the city. All businesses operating within Kampala city limits are required to register for business permits with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), so we requested registration records from them. The KCCA does not record the nationality of business owners, so we devised a way to locate at least partial records of registered Chinese-affiliated businesses. Author 1 requested records from the KCCA on businesses registered by individuals with the top ten most common Chinese surnames: Chen (陈), Huang (黄), Lee/Li (李), Liu (刘), Wang (王), Wu (吴), Yang (杨), Zhang (张), Zhao (赵), Zhou (周) (“百 家姓” 2019). Romanization differences resulted in the final list actually consisting of 11 names; “Li” and “Lee” were both included but correspond to the same Chinese surname 李. This initial dataset consisted of 658 results, and included information on the nature of the businesses and their location within Kampala. As these locations were denoted by Kampala city zoning designations, some of them were too vague to pinpoint on the map, such as “A” or “K10”. However, some locations could be identified with general locations on a map, such as “Sixth Street” or “Kampala Road.” Approximate coordinates for these identifiable locations were collected from Google maps, with a final total of 398 businesses able to be plotted on a map. Figure 4 below is not a trader-specific map, and is by no means a comprehensive representation of Chinese businesses throughout the city. But it does tell us some interesting things. There is a concentration of traders on William Street, popularly associated with Chinese economic activity amongst Kampala-residents.

Figure 4 (hover over the points for more details)

Our first map (Figure 4) shows that according to business permit records, there does not appear to be a single area within the city with a concentrated presence of Chinese businesses. However, in practice, tips from locals pointed towards William Street in Kampala as a place where Chinese could easily be found. Located in Nakasero, an area of the city traditionally occupied with trade, William Street is mostly populated by Chinese small-scale traders. A small minority of these stores are retail businesses, but most of them operate as wholesale operations, hence the abundance of large delivery trucks up and down the street, as seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Traffic on William Street, Kampala (2017). Source: Author’s own.

Attempting to carry out GPS-based retail geography mapping using an iPhone, Author 1 walked up and down William Street, dropping a pin on a map to mark the location of every storefront she passed that was obviously identifiable as Chinese-owned, whether by signage or the presence of Chinese behind the store counters. A total of 51 shops were recorded along William Street, with 2 other shops along adjacent streets.

Figure 6: Chinese-staffed stores along William Street in Kampala, Uganda (June 2018). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from the subjects.
Figure 7 “Chinese” places identified based on information from locals in Kampala, Uganda. Types of places include stores (concentrated on William Street), restaurants/hotels, embassy office, and “other” spaces such as grocery stores (June 2018) Hover over the points for more details.

Figure 7 is a map created based on the author’s retail mapping method focusing on William Street as well as other spaces in the city identified as “Chinese” places in conversations and interviews with locals. The “other spaces” on the map include a retail ‘mall’ that houses multiple Chinese businesses, as well as a Chinese supermarket located in a commercial mall complex along with two other major South African supermarkets; these spaces were all identified to the authors by Chinese traders on William Street as spaces where Chinese could easily be found. Centering our research along William Street, we complemented the KCCA research with qualitative data collection. Via interviews we learned that the average Chinese trader on William Street is male, in his twenties or thirties, and predominantly from one of three provinces: Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong (Author 1 field notes, June 2018).

Figure 8: Author 1 interviewing a Chinese trader on William Street. The inventory of the store, mainly bedding and handbags, are clearly visible. (June 2018). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from the subjects.
Figure 9: Chinese shoppers and store staff in a shop along William Street, Kampala. The main inventory of the shop, brightly colored plastic footwear, is clearly visible. (June 2018). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from the subjects.

The majority of the shops along William Street operate as wholesale rather than retail businesses, and they cater to all—rather than focusing on Chinese consumer goods and services alone. For example, the main products sold are shoes, clothing, and bedding (as seen in Figures 8 and 9). And indeed, most stores import their goods from China, although a small minority manufacture their products in local factories in Uganda (Author 1 field notes, June 2018). Beyond these descriptive characteristics though, what is it like to actually live and work in Kampala, from the perspective of these Chinese traders?

Tensions around Chinese traders in Kampala and trader experiences

There are two main ways China is characterized in the debate on China-Africa. On one hand, China is a resource-hungry giant engaged in a new form of colonialism, and on the other hand, it is portrayed as a sincere partner in development (Van Mead 2018). What about on a more micro-scale? The increasing number of small-scale Chinese traders operating in Kampala has led to growing competition and tensions over what one Ugandan shopkeeper referred to as the “importation of importers” (BBC News, 2011). In their paper on Ugandan youths’ perceptions of China, Shen and Taylor describe how views of China will obviously differ case by case, but at the government level and for those directly involved with China in trade, “the Chinese undoubtedly offer a welcome alternative to their Western counterparts”. (2012, 696) However, they point out that among the general public there are anxieties that the Chinese actually pose a threat, such as through economic competition and questionable labor and business practices. In their survey of Ugandan youths, 36.2 percent of respondents reported they worried about Chinese impacts on their own job security due to an increasing number of Chinese workers, and 38.6 percent believed that “Chinese workers have taken away Ugandans’ jobs.” These survey results are limited to youth aged 18 to 30 years old, but these findings suggest a popular distrust of Chinese on the ground. Indeed, in 2011 Ugandan traders in Kampala went on strike for two days to protest about rising costs, many of them pointing to an influx of Chinese traders as the source of the issue. The root of their complaints seemed less rooted in racism, and more related to economic concerns and structural challenges, like lenient regulation of Chinese economic activities. One common accusation was that Chinese were coming to the country as investors, but instead of investing (which would be welcomed), they illegally set up petty trade shops. These claims are backed up by a survey conducted by Seruwagi (2012), which revealed that many Chinese businessmen that were originally licensed as investors had set up shop in the petty trade business instead.

Figure 10 details the number of businesses registered with the KCCA by people with Chinese surnames. Although it is not trader-specific, the rise in Chinese businesses in Kampala is still indicative of an increasingly competitive market. Under these market conditions, the Chinese traders seem increasingly agitated and unhappy with their financial situations.

Within the grouping of “traders” are two subgroups: the business owners and Chinese contract workers. Generally speaking, the workers come to Uganda because they hear about employment opportunities, usually from friends or family. Their main motivation in coming to Uganda is to make money so they can improve their economic conditions back home in China, and they view their time in Uganda as temporary. Because of this, they rarely venture outside of their William Street bubble. The only Ugandans they interact with on a regular basis are their customers. Since their contracts often include room and board, their main social circles consist primarily of only fellow Chinese traders. Many of the contract workers I spoke to share the same slightly more pessimistic outlook of life in Uganda – life there is hard and isolated, particularly because they are so far away from their family and friends. They only put up with these conditions because of the relatively higher pay they receive compared to what they would be making back in China. Their views, that life in Uganda “is not easy,” contrast with Mr. Wong’s views at the beginning of this paper that life in Kampala is “interesting”. This perhaps reflects the differences in position between hired workers and business owners, of which Mr. Wong is one.

When asked why they came to Uganda, business owners echo their workers: they’re here to make money. Some speak of frustrations with local labor, often relying on racist stereotypes in their claims that Ugandans are “lazy” or that they steal from them. These frustrations are similar to those recorded in Warmerdam and Van Dijk’s 2016 survey of Chinese businesses in Kampala, where 27% of respondents identified “workers steal things” as a problem faced by Chinese traders. This argument is used to justify the preference of many Chinese business owners to hire Chinese workers to man their stores and warehouses. However, they show an overall slightly more optimistic outlook about life in Uganda, especially when compared to the views of the Chinese contract workers. This may be due to their greater access to financial and social capital, as these traders generally are wealthier than the contract workers they employ. Generally, the business owners are also able to return to China more often than the contract workers, which may contribute to their greater satisfaction with conditions and life in Kampala (Author 1 field notes, June 2018).

On the Ugandan side, the topic of Chinese traders remains controversial. Although consumers and those employed in Chinese-owned shops benefit from the presence of Chinese traders, protests over foreign traders have broken out in Kampala in 2011 and 2017. One of the main issues behind the tensions over Chinese traders is the often hazy legal definitions between “investor” and “trader” that Chinese businessmen operate under, allowing them to pursue business interests that might not be sanctioned under their particular licenses and visas. Since the Chinese traders can generally access cheaper products sourced from China, the Ugandan shopkeepers struggle to match their low prices, and thus their business has suffered. Furthermore, the tendency of Chinese traders interviewed to root their complaints about local Ugandan labor in racist rhetoric, associating blackness with laziness and ineptitude, contribute to the continued issue of racism and a sense of superiority in the Chinese that make it difficult for Ugandan employees. We need more economic geographic analysis of how racial power operates in this particular context, and within wider China-Africa geoeconomic and geopolitical relations.

As Figure 10 suggests, in recent years it is highly possible that competition between Chinese businesses in Kampala has increased, as the traders claim. According to local Ugandan traders though, their business has also decreased, so there is less competition from Ugandans for these Chinese businesses. It is important to note that increased competition is only one of the complaints of Chinese traders in Kampala. The issue of smaller profit margins needs to be considered in a more holistic view that factors in other complaints of isolation, insecurity and language barriers etc. Within this context, it is possible that in the minds of Chinese traders in Kampala, a combination of these other factors with more business competition could create negative impressions of business there.

Public events Author 1 witnessed suggest that Chinese businesses in Uganda are thriving, and that there are ample social opportunities for the Chinese that are living and working in Kampala. However, interviews with traders tell a different story. Many of the traders spoken to complained of high taxation rates and increased competition from other Chinese that have moved to Uganda in the last four years. This is in contrast to their hopes of making a profit, as promised by the win-win rhetoric so prevalent in Chinese discussion of Africa. Their increasingly lower profit margins are making it difficult to justify the social hardships they endure, including distance from family back in China, feelings of insecurity, and a general lack of sufficient social outlets (Author 1 field notes, June 2018; January 2019).

It was challenging to secure interviews with Chinese corporate employees so unfortunately we do not have much data on their own personal views of their lives and struggles living in Kampala to speak on the matter. This is an interesting area for future work. Author 1 was however able to speak to several women whose husbands work at Chinese corporations while they were enjoying a day of socializing with their children at the Dragon Boat Festival event in Entebbe , 2018. In contrast to the traders on William Street, these women expressed overall positive views about their lives in Kampala. They noted that, generally speaking, they could get most items from home that they needed from Chinese grocery stores, or sold over WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging application. One woman’s youngest child was even born in Kampala. These women spoke of their children attending international schools, Chinese church events for socializing, and weekend Chinese school for their children. They go back to China once a year for vacation, and usually stay for about a month (Author 1 field notes, June 2018). These women seem to have more opportunities for socialization and access to resources than their trader counterparts. The same can be said for the corporate employees that participated in the social events we witnessed, such as the soccer tournament organized by the Chinese Embassy in Kampala. The contrast between the conditions described by these mothers against those of the traders on William Street illustrate how there is a great diversity in individual experiences within the broader Chinese migrant community in Kampala. These differences could be due to a myriad of factors, such as gender, class, education etc. This diversity within the Chinese migrant community in Kampala supports our argument that lumping all Chinese migrants under one label is too simple and ineffective, and results in the loss of important perspectives.

Mitigating Tensions: Social Events and Soft Power

The presence of these traders is not just significant economically, but also has significant social impacts because of their contributions to the image of China in Africa, even if indirectly and unintentionally. The image of China is directly related to the strength of its soft power, which is its power to persuade others without the use of force, relying on economics and culture instead (Li, 2018) These traders interact with Ugandans on an everyday basis, outside of the pomp of official diplomatic engagements. Their attitudes and behaviors contribute to Chinese soft power on the continent, and can help to mitigate some of the tensions surrounding Chinese activities (Liang, 2012). For this reason, we were interested in seeking out Chinese-specific (and not necessarily trader-specific) social events while in Kampala. We wanted to learn about what kinds of opportunities Chinese have to socialize with each other, and how larger gatherings of Chinese are received by local Ugandans.

First was the second annual Dragon Boat Festival held at Lake Victoria in Entebbe in June 2018. Hosted by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the China Africa Friendship Association of Uganda, this event had a high turnout of both Chinese and Ugandans. Several teams lined up on the beach, preparing to compete in the dragon boat race. Some of these teams were formed by representatives from certain companies, such as Huawei. Others were formed by groups such as the Zhejiang Chinese Association of Uganda (Figure 11). This event was entirely open to the public, and there were just as many local Ugandan spectators on the shores of Lake Victoria as Chinese. The event featured speeches from both Ugandan and Chinese officials, musical performances by students of the Confucius Academy, and many others. Food stalls set up by Chinese vendors sold a wide array of entrees, drinks and snacks. Overall, this event seemed equally intended to showcase Chinese culture to local Ugandans as well as provide socialization opportunities with fellow Chinese countrymen.

Figure 11: Chinese participants in a boat race line up on the beach in Entebbe, Uganda. Each team represents a specific provincial association, such as the Zhejiang Chinese Association Uganda and the Taizhou TECNO team pictured here. (July 2018). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from subjects. subjects.

A second event Author 1 attended was a soccer tournament in January 2019 hosted by the Chinese embassy. Unlike the Dragonboat Festival, this event was not open to the public, and the participants and spectators were almost entirely Chinese. There were no trader teams participating in this particular event, but a wholesaler interviewed on William Street told us that he has participated in a similar event hosted by the embassy for basketball. Nevertheless, it was interesting to watch the teams of corporate employees from the Chinese embassy, CCCC, and Huawei, among others, interact with each other. Not only were there both men and women playing on the field (although it was mostly men), there was a decent turnout of supporters there to cheer the players on (Author 1 field notes, January 2019). Overall, it was a much more family-oriented event than we were expecting, and the number of children and families present was surprising. We learned that these events are not just a way for corporate and government employees from China to interact and connect, but also a forum for their families to connect with each other too, addressing some of the isolation and homesickness they may feel. These interactions between the embassy government employees and the corporate groups also suggest that private and state interests are closely connected.

Figure 12: Chinese corporate employees participating in a soccer tournament. Kampala, Uganda (January 2019). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from subjects.

These events serve a dual purpose: they provide opportunities for Chinese to socialize, but also opportunities to display Chinese culture and develop China’s soft power influence over the Ugandan public (see Figure 13) . China’s presence is growing daily, both in subtle and ostentatious ways. These include both the appearance of Chinese writing on advertisements and billboards around town, and large public events where you can see a large number of Ugandans enjoying the festivities and performances. In these “soft” ways, the Chinese are leaving their mark on Kampala.

Figure 13: Ugandan drummers in traditional dress next to traditional Chinese Lion Dance costumes and drums. Entebbe, Uganda (July 2018). Source: Author’s own, taken with permission from subjects.

These large glitzy events can distract us from the daily experiences of life in Kampala. These festivals and celebrations promote the rosy idea that China’s engagement with Uganda is a win-win, as framed by the Chinese government.

This is highlighted, for example, by the presence of buzzwords “Cooperation” and “Friendship” which featured in the names of the organizers of the dragon boat event (the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the China Africa Friendship Association of Uganda). With these words, the Chinese government creates a promise of prosperity in the minds of both Chinese traders and local Ugandans. The win-win argument suggests that China provides capital in the form of large credits and loans, and ties this money to requirements on the use of Chinese machinery and construction contracts. In exchange, the nation it is working with provides access to resources such as minerals or oil. China gains resources it needs to fuel its economy, and its partner gains new infrastructure and access to capital. Theoretically, this win-win type of partnership should also be possible to extend down onto a micro-level, where Chinese traders import affordable products for Ugandan consumers. However, the on-the-ground experiences of Chinese traders in Kampala and their Ugandan counterparts tell a different story.

A binary narrative is not enough: complicating the story of “China in Africa”

An intimate lens on the relationship between China and African countries reveals many interesting details that inform our wider understanding. From this research project in particular, we see that China’s involvement in Uganda comes in many different shapes and forms, from investment and contracts in infrastructure, education and the energy resource sector to trading and cultural exchanges. Chinese at all levels are engaged in these interactions, from government officials and corporate workers all the way down to small-scale individual traders and their employees. What our work suggests is that the current portrayal of Chinese migrants is too simple, at the expense of important nuances and differences in perspective. As shown by the individual experiences of Chinese small- scale traders and the outlook of Chinese women married to corporate employees stationed in Kampala, when examined on an intimate level the experiences of Chinese involved in the broad range of economic activities China conducts in Uganda do not fit comfortably into the black-and-white narrative of China-Africa we are so familiar with, where Chinese activities either constitute exploitation or win-win partnerships.

Recently, on July 23, 2019, the China-Uganda Industrial Capacity Cooperation Exposition took place in Kampala, Uganda. The event focused on how Chinese firms could help speed up the rate of Ugandan industrialization, and involved 43 enterprises from 12 different Chinese provinces (Liangyu, 2019). These events are important to facilitate better partnerships, but in the fanfare it can be easy to focus on numbers in the form of loans and investments, at the expense of more intimate-level interactions that will be impacted by agreements reached at such events. On the macro-level, more than Uganda’s rate of industrial development will be affected by the outcomes of this expo; along with the flow of Chinese money and machinery will come Chinese people working in a variety of fields and capacities, and they will all have different and diverse experiences of the continent. Thus, it is not enough to just focus on the category of “Chinese migrants in Africa”; we need to pay attention to socio-economic and cultural differences within this group. Thus, more research needs to be done on the various groups of Chinese, tailored and targeted to each kind of migrant (trader, laborer, construction workers, service industry, corporate employee etc.). In turn, future work must also attend to the experiences and challenges of Uganda traders who operate in an increasingly neoliberalized economic setting, and one where China has a powerful role. And we must attend to the experiences of Ugandans in China, where they too are fostering socio-economic ties and promoting new forms of economic development. By utilizing a feminist geographic lens in our examination of social and economic processes, we can begin to challenge the binary narrative of “China-Africa”.


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Map Sources

  • Kampala Capital City Authority on businesses registered by person with Chinese surnames
  • Mapbox OpenStreetMap