Chinese South Africans respond as One China Policy gets politicized

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are not the only politicians who have recently courted controversy by taunting China. In South Africa, the mayor of Tshwane (a metropolitan area which also includes capital city Pretoria), Solly Msimanga, drew strong criticism in his home country when visiting Taipei in late December last year. His visit highlighted how the One China Policy has become a divisive issue in South African politics in recent times. The controversial trip was, moreover, notable for drawing out the Chinese migrant population, as a maturing migrant community shows it is able and willing to shape and participate in South Africa’s political debate.


Though Msimanga’s visit was on his own accord and not funded by taxpayers’ money, it was clearly politically motivated. Msimanga is an opposition mayor, member of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, and his trip and meeting with Taipei’s mayor was meant to challenge the African National Congress (ANC)-led government. The DA and ANC have been at odds for some time over the issue of influence wielded by foreign power China. As one observer noted, “last year, the DA challenged the Zuma government over a cyber-security pact with the Chinese and this visit to Taipei must be seen as part of that broader DA agenda to continue to pressure Zuma over China.”

The reaction of the ANC government to Msimanga’s trip was predictable, calling the visit “highly regrettable” and stressing its strong and continued commitment to the One China Policy. While the debate on the Taipei visit highlighted the cracks in the political scene following the ANC’s defeat in cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg in the past election round, it is unlikely to change anything in South Africa’s One China policy.

The current politicization of the One China Policy in South African politics is interesting to witness though. After former President Mandela’s surprising announcement in November 1996 of his intention to stop recognizing Taiwan as a state, this foreign policy approach has not really been challenged since.

The government and ANC have signaled their intention, therefore, to prevent getting embarrassed by an event like this again. ANC party officials raised calls on the Foreign Ministry to “confiscate all official and diplomatic passports” from officials who try to undermine South Africa’s foreign policy. And President Zuma will look for ways to hold local governments on a stronger leash on the issue of foreign policy coordination.

Another, perhaps more interesting aspect of this political bout was the expression of discontent and political engagement shown by the Chinese community living in South Africa. Usually Chinese South Africans simply wait for official statements released by the Chinese embassy in South Africa, or contain their criticism to closed-off WeChat groups. But now a group of Chinese South African individuals, not state actors, penned an open letter to the office of the Democratic Alliance, decrying the mayor’s trip and the justification offered afterwards by the DA.

The Democratic Alliance had argued Msimanga was allowed as mayor to explore opportunities of trade and investment. According to a statement, “neither the ANC nor the national government it runs can dictate who DA mayors meet with in order to obtain job-creating investment.” The DA, moreover, stressed the status of Taiwan as South Africa’s second largest Asian investor with “R14 billion worth of investments and trade between the two countries totalling [sic] R22 billion.”

The Chinese authors of the letter disagreed with the DA. Speaking on behalf of dozens Chinese associations scattered throughout Africa, they disparaged the claims of trade and job creation, pointing out that China’s trade with and value of investments in South Africa exceeds Taiwan’s by hundreds of billions of rands annually. They slammed Thswane’s mayor for having shown “no concern that the China-Taiwan split should be brought to an end,” and warned the visit “creates troubles for all friendly co-operation between China and South Africa.” A formal apology was demanded from Msimanga, as well as a promise from the Democratic Alliance that no such trip would take place in the future.

While speaking on behalf of the Chinese living in South Africa, the petitioners almost certainly did not represent the entire Chinese migrant community in the country. There are currently an estimated 300,000 Chinese living in South Africa (with some estimates even putting the number as high as 500,000), making it the largest group of overseas Chinese in Africa. This background article by the Migration Policy Institute does an excellent job at outlining the history and complexities of this significant group of migrants. Suffice it to say, the ‘Chinese South Africans’ are far from a homogeneous entity, divided along linguistic, religious, and ‘different citizenship status’ lines.

Moreover, they have been a largely invisible and quiet minority in South Africa. Having suffered severe discriminatory treatment during the Apartheid era, the Pretoria High Court ruled in 2008 that ethnic Chinese South Africans had to be classified as well as “colored,” so they could also enjoy the benefits resulting from preferential treatment aimed at ending white domination in the private sector.

Due to poor reporting from large media agencies like the BBC, the court decision sparked controversy, as South Africans were not informed well about the number of Chinese South Africans who would actually be classified as colored ( in fact the ruling only applied to Chinese South Africans and other Taiwanese/Chinese immigrants who had become citizens prior to 1994, likely less than 20,000 people in total).

Though ill-conceived, the upheaval did underline how the ‘invisible’ character of Chinese South Africans in South African society has changed. This has mainly been the result of the new wave of Chinese immigrants entering the country after the first democratic elections in 1994 and Pretoria’s formal adoption of the One China Policy in 1998. The size of the Chinese South African population has increased considerably since then, and Chinese businesses have penetrated even the remotest areas in South Africa.

After having lost its invisibility in society, this considerable (though heterogeneous) community of Chinese South Africans now also seems to have assumed a voice in the public sphere. While the open letter to the DA was not supported by the entire community, it still remains highly significant. The decision of Chinese South Africans to insert themselves into the political debate is, as one observer notes:

“[..] a statement about a maturing migrant population that understands what power it can wield.”

As an increasing amount of Chinese migrants in African countries decides to stay, African politicians will have to listen and cater to the needs and wants of this group of (future) tax payers and voters. And Chinese migrants can be expected to get a voice in African politics. In the case of South Africa, for example, there has been a clear alignment between Chinese migrants and the ANC (due to the strong party-to-party relations between the ANC and the Communist Party of China).

One of the coordinators of the open letter to the DA was Simon Shi, a Chinese businessman who moved to South Africa in the 1990s and is the current head of the Shanghai Business Association in South Africa. When commenting on his decision to compose the letter, Shi said, “On this issue the Chinese had to stand up and stop hiding because the reunification issue of Taiwan and China is an old pain that has been used by the DA to hurt the Chinese.”

As the issue of Taiwan has become more politicized in South Africa, it seems to have kick started political engagement among Chinese migrants. It will be fascinating to see how this trend continues to develop in South African society, and begs the question if and when other Chinese communities in African countries will become more assertive and out-spoken in the public debate. (Though not everyone seems to appreciate Chinese migrants in South Africa voicing their opinions on foreign policy.)


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