Supporting Article

Mainland Chinese on the African Continent

For the last 12 years, China’s economy has been growing at more than 9% per year. Fueling this growth is massive urban expansion. China’s urban population is increasing at a rate of 10% per decade. Over the next 20 years, some 360 million people will move from the countryside to cities in China, and by 2015, for the first time in its history, urban residents will outnumber those living in the countryside. Over the next twenty years, China will build 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers, and more than 170 cities will require mass transit systems by 2025. By 2030, China will need an oil supplier the size of Saudi Arabia to meet its demand for energy consumption.2 This growth explains China’s insatiable appetite for raw materials with which to build residential dwellings, office buildings, highways, subways, railways, electronics, appliancesthe list is endless. But where can China find such a vast amount of raw materials to meet the needs of its rapid urban expansion?

Every year, China does $10 billion worth of trade with Africa, and the numbers keep growing. Africa has many of the natural resources that China needs to fuel its economyoil, minerals, water, timber, ore, platinum, cobalt, chromium, diamonds, copper, clay, zinc, silverand land! These are found in practically every country in Africain abundant supply! As a result, it is estimated that 750,000 Chinese have immigrated to Africa to work. In return for the raw materials they need, China is investing heavily in Africa, building roads, highways, bridges, dams, railways, hospitals, schools, office buildingsjust about anything and everythingall across Africa.

This means that Chinese are moving to Africa at the rate of 75,000 per yearengineers, construction workers, miners, doctors, nurses, chefs, restaurant workers, house keepers, security guards, teachers and others. There are 900 China-approved companies in 49 countries, meaning that Chinese inhabit nearly every country on the continent of Africa.

Africa offers these Chinese individuals increased opportunities to start their own businesses and make money. Many do so in restaurants, retail, wholesale, trade, Chinese medicine and merchandise. Back in China, the sheer numbers of small enterprises throughout the country make competition extremely stiff, so success stories from Africa that are making their way back home are stoking the fires of ambition and drawing thousands away from their homeland to try to strike it rich in Africa.3 Over and over the difficulties of getting a business up and running in China with red tape, bureaucracy and competition were heard. By contrast, the opportunities in Africa are boundless and it costs very little to get started.

While it is probably not possible to give completely accurate figures in terms of the numbers of Chinese in various countries across Africa, information collated on the internet has been surprisingly consistent. South Africa has the largest number of Chinese at 350,000almost half the number in all of Africa. Angola and Nigeria follow with estimates from 40,000 or 50,000 to 100,000 with twelve other countries ranging from 10,000 to 40,000.

However, the vast majority of these diaspora Chinese have never heard the Gospel. On the entire continent, there are no more than 12 Chinese churches or fellowships. A variety of factors are responsible for this including language, cultural and educational barriers along with a lack of personnel to reach out to them. In addition, not all Africans are the same. There are marked cultural differences between East and West Africa as well as between Anglophone and Francophone Africa.

South Africa

Of the 350,000 Chinese now living in South Africa, 75% are from mainland China. They come as government contract labor workers, businessmen, and students. Many come from Fujian; however, 50% – 90% of these enter illegally, so they are afraid to talk to people. Nevertheless, they see South Africa as “greener pastures” and so are willing to take the risks and put up with a lot of inconveniences, such as corrupt policemen who stop them and demand bribes. As in other parts of Africa, South Africa is seen as a stepping stone to the West.

With “money as their god,” most of these Chinese have never heard anything of the gospel or of Christianity. Currently, there are only six or seven Chinese churches among these 350,000 Chinese in South Africa. Thus, the need for Christian workers is undeniable. In addition, most Chinese cannot speak English, one of the two official languages of South Africa. However, one Mandarin speaking missionary currently working with Chinese in South Africa, said that, for now, printing and distribution of Chinese Bibles and literature is more easily done in that country.

Other African Countries

Apart from South Africa, in all of East and West Africa there are only five Chinese churches and two Chinese fellowships with just four full-time pastors. Fewer than 200 Chinese are in any kind of church or fellowship at all. In addition to these small congregations, there are some who work with the Chinese community in various ways. The Lord gave two Nigerian Christians a dream about the Chinese and now, with vision and passion, several of them regularly visit Chinatown to encourage those who are Christians and present the Gospel to others. A Mainland Chinese doctor and his wife are ministering in Uganda via clinics. Other Christians in various locations are involved in Bible studies, visitation and literature distribution. In one Nigerian city, literature could be distributed at a construction site without difficulty. In another situation, Chinese shopkeepers were using their business as a means of spreading the Gospel. However, without question, the workers are far too few.

Even fewer are those who actually speak Mandarin; thus, most Africans are unable to communicate with the Chinese. Language barriers present a great challenge.

Those currently engaged in ministry are both men and women from a variety of backgrounds. Some are Africans who have a burden for the increasing number of Chinese they see around them. Other workers are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Western countries and Mainland China. While these may have a desire to reach the Chinese, the varying cultural backgrounds and styles can create difficulties.

A constantly changing population among the Chinese is another factor. The largest church in East and West Africa, found in Nairobi, numbers between 40 and 50 members but has a high turnover rate due to people either returning to China or immigrating to the West. In Addis Ababa, Chinese generally stay for one to three years but not longer. Most definitely plan on returning to China.

In some places, such as Uganda, there is almost no effort being made to reach out to the Chinese. Forty-nine Chinese enterprises have invested close to $62 million in diverse fields ranging from light industries to agricultural goods to construction materials and equipment. An additional ten Chinese companies are involved in road and housing construction for the local population. These have drawn an estimated 20,000 Chinese to the country, most of whom are from China’s countryside. Thus, while the Ugandans have a good attitude towards the Chinese, education and language are major issues preventing outreach to them.


The challenges to ministering to the diaspora Chinese found in Africa will vary by country. However, below are some of those that are faced most frequently.

Language and cultural issues: Language barriers keep Chinese isolated from those in their host country and prevent the African church from reaching out to them. In some cases, not only is language an issue, but since every African country presents a different cultural environment, nationality and leadership styles can also present challenges. In some countries, the attitudes of the people of the host country towards the Chinese present problems.

Time issues: When they first arrive, many tend to work extremely long hours since they have borrowed money to get to Africa and need to pay it off as soon as possible. For others working on contracts, work hours are set by the employer. For example, in one city, where the Chinese are involved in construction, they live in compounds and work 12-hour shifts with no days off.

Accessibility issues: Many of the compounds where the Chinese live do not welcome outsiders. These require creative means to gain access. One missionary, who suggested that the men needed counseling (since they were away from home, family and so on), was given access in this way.

Living conditions: In some countries, living conditions are difficult. There may be water and power cuts; food and living expenses can be high. These create additional stresses.

Education: Many Mainland Chinese are relatively unschooled, not having completed primary education. They are practically illiterate and have great difficulty reading a Bible or Christian literature. With these people, storytelling becomes an important part of ministry.

Length of stay: While some immigrants come to stay, others are in Africa as short-term contract workers. Once their contract is up, they go home. As a result, the Chinese population is constantly shifting.

Documentation: Depending on the country, obtaining visas and work permits may take time and be difficult. There can be a high level of bureaucracy and corruption can be a major challenge. As mentioned above, many come illegally and work “under the radar.”

Nationality of Christian workers: An important issue to be considered in ministering to the Chinese is the worker’s nationality. Depending on the country and its attitude toward various ethnic groups, this may or may not be a major issue. In some countries, relationships can be very complex. Partnerships between the African church, Chinese and Westerners will be important requiring the investment of time and patience.

Ministry model: Varying models of ministry are already being used. Medical personnel, business men and women as well as full-time Christian workers are already present. Different countries may require varying platforms for ministry. Some believe that Business as Mission could be the most appropriate model; others desire full-time and short-term workers, and still others think that local volunteers would provide the best approach.


Without doubt, the current Chinese diaspora in Africa provides an open door for reaching Chinese men, women and families with the Gospel. However, at present, ministry among them is in its infancy. Remote working conditions, language barriers, and the lack of missionaries to them mean that very few have access to the Gospel. If the African church is to reach the Chinese around them, they will need helphelp learning the language, help understanding Chinese culture and worldview, and help understanding the best way to reach the hearts of the Chinese. In addition, it would seem that both Chinese and non-Chinese missionaries would be a valuable resource, and partnerships would be essential.

1Unless otherwise noted, the information in this article has been taken from “China and The African Continent,” and “Africa Trip Report (Kenya and West Africa)” by Sydney Witbooi, both unpublished documents of OMF that report on exploratory trips made in 2010 looking at Chinese migrants in Africa.


3On this trip, we were told that many wealthy Chinese in Africa are returning to China to build new, large houses or business buildings for themselves or for their relatives. As neighbors see these buildings go up, they are deciding to go to Africa themselves in the hope of also cashing in on opportunities.

Image Credit: 20140111-DSC_8026 by jbdodane, on Flickr

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Paul Pruitt

Paul Pruitt s a director at an agency that serves among the Chinese diaspora. For further information, contact Paul at Full Bio