How did they get there? A history of Chinese migrants in Lesotho.

Google Earth, 2008

Google Earth, 2008

Google Earth, 2008

Google Earth, 2008

Known for the stark beauty of its soaring mountains but also for its poverty and remoteness, Lesotho appears at first glance to have little to offer to Chinese migrants seeking their fortunes in Southern Africa. And yet, somehow even in this small landlocked country with virtually no natural resources other than water and modest deposits of diamonds, Chinese migrants can be found in every district. In some areas they can be found in every village, even in those without access to electricity or running water. These are the intrepid traders from China’s Fujian province, who against all odds can be found running shops in the most remote parts of the country. The obvious question is “how did they get there?”

The recent influx of Fujianese migrants to Lesotho is by no means an isolated instance of transnational mobility. It would be impossible to write a history of Mainland Chinese migration to Lesotho without referring to earlier flows of ‘pioneer migrants’ from Taiwan and Shanghai. In her study of Chinese communities in Zanzibar, Hsu identifies three distinct groups of Chinese on the island: government-sent teams, business people and an established community of overseas Chinese[1]. Three similar communities can be found in Lesotho, each representing a different wave of Chinese migration.

The first Chinese community to settle in Lesotho arrived from Taiwan in the early 70s, during a period of warm diplomatic relations between Taipei and the newly independent right-wing government of Lesotho. Taiwan’s strategy of befriending young African nations at this time was part of its goal to win international support for its independence from the Mainland, which, by contrast, was in self-imposed diplomatic isolation. In addition to establishing relations with Lesotho following Lesotho’s independence from Britain in 1966, Taiwan actively built bridges with the apartheid regime in neighbouring South Africa, which – due to its pariah status – was equally eager to gain foreign political allies.

South Africa and Lesotho were early recipients of development assistance in the form of medical and agricultural teams sent by the Taiwan government. In most cases, the experts dispatched to Lesotho returned to Taiwan as soon as their mandated terms had elapsed, but a significant number stayed on in Lesotho to take advantage of perceived openings for business in the local economy. These early arrivals were pioneers in establishing informal supply chains between Lesotho and the Far East. Their model has been copied and modified by successive waves of Shanghainese and Fujianese migrants[2]. Today there are few Taiwanese left in Lesotho who date back to the era of Taiwan’s aid diplomacy. The majority have either returned home or have moved on to destinations in Western Europe or North America.

The few remaining Taiwanese I spoke to in Lesotho were the first ‘Chinese’ traders to establish themselves in the local retail sector, alongside existing Indian merchants who had, in turn, partly displaced Western traders as the country’s main vendors of groceries and imported manufactured goods. The Taiwanese proved to be highly successful in business, quickly increasing their market share and even establishing their own Chamber of Commerce. Today there are fewer than 20 retail businesses in Lesotho owned by Taiwanese merchants. Those who have remained in Lesotho are the owners of large and successful wholesalers selling building materials, spare car parts and other manufactured goods sourced from Taiwan and Mainland China, either from importers based in South Africa or directly from suppliers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taiwan.

The decline of Lesotho’s Taiwanese community was foreshadowed by a diplomatic caesura that saw Maseru establish relations with Beijing in April 1983, following a visit by the Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan to the Chinese Mainland in the same year. Jonathan’s decision to embrace Beijing was concordant with the prevailing government ideology of the time, which called for a move away from Taipei and its association with the apartheid regime in South Africa. However, this was only the beginning of a period of yo-yo relations between Maseru and the two Chinas.

The crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the accompanying anti-China mood amongst China’s foreign partners gave Taiwan the opportunity it needed to reinvigorate its ‘checkbook diplomacy’ to gain friends in Africa.[3] Following the military coup in Lesotho in 1986, the new government in Maseru swung back in April 1990, renewing ties with a munificent Taipei. The final twist came in 1993 with the election of the Basotholand Congress Party in Maseru, which restored relations with Beijing in January 1994.

As in the case of its earlier relationship with Taiwan, Lesotho’s political orientation during the late 80s and early 90s had a direct impact on migratory flows to the country. Beijing, like Taiwan before it, was keen to express its solidarity with African nations through technical assistance. As elsewhere in Africa, these projects helped initiate the earliest flows of migration to Lesotho from Mainland China. These ‘pioneer migrants’ were often members of teams of technical and medical experts sent as part of Chinese development assistance.[4]

With branches in every Chinese province and at prefecture level, the Foreign Economic Liaison Ministry was responsible for organising and managing these overseas aid projects and played a crucial role in determining early migratory trajectories.[5] Workers would be recruited in China by prefectural branches and then dispatched overseas to work on China’s aid projects, thus creating ‘agent chains’ which strongly resemble the structure of today’s commercialised labour migration chains. In most cases, members of these teams returned to China at the end of their contracted posting, but some found ways of remaining in Africa after their work was done. By far the most important contributor to the dramatic increase in Chinese migration to Lesotho in the 90s was the relaxation of China’s emigration policy from 1978 onwards[6] when, following nearly three decades of government-imposed isolation, China once again opened its doors to the outside world.

Concurrent with the growth in numbers of arrivals to Lesotho from Mainland China was the decline in the number of Taiwanese living in the country. This was due in part to changes in Lesotho’s political orientation but also, importantly, to Taiwan’s rapid economic development, which began increasingly to provide incentives for settled Taiwanese in Lesotho to return home.

By the early 90s, the majority of Taiwanese remaining in Lesotho were involved in the country’s export-oriented textiles industry. During the late 80s, Lesotho’s government actively courted foreign investors in an attempt to draw more international businesses to the country. Textiles was one industry identified as a strategic growth area by the Lesotho government, with the Lesotho National Development Corporation, a government subsidiary, offering free utilities and pre-built factory shells to foreign investors in the garment sector.

At the same time, Lesotho was becoming an attractive destination for garment manufacturers because of its exemption from the Multi-Fibre Agreement, which from 1974 to 2004 enforced quotas limiting imports from developing countries to the U.S. and to Europe, except from those developing countries granted preferential access to these economies. Lesotho’s attractiveness to foreign investors improved yet further after 2000 with the passing of the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) in Washington, which significantly enhances US market access for a number of Sub-Saharan African countries Under these conditions, many Taiwanese and some Mainland investors undertook to move their assembly operations to Lesotho, so as to circumvent the quotas placed on garment exports from Taiwan and China.

Following nearly a decade of increased East Asian immigration into Lesotho (mostly Taiwanese) led by opportunities in the garment sector, local sentiment towards foreigners began to turn sour in the late 80s, as more and more Basotho began to express discontent with the foreigners’ perceived takeover of the country’s domestic retail market. Xenophobic sentiment boiled over in 1991 when a local woman was accused of shoplifting and beaten to death by a shop guard in a South African owned store. This event sparked a series of riots and attacks on foreign owned businesses, accompanied by widespread looting. Workers in the Taiwanese owned factories organised and participated in strikes against their managers, accusing the government of prioritising foreign investment at the expense of local welfare. This provoked an exodus of Taiwanese manufacturers, many of whom, given the mobile nature of the textiles industry, moved their operations across the border into South Africa or to Southeast Asia.

In the wake of the 1991 unrest, Taiwanese factory owners and traders in Lesotho increasingly found themselves in need of new managers and administrators to help run their businesses. In most cases, bosses were reluctant to employ local Basotho, either because they were not qualified or not trusted as employees. The shortage of Mandarin-speaking administrative staff was compounded by the fact that, owing to Taiwan’s economic takeoff, proprietors could no longer offer attractive salaries to tempt skilled labour from Taiwan. This scarcity of cheap Chinese labour prompted the Taiwanese to begin recruiting skilled labour from the Chinese Mainland.

The first to take advantage of these vacancies were skilled workers from Shanghai. The majority were recruited through private labour agencies in Shanghai to fill positions in garment factories owned by Taiwanese and Shanghainese multinationals. I met one of these early migrants in Maseru, a Shanghainese medical expert by the name of Dr. Huang.

Dr. Huang was invited to Maseru in 1988 by the owners of the Shanghainese ‘Bright Garment’ plant, to investigate a mysterious sickness that had afflicted their workers. Having identified the disease as hepatitis and having served his term at ‘Bright Garment’, Dr. Huang chose to stay on in Lesotho, establishing his own practice in a shopping mall in Maseru. The majority of the Shanghainese I met in Lesotho had similar stories to tell. Although mostly recruited on short-term contracts to work in Taiwanese owned factories, many – like Dr. Huang – chose to stay on in Lesotho, buying up shops and small businesses that had originally been owned by Taiwanese proprietors.

Nowadays, there are few Shanghai Chinese in Lesotho who hark back to that era. My respondents explained to me that most moved on two to three years ago because they felt that doing business in Lesotho had become too difficult. Some complained that the 2008 economic crisis had severely diminished the purchasing power of local consumers and increased commodity prices, thus limiting the profitability of sales of goods imported from China. Others felt that they could no longer compete in a market that had become crowded by Fujianese competitors willing to operate under increasingly slim profit margins. Of those who remain, the majority are involved in running clothing outlets, selling low-end garments sourced directly from Shanghai or from Chinese wholesalers in Johannesburg and Durban.

To answer the question of how successive groups of Chinese migrants have ended up halfway across the world running shops in Lesotho’s mountains, one needs to consider Lesotho’s economic situation and national policies in relation to those of Taiwan and Mainland China over the last forty years.  The impact of national policies on the volume of migratory flows at different points in Lesotho’s history attests to the continued importance of the nation state as a determinant of transnational mobility, even in a globalised world. However, periphery-to-periphery migration through non-governmental channels – as seen in the case of Chinese migrants to Lesotho – can only be sustained when the sending area occupies a relatively marginalised place in the global economy, as was the case of Taiwan until the 1970s and Shanghai until the 1990s. This contingency contributes to the unsustainability of migratory cycles. As soon as conditions improve at home, Chinese migrants are likely to leave, creating a vacuum to be filled by migrants from elsewhere in the global periphery.

In my next blog article, I will be looking in depth at the latest wave of Chinese migration to Lesotho from Fujian province. I will be searching for the reasons why Fujianese migrants leave home and, of all places, choose to settle in Lesotho. I will also be asking how they manage to make a living in parts of Lesotho where no local or foreigner has ever thought to set up a business. By answering these questions, I hope to share some of the unreported stories that characterise the most important facet of China’s engagement with Africa: the interactions between Chinese migrants and local Africans.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –


[1] Hsu, E. (2007). Zanzibar and its Chinese Communities. Population, Space and Place , 13 (2), 113-124.

[2] The specifics of the Fujianese model will be discussed in a blog post at a later date.

[3] Bräutigam, D. (2008). China’s African Aid Transatlantic Challenges. Washington: The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

[4] He, X. (1994). 国际劳务合作事务. Beijing: Beijing Industrial University Press.

[5] Xiang, B. (2009). Outmigration and Human Trafficking. In D. Pong (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Modern China (Vol. 2, pp. 420-423). New York: Charles Scribner‟s Sons.

[6] Pieke, F. (2007). Editorial Introduction: Community and Identity in the New Chinese Migration Order. Population, Space and Place , 13 (2), 81-89.

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