It is winter in the mountains. After many arduous hours of travel along ice-covered dirt roads you step out of your 4×4 to survey the landscape. The biting wind stings your face and you squint against the glare. Before you stretches a mountainous landscape entirely blanketed by snow. On every side of the treacherous winding road where you now stand, white peaks raise their majestic crowns against a blue, cloudless sky. You have stopped here because this is the last point for some distance where you can stock up on supplies. Behind you, on the side of the road, is a ramshackle store with a Chinese sign and a dog scratching itself in the doorway. This is one of many such stores you have passed on your journey. You wonder at how these Chinese traders manage to survive in such a bleak and remote landscape, eking out a living in mountain villages without access to electricity or running water. Still, you are grateful that the store is here. At least you will be able to replenish your provisions before continuing on your journey. You smile. “This could almost be Tibet”, you think to yourself. But this isn’t Tibet. This is Africa. This is Lesotho.
For many Western readers, the idea of snow in Africa will come as a surprise. Perhaps more surprising still is the presence of Chinese traders in what are undoubtedly some of Africa’s remotest and least-hospitable backwaters. And yet, the Chinese are everywhere in Lesotho, running small-scale trading businesses selling basic groceries, cheap clothing and manufactured goods and cooking gas. These traders are part of the latest wave of Chinese migration to Lesotho. They come from the coastal province of Fujian, a region of China with a long history of outmigration. Their reasons for emigrating and the keys to their success in Lesotho are one of the most surprising chapters in the story of China’s engagement with Africa.
Fujian has been a province of strong outmigration since the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and descendants of Fujianese communities can be found throughout South-East Asia and much further afield. It has been argued that most Fujianese are involved in migration to a certain degree, if not as migrants, then as recipients of migrants’ remittances. Indeed, the culture of migration is so strong in Fujian that some migration scholars have argued that it ‘prepares all able-bodied men and women for their eventual departure.’
Hemmed in by mountains on three sides and facing the Taiwan Strait to the Southeast, Fujian is relatively isolated from the rest of China. It has traditionally been poor compared to other coastal provinces, with only 10% of its land suitable for farming due to difficult topography. In this sense, it resembles Lesotho, providing us with some clues about Fujianese migrants’ success in the African kingdom. After decades as an intentionally underdeveloped buffer zone against neighbouring Taiwan, Fujian was re-designated as a key region for economic development, with outmigration as a key economic development strategy, and by 2007 the Ministry of Labour and Social Security had licensed more than 300, mostly private, labour migration agents, granting them the power to send Chinese labourers abroad. In this way, Fujian quickly became a major centre of Chinese outmigration.
Fujianese migrants began to arrive in Lesotho in significant numbers between 1998 and 2000. Like earlier flows of Chinese labour to Lesotho, Fujianese migration to Lesotho was catalysed by developments in China’s economy, particularly the emergence of Shanghai as a new centre of global commerce. As a result of increased prosperity in parts of China’s coastal regions towards the end of the 90s, Taiwanese and Shanghainese factory owners began to find it increasingly difficult to entice cheap labour from Shanghai, causing them to turn to Fujian in search of more willing migrants.
Although these early migrants entered Lesotho by legitimate means, the same cannot be said for many of the Fujianese traders who arrived in their wake. Given the clandestine routes taken by many to enter and remain in Lesotho, there are no reliable figures for the total number of Chinese immigrants living in Lesotho at present. One government census taker described arriving at Fujianese businesses just in time to see a truck full of Chinese workers driving out of the gate to avoid being counted. These census-duckers exist outside the legal framework of residence and taxation and constitute a significant proportion of the resident Chinese population in Lesotho.
When asked what attracted them to Lesotho in the first place, many local Fujianese replied that they had come to Africa to be with their families. Many young migrants said they felt compelled to leave Fujian to help their families in Lesotho to run existing businesses or to expand existing operations. They pointed out that Lesotho’s lax border controls and weak regulation made it relatively easy to enter the country and (legally or illegally) obtain leave to remain, compared to neighbouring South Africa. Lastly, nearly all the Fujianese I spoke to believed that there was easy money to be made in Lesotho and admitted that conditions for business were more favourable in the mountain kingdom than at home in Fujian.
In my discussions with migrants from Fujian, I was interested to discover what they knew about Lesotho prior to their arrival. Interestingly, none of my respondents had even heard of Lesotho outside the context of their own migration but were willing to make the journey to Southern Africa based solely on fragmented information provided by family members or Chinese employers. While the older migrants I spoke to generally felt they had made the right choice in moving to Lesotho, many of the younger migrants were less enthusiastic, stating openly that they would return to Fujian if they could. To these young migrants, China’s rapid economic development presents new and exciting life opportunities beyond those available in Lesotho.
The means by which Fujianese migrants reach Lesotho proved to be a highly sensitive issue in all discussions with locally resident Chinese. Only after much cajoling was I able to ascertain that the most popular routes to Lesotho involve travelling by plane from Fuqing to Fuzhou or Hong Kong and then on to Johannesburg and Maseru. These journeys are often mediated by people-traffickers, known as ‘snakeheads’ (蛇头). It is common for migrants to borrow from their families to make an advance payment of 10% to these agents before leaving China, with a further payment on departure (or en route) with the balance paid after arrival at the final destination. Migration in this way is an extremely risky investment, not only because of the risk of death or injury en route but also because there is no guarantee that the migrant will be able to repay the money invested in them by their extended family. If a migrant fails to succeed in one place, they will often choose to try their luck in a different place, rather than facing humiliation at home in Fujian.
The Chinese embassy in Lesotho has done next to nothing to facilitate Fujianese migration to the country, preferring instead to dissociate itself from the burgeoning population of Fujianese traders. Rather, the success of these traders has depended on commercial networks, often organised around groups such as the Fuqing Association (福清同乡会) and the Association of Chinese Enterprises (中资商会). New Fujianese arrivals to Lesotho can approach these economic ‘societies’ and request to borrow money to open a shop in Lesotho.
Funds are provided by established members of the society and are borrowed at high interest. Fujianese traders in Lesotho are very guarded about the internal structure of these organisations but it is clear that new arrivals must work very hard to pay back these high interest loans over periods of several years. It would appear that these business organisations also play a regulatory role in managing competition within the Chinese retail sector. For instance, I was told that in the Maseru area there is an unwritten understanding that Chinese-owned shops should be no less than 200m apart. Regulations such as these are presumably intended to prevent the crowding out of the Chinese retail sector.
Chinese businesses in Lesotho are also affected by regulation from the Lesotho government, which has sought to uphold a policy making it illegal for foreigners to own businesses of less than 1000m2. Unsurprisingly, this ban on foreign ownership of small retail businesses has been comprehensively circumvented by Fujianese traders. This is done by paying a local Mosotho to register the business under their name, while the day-to-day running of the shop is left to the Fujianese merchant, who is the de facto owner. In the event that the authorities should appear to question the legitimacy of the outfit, the local ‘owner’ can be summoned to vouch for his Chinese ‘staff’.
The fact that the Fujianese have pushed the boundaries of the retail sector right into Lesotho’s highlands suggests that economic migration to the country is driven by a centrifugal force that pushes new arrivals away from areas where a strong Fujianese presence already exists. This is because the Fujianese model relies on total monopoly over tiny village markets. The Fujianese in Lesotho have specialised in driving out local competitors and establishing small regimes of hegemony in remote areas. Thus, new arrivals have no choice but to leave behind the saturated markets of Lesotho’s urban centres in search of opportunities at the margins.
Having been advised by established traders to survey a given village in the mountains, new arrivals from Fujian will typically use local Basotho to collect data on the existing shops in the local area. These ‘market analysts’ will supply the new entrants with information about competitors’ prices and business strategies. Armed with this information, new entrants will approach an existing business association or informal network of retailers with a proposal to start a new business and a request to borrow money to launch the new venture. In this way, peers will subsidise the new entrant until they are able to capture the market.
Group-purchase strategies allow the Fujianese to buy their wares in bulk from local wholesalers and thus undersell local competitors. While food and drink are usually sourced directly from the producers in Lesotho or South Africa, manufactured goods, such as toys and clothing, are typically sourced from consortia based in Johannesburg and Durban who import them directly from China. Group buying allows Fujianese traders in Lesotho to negotiate sizeable discounts at the time of purchase. Goods are then transported collectively and stored on site for long periods of time, further cutting costs and allowing the traders to easily undersell local competitors
Fujianese traders, supported by capital borrowed from a local Chinese association, will operate at a loss until the local competitor has been driven out of the market. Success is virtually guaranteed, since the Fujianese have access to goods and capital that cannot be matched by individual Basotho traders. Fujianese traders in Lesotho often work on extremely slim profit margins, living on the premises of their shops and keeping all their earnings on site, rather than depositing them in a bank, so to avoid incurring additional expenses. Once a monopoly has been achieved, the Fujianese trader, sometimes operating at two sites in the same tiny village, can increase their prices and begin to pay back the money loaned to them by their peers.
In this way, Fujianese traders have been able to mobilise local networks, sometimes transplanted from Fujian, in order to established a retail hegemony in Lesotho, penetrating corners of the country previously unreached by either local or foreign businesses. They have transformed the domestic retail sector, creating new supply chains and providing retail services in the remotest corners of the country. Their presence in Lesotho’s snow-covered mountain landscape lends credence to the Chinese maxim “有太阳的地方都可以看到福建人” – wherever the sun shines, Fujianese can be found.
– Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –
 Pieke, F., Nyíri, P., Thunø, M., & Ceccagno, A. (2004). Transnational Chinese: Fujianese Migrants in Europe. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pg 194.
 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, pg 421.