The Fujian Way: How One Chinese Region Became a Dominant Force in Africa
ALGIERS, Algeria — In a cramped office at the back of a small grocery store, Li Lin is trying to plan the construction of his first African factory.
The 30-year-old has no idea yet what the factory will make, or where it will be located. Maybe in Algeria, where he has been living for over a decade. Or perhaps 2,000 kilometers away in Guinea, where some of his relatives have settled.
All Li knows is that he needs to move into factories: It’s what practically every Chinese entrepreneur he knows in Africa is doing these days, he says.
“This is the end of the small trading business and the rise of industry,” Li, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, tells Sixth Tone. “It has always been the survival of the fittest.”
Li is part of a group that has played a little-known, but crucial role in driving Chinese investment in Africa since the turn of the century: the Fujian diaspora.
China’s growing presence in Africa is often associated with huge, state-led projects to build stadiums, railways, or telecommunications networks. But that is only part of the picture. The majority of Chinese investment on the continent — over 70% in 2021 — now comes from the private sector. And much of that is small-scale: driven by scrappy, tight-knit networks of businesspeople bonded by clan or regional ties.
The Fujian diaspora is one of the main players. A coastal province in China’s southeast, Fujian has long been famous for its hard-bitten seafarers and merchants. As China emerged as the world’s factory in the late 20th century, traders from the region began fanning out all over the world to seek their fortunes.
The first Fujianese arrived in Algeria in the 1990s, and they have been a fixture here ever since. In Algiers, they set up textile shops, built villas, and opened stores to serve the Chinese construction crews arriving to work on a wave of new infrastructure projects.
Over the following years, they rode out ethnic clashes, growing local competition, and the COVID-19 pandemic. They clung on even as China’s infrastructure investment declined through the 2010s, and other Chinese entrepreneurs began to leave.
This persistence has paid off. Today, the Fujian diaspora wields growing influence across the African continent. In some countries, including South Africa, Fujianese now make up over one-third of the Chinese community. They run their own business associations and news websites.
Meanwhile, their business ventures have grown more ambitious, with entrepreneurs like Li increasingly moving from trading into manufacturing. It’s unclear exactly how many Fujian-owned factories have opened in Africa over the past few years, but members of the diaspora community say it’s a major trend.
Of the few hundred Fujianese living in Algiers, Li estimates that around 30 have set up factories producing everything from shoes to water pipes. Others say the number is significantly higher. The same thing is happening in other countries, including Guinea and Ghana, they add.
Getting these factories off the ground is a huge challenge. Competition — from both locals and other Chinese entrepreneurs — is often vicious. The political winds can be treacherous. But the community is convinced that there are vast profits to be made in Africa’s manufacturing sector — and they are determined to get there first.
“The greater the storm, the more expensive the fish,” Li says.
Building an Algerian Chinatown
No one is sure how or why the first Fujianese came to Algeria, but most Chinese expats in the country agree it was during the 1990s. Traders from the province were trying their luck everywhere in those days, they say.
The man, legend has it, arrived in Algiers carrying nothing but a sack of made-in-China tablecloths. He hauled them into the city center, and began hawking them on the street. To his delight, they sold out within hours.
He flew back to China, then returned to Algeria with another load of fabric. The same thing happened again. After a few more trips, he’d made enough money to build a luxury villa back in his Chinese hometown — and that’s when word got out in the local area about the opportunities available in North Africa.
The man’s friends and relatives began bringing their own textiles to Algiers, too. This included Li’s uncles, who focused on selling curtains. The community clustered in a suburb of Algiers called Bab Ezzouar — a jumble of newly built concrete buildings several kilometers east of the city center.
This is how business in Fujian often works. It’s a family affair: one person leaves, finds a place where business is good, then sends for their relatives to join them. To this day, at least one-tenth of the Chinese population in Algeria comes from Li’s small hometown — an obscure prefecture-level city named Fuqing — and most of them are all from the same four families, Li says.
By 2008, Bab Ezzouar was known locally as Chinatown, and had become one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Algiers. Fujianese ran around 50 textile shops in the area, but there were also traders from Zhejiang province and tens of thousands of construction workers from all over China.
Algeria at that time was embarking on a massive construction boom, and Chinese lenders and construction groups were playing a key role in fueling it. Workers were sent from China to construct apartment complexes, shopping malls, and the East-West Highway crossing Algeria’s Mediterranean coastline.
This was a golden period for Algeria’s Chinese community, which then numbered around 50,000. Most Fujianese focused on selling textiles to locals, but some also ran restaurants catering to other Chinese expats. Lu Rong, a former construction manager, recalls that it was hard to get a table at a Chinese restaurant in Bab Ezzouar during that period.
But soon after, the community’s fortunes began to turn. Over the following years, problem after problem would emerge, causing a large number of Chinese to leave North Africa. These challenges, however, would end up laying the groundwork for a second, more ambitious wave of development in Chinatown.
The first crisis was a breakdown in relations with the local Algerian community.
Initially, the Chinese had been warmly welcomed in Algiers. China and Algeria have had close relations for decades: In 1958, China became the first non-Arab country to recognize the Algerian provisional government as it fought to gain independence from France. Later, Algeria played an important role in helping China gain a seat at the United Nations.
In the early 2000s, Algerian taxi drivers would give Chinese expats rides free of charge, long-term Chinatown residents recall. If thieves were active in Bab Ezzouar, landlords would help their Chinese tenants protect their property.
But that abruptly changed in 2009. There are conflicting accounts about exactly how it started, but one rainy Friday night a fight broke out between a local Algerian and a Chinese resident in Bab Ezzouar. Things quickly escalated.
Over the following days, Chinatown descended into chaos, as clashes involving dozens of locals and Chinese raged. At least 10 injuries were reported, some severe. Many Chinese-owned businesses were smashed up and looted.
Li’s uncles recall taking refuge in their apartment above their textile shop, while a group of rioters pulled down the steel safety door. As they poured into the building, Li’s uncles threw bags of flour at them to keep them away.
Eventually, staff from the Chinese embassy, escorted by a troop of gendarmes, came to mediate, and things calmed down, Li’s uncles say. Local tensions, however, simmered for years afterward. In 2013, when the 20-year-old Li and his wife arrived in Algiers, people in Chinatown still talked about the incident.
Li had never really wanted to live in Africa. Originally, he dreamed of starting a hamburger restaurant in China and growing it into a domestic fast-food chain to rival McDonald’s or KFC. But when the business failed, his family sent him to join his uncles in Algeria.
He didn’t plan to stay long, and after hearing about the riot he was slightly worried about engaging with the locals. So, he decided to start a Chinese grocery store. That way, he’d interact only with Chinese expats, and those connections might be useful when he returned home.
Li’s store did well at first. Business was so brisk, he brought his parents over from Fuqing to help him manage the place. He was even able to move to a larger space around 10 minutes outside the center of Bab Ezzouar.
The store is still there today. From the outside, the place looks like any other residential building in Algiers, except for the red poster bearing the Chinese character fu — meaning good fortune — hanging on the door. Inside, there are shelves stacked with rice noodles, soy sauce, and hot pot sauce.
The rest of Chinatown, however, has changed utterly since Li arrived. Apart from the tensions caused by the riot, the community has also had to contend with a series of economic challenges in recent years.
Competition from local companies has ramped up, reducing profit margins in many industries. The Algerian government’s introduction of tight restrictions on imports — designed to promote local industry — have made it hard for traders to bring in new stock.
Algeria’s construction boom, meanwhile, has finally waned. Chinese-led construction projects are now less common, and those still going overwhelmingly use local labor to save costs. As a result, the number of Chinese workers in Algeria has plummeted.
All of this has had a dramatic impact on Chinatown businesses. Almost all the Zhejiang traders have left to seek higher profits outside of Africa. The vast majority of the Chinese restaurants have gone as well: A few tried to hang on, but COVID-19 finished them off, residents say.
The Fujianese way
Today, Chinese signs are few and far between in Bab Ezzouar, and locals far outnumber expats. Chen Zhiwei, a long-term resident, estimates that Algeria’s Chinese population has shrunk to around 5,000 — one-tenth of its former size.
Yet, the Fujianese have stuck it out. During the downturn, and especially during the pandemic, many sent their relatives back to Fujian — Li included. But the business owners mostly stayed, convinced they could turn things around.
This is the Fujianese way, members of the community say. As a people, they pride themselves on being able to tough out pretty much anything. The textile market has tanked? Sell something else. Imports are banned? Set up a factory and manufacture products here instead.
“One good thing about us Fujian people is that we never put ourselves in a box,” says one store owner, surnamed Zhuang, who has lived in Algiers since 2005. “The sky’s the limit. We do whatever makes money. Whatever the market needs. Today, we sell curtains. Tomorrow, if something else becomes profitable, I can also do that.”
The move into factories is a classic example of this. In other African countries, Chinese entrepreneurs are getting into manufacturing purely because they see the potential to make money. But in Algeria, many former traders are doing so as a reaction to the government’s protectionist policies, which are making it hard for them to bring in goods from China, Zhuang says.
In just the past few years, Zhuang says his friends have started manufacturing more than 20 different products — from lightbulbs to shoes. Zhuang is considering setting up a factory as well. His store has also been badly affected by the import controls, with many shelves sitting half-empty. He has no experience in manufacturing, but that wasn’t a barrier for his friends, he says.
“They knew nothing about factories,” says Zhuang. “They just went and did it.”
In some ways, the Fujian diaspora even appears to have been strengthened by the trials of the past decade. Faced with a more hostile environment, they have gotten more organized — and started defending their interests far more proactively.
Since 2015, Li has been running a channel on the news app Huaren Toutiao, or “Overseas Chinese Headlines.” Founded by a Fujianese expat, the project is a global network of local blogs that aims to keep Chinese living all over the world informed on what’s going on in their adopted countries. It now covers 140 territories.
Li is responsible for the app’s Algeria section, with a particular focus on reporting robberies, assaults, and other crimes affecting Chinese expats.
There has never been a repeat of the 2009 clashes in Bab Ezzouar, but the Chinese community still occasionally becomes a target in Algeria. In 2018, a worker at a Chinese state-owned enterprise was robbed and stabbed, and eventually bled to death. Within the next month, eight burglaries took place in Chinatown, some also involving knife attacks.
The Chinese community was outraged. Unlike a decade earlier, they were determined to make their voices heard. Chen Zhiwei, who came to Algeria to help his father run a shoe factory in 2008, decided to organize a demonstration.
This was a risky move in Algeria, where marches are illegal unless approved by the government. Other Chinese residents — including many of the Fujianese — preferred sending a petition letter to the authorities with 10,000 signatures.
After some negotiation, Chen agreed to hold a peaceful mourning ceremony in front of the Chinese embassy. On the day, groups of Chinatown residents gathered to lay flowers at the building, watched closely by a column of police officers and armed soldiers.
The incident also led the community to create a formal body to promote their interests: the General Association of Chinese Traders in Algeria. The organization effectively came into being in 2018, though it took several more years for the Algerian government to officially approve it.
Since its inception, the association has offered protection and help to Algeria’s Chinese community. During COVID-19, they worked with the embassy to vaccinate Chinese expats and book plane tickets. They also organized to send masks back to China.
The group also has ambitious plans to foster Chinese businesses. It now has 90 members, around one-third of which are Fujianese, and holds leadership elections every four years. Each board member is required to make contributions worth several thousand dollars a year. Li, who is currently vice president, has to pay 800,000 dinars ($5,800).
In the future, this money will be used to hire legal consultants, financial advisors, and translators to assist Chinese entrepreneurs with their ventures — including new factory investments. Chen Zhiwei, the association’s general secretary, says there are even plans to build a new Chinatown in Algiers, with distinctively Chinese architecture and modern facilities.
“At first, we were barefoot, so we weren’t afraid of people wearing shoes,” Li says. “But gradually, we’ve realized that we need to protect ourselves.”
Gambling on factories
For Li, now is the perfect time to set up his own factory. He has plenty of contacts. He has the association to help him. Plus, he recently turned 30, and he has a wife and three kids to support. Like most Fujianese, he feels an intense pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations — to make something of himself.
“We like to compare,” he says. “That’s why we work so hard.”
But running a factory in Algiers is not for the faint-hearted — as Chen Zhiwei knows all too well. Unlike most Fujianese, Chen has been in manufacturing since he first arrived in Africa. In 2006, his father came to Algeria to open a shoe factory, and Chen joined him two years later.
Chen soon struck out on his own, setting up a facility to mass-produce diapers. It was a disaster. Within four years, his 8.5 million yuan investment was all gone. Chen spent the next two years at home with his wife and newborn son, uncertain what to do next.
Then, one night at a banquet — an almost daily ritual for Fujianese in Chinatown — a friend of Chen’s mentioned that he was considering starting a tableware factory. Chen was intrigued, and so when his friend had second thoughts he offered to take over the venture.
The factory started operating in 2014. This time, things went much more smoothly. Chen’s managerial style was rare in Chinatown. He recruited managers personally rather than using his relatives. He didn’t use Chinese workers, but locals. He hired mostly women, as he felt they were easier to manage. Plus, he believed they were cleaner and more careful workers than men — both important qualities in a tableware business.
This approach appeared to pay off. The factory produced brightly colored plates that Chen branded as Soleil Vaisselle, meaning “sunshine dishes.” They were a hit in Algeria: Soleil Vaiselle became so trendy that pirate versions of the plates began pouring onto the market. Chen had his production line running 24 hours a day, with rotating eight-hour shifts.
After this success, Chen branched out into shoes, cigarette lighters, instant noodles, and carton factories. But his luck had well and truly run out. His shoe factory was forcibly repossessed by the authorities, after his father failed to respond to a lawsuit in a local court. Chen recalls watching a work team cutting up his machines with saws, while his parents were carried out on stretchers after passing out.
Then, his lighter factory literally went up in smoke. A female worker fell over and dropped a box of lighters, starting a blaze that consumed the entire site. Two days later, lighters were still exploding like firecrackers in the smoldering ruins. Chen had just signed a 50 million yuan deal, but it was all for nothing. He lost over 7 million yuan, he estimates.
His instant noodle business, meanwhile, had been targeted by his competitors. They reported Chen’s factory to the authorities for safety violations, causing it to be shut down for a year. Then, COVID forced the facility to halt production again. It still hasn’t reopened, and Chen says his losses have reached around 4 million yuan.
Yet, Chen has a remarkable ability to bounce back from setbacks. After the authorities stripped his shoe factory, he stayed calm and managed to revive the business. When the lighter factory burned down, he joked that he might as well throw any surviving stock on the fire. “Seven million yuan burned, and I care about these 60,000 dinars?” he told his staff. Dealing with failure was simple, he often says. “If you lose money, all you need to do is earn more.”
And he has. Now 45, Chen has moved into a red castle-like villa in Hammedi — an industrial zone a few kilometers from Bab Ezzouar. His factories aren’t far away, meaning he often drives past in his Mercedes to check how things are going. His tableware business continues to thrive. He even had the chance to meet the Chinese ambassador recently. Not bad for a kid who only finished primary school, he says.
The next generation
Stories like Chen’s are common in the Fujian diaspora. In Chinatown, nearly every resident seems to have a wild tale from their time doing business in Algeria: murdered hostages, fugitives, elaborate corporate stitch-ups. But the most cherished stories are of hard-won success, which are used to inspire the next generation.
Li has heard them all. From a young age, he’s been taught to think of himself as the inheritor of a multigenerational struggle to escape poverty. First, in the early years of China’s market reforms, were the kids who sold ice creams or shined shoes on the streets of Fujian, aged just 7 or 8.
Then came the young people in the 1980s, who snuck across the Chinese border, destroyed their passports, and tried to make it to the Western world. The next group traveled to Africa and South America to build a foundation for Li’s generation. And now the future of the community rests on his shoulders.
These days, Li spends a lot of time in his grocery store, planning his next move. He sits in his small office at the back, where a tea set sits on a dark wooden table. In the corner is a bookshelf: “The Godfather,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “How the Steel Was Tempered.”
Once, he recalls, a customer from a Chinese state-owned enterprise saw the books and asked him: “Is it true that ‘The Godfather’ is a must-read for businessmen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Li replied.
“Then what is a must-read?” she asked.
“Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War,’” Li joked.
Life in Chinatown is peaceful, at least. The remaining Chinese residents mostly keep their heads down: Most of them say they barely noticed the Hirak — the wave of protests that gripped Algeria from 2019 to 2021, forcing long-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign.
With time, the tensions between the local and Chinese communities in Algiers have eased. On the rare occasions that Li walks into the center of Chinatown, local Algerians greet him eagerly, saying “beaucoup pas chouf” — a mix of French and Arabic that means “long time no see.”
Li isn’t sure whether he’ll base his next project in Algeria. He believes it will be easier to make money in a less developed African country where regulations are less strict, such as sub-Saharan Guinea. A few months ago, he went on a scouting mission to the country, visiting an abandoned angle iron factory and looking out for other business opportunities.
But Algeria also has its advantages, he says. Its cheap electricity and oil — which costs less than 40 cents per liter, compared with $1.40 in Guinea — is very useful for manufacturers. Li’s uncles have also been on several visits to Guinea, to try and work out which country is a better bet. Li has resolved to simply follow his relatives’ advice.
Once the family has finished putting together their business plan, they expect to have a factory ready to start production within half a year. All they need to do is register a company, rent some land, build a factory, bring machines, find technicians, buy raw materials, and start, Li says. Then, they’ll need to bring over a few more relatives from Fujian to manage the facility, which will naturally be members of the younger generation.
However, when asked if his kids would come to help, Li shook his head. His children’s generation won’t necessarily accept this kind of life, he says. He feels his generation had to come here to make good money — and afford the sky-high bride prices in Fujian.
But times have changed. One of Li’s younger cousins has already refused to go to Africa, choosing to stay and study in China, he says. Besides, Li has always felt guilty about how his decision to work in Africa has affected his children. He worries that his long separation from them has caused them psychological harm.
“Many of us don’t want the kids to come,” Li says. “We didn’t have a choice. We worked hard to let them have a choice.” After a pause, he adds: “But, of course, for the kids who aim to strive, Africa remains the first choice.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: An Algerian worker cleans the “Jardin Horloge Florate” in Algiers, Algeria, Oct. 31, 2022. Fethi Belaid/AFP via VCG)