The Age of Trade Liberalization: Trading Entrepreneurs from Mainland China

The foundations of the current Chinese presence in Ghana, which is dominated by independent traders, were not laid until the late 1990s. A limited number of Chinese state-owned trading offices had been active in Ghana since the late 1980s, but they ceased operations one by one in the second half of the 1990s in a phase of major restructuring and privatization in China (Tang, May 2, 2011; Tang, December 11, 2011). Confronted with the choice of unemployment in China or entrepreneurship in Ghana, some of these trade representatives became the Chinese pioneers of private Sino- Ghanaian trade. These formerly state-employed entrepreneurs continue to occupy influential positions, but the present Chinese trading cluster has been shaped by the large wave of entrepreneurial migrants from China arriving since the turn of the millennium. Chinese SOEs are generally absent, except for a very few involved in large-scale infrastructural projects.

There is little reliable information about the number of Chinese in Ghana. Estimates vary and are largely based on interviewees’ subjective impressions or vague statements by officials rather than on surveys or official counts. The figure that was widely accepted for the late 2000s was 10,000 (cf. Ho 2008: 59f; Sautman and Yan 2007), while Lam (2015b: 37) quotes the Chinese embassy’s estimate of 20,000 in 2010, based on data provided by the Ghanaian Immigration Department.3 These figures usually include a substantial number of Chinese employees working on temporary contracts as managers, technicians, engineers or construction workers in one of the large-scale projects that Chinese SOEs are carrying out across the country.

Informants from all groups (the few remaining Hong Kong migrants, a handful of later Taiwan investors and the large majority of newly arrived mainland traders, as well the people interviewed by Ho [2008, 2012] and Lam [2015b]), generally agree that there is little interaction between the few remaining Hong Kong migrants and Taiwan traders scattered across Accra, the larger numbers of temporary construction workers, technicians and managers of infrastructure projects in remote areas, and the large numbers of new Chinese entrepreneurial migrants who have created a highly visible economic cluster in the central business district of the city. Most new Chinese entrepreneurial migrants have chosen to import cheap consumer goods made in China, so trade is the dominant economic activity of the Chinese in Ghana today.

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