In a conference I attended in 2013, a renowned, Western-educated, Korean scholar of migration, stubbornly argued that Africans were taking up work on Chinese farms growing food, as well as displacing Chinese workers in low-paid, blue-collar work. I was astounded. I felt forced to explain that this assessment was far from reality. In all my years as a researcher in China, I had never met one single African growing vegetables, working in a factory, or working as a janitor.
Not long after that, I heard a Sudanese businessman who had opened a factory in Guangzhou complaining angrily to a British journalist. He was frustrated that people like him (with employees, investments, business visas, and years of experience in China) were often described by Chinese and Western media as “illegal immigrants”; whereas unqualified, white Americans working illegally (on tourist visas) as teachers, earning barely enough to survive, were called ‘expats’.
Certainly, his concern struck me as one about representation, and about the lack of space for someone like him to have his story accurately told.