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Superiority, unity, vulnerability: Racial dynamics of Chinese entrepreneurship in Ghana

By Yuanwei Zong | OMC 2024


A group photo of a Chinese private company in Ghana (courtesy of the author).

The experiences of Chinese entrepreneurs in Ghana shed light on a bigger picture, blending business with cultural and racial dynamics in a global setting. As they venture into Ghana’s markets, these entrepreneurs navigate more than just business challenges; they encounter a world where culture, race, and commerce intersect. Their stories reveal how international entrepreneurship is about understanding and adapting to the complexities of global human connections.


Superiority as Chinese


The journey of Mr. Li to Ghana epitomises the archetype of the entrepreneur as a cultural navigator as much as a business strategist. Arriving with a container of Chinese-made apparel, his initial confidence was underpinned by a prevailing narrative within some segments of the Chinese entrepreneurial community—that of an inherent superiority in business acumen compared to their African counterparts. This belief, "we Chinese, compared to Africans, are natural-born businessmen", represents a broader discourse that frames economic pursuits within the context of racial and cultural hierarchies. Yet, the marketplace in Accra, with its own rhythms and preferences, posed an unanticipated challenge to Mr. Li’s assumptions. The stark contrast between the vibrant, unsold inventory and the bustling market life outside underscored a pivotal anthropological lesson: the critical importance of understanding the cultural fabric of the market. Mr. Li’s reflection on his initial failure, “I paid the price for my arrogance”, marks a moment of cultural reckoning and underscores the complex interdependence between economic activities and cultural knowledge.


Unity as manager


Mr. Yan’s narrative introduces a counterpoint to Mr. Li’s experience, illustrating the potential for entrepreneurship to bridge cultural divides through empathetic leadership and organisational policies that actively dismantle racial prejudices. Leading a construction company with a workforce divided along racial lines, Mr. Yan confronted the insidious nature of racial stereotypes that threatened to fragment his team. The inclination of his Chinese employees to attribute failures to the perceived inadequacies of their Ghanaian counterparts revealed a deeper issue of racial bias ingrained within workplace dynamics. Mr. Yan’s response, a policy penalising unfounded racial blame, was a radical exercise in cultural anthropology applied within the corporate sphere. By enforcing a system of accountability that transcended racial divisions, he not only addressed the immediate tensions but also initiated a process of cultural integration and mutual respect within his organisation. Mr. Yan’s story exemplifies the role of the entrepreneur as a cultural broker, navigating and reshaping the racial and cultural dynamics within their sphere of influence to foster a more inclusive and productive workplace.


Vulnerability as migrants 


The experience of Mr. Qi at an airport in Ghana brings to the forefront the vulnerabilities faced by Chinese entrepreneurs abroad, highlighting the intersections between race, migration, and the state apparatus. His detainment, predicated on the suspicion aroused by his Chinese passport, serves as a stark reminder of the broader patterns of racial profiling and discrimination that migrants can encounter. This incident, reflective of a disturbing encounter with institutionalised racism, underscores the precarious position of migrants who navigate foreign bureaucratic landscapes marked by suspicion and bias. Mr. Qi’s story, while illustrating the personal impact of such encounters, also invites a broader anthropological inquiry into the ways state and societal mechanisms reproduce racial hierarchies and perpetuate stereotypes. Through Mr. Qi’s lens, we are prompted to consider the implications of racial discrimination not only on individual migrants but also on the fabric of global commerce and migration.


Conclusion


Exploring the ventures of entrepreneurs like Mr. Li, Mr. Yan, and Mr. Qi in Ghana takes us beyond the surface of global business, revealing a world rich with cultural interplay and racial nuances. Their stories invite us to see entrepreneurship not just as a quest for profit, but as a journey deeply entwined with the complexities of human culture and interaction. These narratives underscore the vital need for empathy, cultural sensitivity, and a genuine effort to understand across cultural divides, highlighting the essence of global entrepreneurship: it is not just about navigating markets, but about bridging worlds.




Yuanwei Zong grew up in Northern China, he got bachelor degree in philosophy at Wuhan University in China and master degree in anthropology at Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland. He also studied at University of Ghana for half a year. His research focuses on the transitional flows of Chinese migrants, capital and business in Sub-Saharan Africa, based on in-depth ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana. Yuanwei has also interned at FAO Africa office and volunteered at the NGOs assisting vulnerable migrants in Geneva and Accra. In his free time, Yuanwei loves football, travel and is a fan of contemporary art.

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