Africa People

Chinese in Algeria and Egypt: A Group Behind the Spotlight

By Jiayan Guo, Changru Liu, Xin Tan and Tianqing Zheng

Since ‘The Belt And Road’ Initiative launched in 2013, China’s relationships with African countries have become increasingly close, attracting a great many Chinese to come to do business, study, settle down and seek new opportunities. For the sake of national economic development, Algeria and Egypt have implemented policies to boost cooperation with China, opening their arms for Chinese to come.

Chinese in Egypt

A long long time ago, a group of  Chinese went to Mecca for the annual Haji. However, they got stuck in Egypt because they don’t have enough money to go back. That’s the very first group of Chinese immigrants in Egypt.

Time moves to the 14th century, around the middle of the 14th century, the Republic of China officially started its relation with Egypt, sending students to study.

During the 18th-19th century, as China gradually became open to the world, more and more Chinese chose to come to Egypt for opportunities.

In the 20th century, a new wave of immigrants came to Egypt through tourism or investment. In 2013, the Belt and Road Initiatives pushed the Chino-Egypt economic cooperation to an unprecedented peak. In 2018, CSCEC (China State Construction Engineering) got the $3 billion bid of the CBD (Central Business District) project, which is expected to create more than 450,000 jobs. 

According to the investment guide published by MOFCOM (Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China) in 2019, they are around 20,000 Chinese in Egypt, mainly located at harbor cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Ain Sokhna.

Figure 1: The history of Chinese in Egypt.

Chinese in Algeria 

Algeria is a North African country; it has very close economic ties with China, ranking third among all African countries. In 2013, China had overtaken France as Algeria’s major supplier in 2013 and established “the comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016.

The Chinese who come to Algeria are migrants, merchants, managers, students, employees, workers, etc. Most employees work for Chinese State-owned companies, private Chinese companies, international companies (Non-Algerian/Chinese Company), and self-employed. It is worth mentioning some are driven by commerce with most Chinese nationals working on infrastructure projects. 

By 2009, the number of Chinese workers in Algeria surged to about 50,000, making Algeria the host of the largest on the continent, accounting for 30 percentof all Chinese workers in Africa at the end of 2018. A 2018 research made by China’s National Bureau of Statistics estimated the number of Chinese workers in Algeria as 60,220. Most Chinese in Algeria gather in cities along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, such as Oran, Annaba, Skikda, the capital Algiers, etc. 

However, the number of Chinese in Algeria has been decreasing since 2016. There are some possible reasons for this. Firstly, the risk of labor unrest, civil strife, and terrorism faced by Chinese in Algeria increased in recent years. Secondly, Algerian authorities have curbed the influx of Chinese workers by limiting work visas, imposing a quota of Algerian workers in Chinese construction projects, and some other reasons.

Challenges of Cultural Adaptation

I. Religion differences

Many Chinese who have just arrived in Egypt may not be very familiar with Egyptian religious culture. They may find out themselves either feeling confused or being viewed as disrespectful by locals.

In Egypt and Algeria, religion is a big part of the culture. In Egypt, 90% of the population are Muslims, and in Algeria, 97.9 are Muslims. As for Algeria, as a Muslim, Salah is one of the most important rituals. For devoted Muslims, they must do five Salahs on a daily basis multiple times. When they pray, they will stop doing everything else and begin to worship their Lord. 

Wang, a 31-year-old electrical engineer, has been assigned to work in Egypt for nearly a year. He said he still feels very separated from the local community and cannot wait to go back to China soon. Once he was doing a video conference with an Egyptian engineer, he noticed that one of the Egyptian engineers suddenly disappeared and only showed up until the end of the meeting. At first, he was confused and dissatisfied.

Later, Mr. Wang realized that because of the Salah culture of the Muslim religion, and when he knows the culture of this religion, he started to understand their behaviors. However, this is just one example, and there might still be many other Chinese who are still having a hard time to really understand the Islamic religion and culture.

II. Language barrier

The language challenge is one biggest cultural challenges faced by overseas Chinese. Many scholars believe that Arabic is the most difficult language to learn in the world after Mandarin. For Mandarin speakers, learning Arabic is also difficult because of its different pronunciation and right to left writing way. Therefore, the communication between Chinese and local people in Algeria and Egypt is mainly throughsimple spoken Arabic and body language. More conversation relies on outside help, such as translating websites or full-time translators.

Language barriers maycause the individualtofeel isolated from the local community. Mr. Wang, the interviewee we mentioned earlier, has two translators and one driver, his company provided good living conditions for him, covering all the living expenses. However, he said, “deep inside my heart, I felt lonely.” Before Wang came to Egypt, he does not know how to speak Arabic at all.

He tried to learn, but Arabic is so hard for him. “Every time I turned on the TV, all the channels are in Arabic, and the internet here is so slow that I even couldn’t watch TV shows online, I have no ways to spend my time after work.” Language barriers may make people’s sense of happiness reduced, such as being unable to feel fun from social media, entertainment activities, making friends, etc.

Besides, cross-cultural miscommunication occurs when the person from the second culture does not receive the sender’s intended message, which causes misunderstandings and misinterpretations between people.

In Algeria, people believed the stronger the handshake, the more respect it shows; the degree of strength is proportional to kindness. On the contrary, Chinese people generally think shaking hands too hard is rude and usually avoids this. Two opposite greeting cultures can easily lead to misunderstandings and conflicts between the two sides.

Generally, when people know more about the language and culture of the communication object, they will have less misunderstanding. However, achieving effective communication is a challenge for Chinese people in Algeria and Egypt. The dependence on translation has made it difficult for Chinese people to transform the pressure of language adaptation into the motivation to learn the local language. Furthermore, these potential contradictions and separation of groups caused by language barriers may eventually erupt as racism or xenophobic incidents.

Challenges of Security

I. Theft and robbery 

In Algeria, theft and robbery are quite common for Chinese people. For robbery, the number of cases per 100,000 people in 2015 is 65.5, which increased 21.34% compared with 54.0 in 2014. For private car theft, the number of cases per 100,000 people in 2015 was 13.5, which increased by 4.65% compared with 2014. On top of that, in the research, every contacted Chinese in Algeria all expressed that they have experienced either theft or robbery. 

In a report published by Fujian Normal University, an anonymous interviewee said: “We already kind of get used to it. It happens all the time. A lot of times, if you are on the street and talking over the phone on and you saw someone walked through from the opposite side, there is a great chance that he will suddenly grab your phone and run away. So I choose to buy a cheaper phone, so if it got robbed or stolen, I wouldn’t lose too much money. Every time I saw someone walking toward me, I just ended the call quickly and put it back into my pocket.”

Figure 2(upper):“Algeria Robbery Rate, 2003-2019.” Knoema, knoema.com/atlas/Algeria/topics/Crime-Statistics/Assaults-Kidnapping-Robbery-Sexual-Rape/Robbery-rate.; “Algeria Private Car Theft Rate, 2003-2016.” Knoema, knoema.com/atlas/Algeria/topics/Crime-Statistics/Burglary-Car-Theft-and-Housebreaking/Private-car-theft-rate.
Figure 3(lower): “Crime in Egypt.” . Safety in Egypt, https://www.numbeo.com/crime/in/Cairo-Egypt

As for Egypt, like many other countries, theft and robbery are also the most common crimes. The OSAC (Overseas Security Advisory Council) of the U.S. The Department of State evaluates the risk of criminal threats in Cairo as moderate. The worries of cars being stolen and being mugged or robbed are 50.5 and 36.5, separately, all evaluating as moderate. However, The statistics on Numbeo also showed a high, increasing trend of Crime Rates in the past three years.

Yuxiao, a 25-year-old Arabic major graduate student living in Alexandria, said: “I felt Cairo is more dangerous than Alexandria because there is a larger group of Chinese living there. Sometimes robbery and theft happen around the Chinese neighborhood because they were often viewed as rich people by Egyptians.” 

II.Terrorism

Africa has been suffering from extreme terrorism, so does Algeria and Egypt. For terrorists, North Africa is the perfect location to base. Algeria is situated in Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Basing here could enable the terrorists to access the Atlantic Ocean right through the Strait of Gibraltar, a perfect escape route for terrorists. As early as the 1990s, numerous terrorist groups already found their own training bases in North Africa.(http://www.cnki.com.cn/Article/CJFDTOTAL-JSDD804.016.htm

Although Algeria’s political situation is relatively stable at present, terrorist attacks against Algerian military, police, and town security have occurred from time to time. As for the Chinese community, there seemed to be no serious terrorist incidents, particularly against them.(http://www.xinhuanet.com//mil/2017-03/09/c_129505526.htm

Figure 4: the Africa Center for Strategic Studies April 27, 2018. African Militant Islamist Groups Again on the Rise. 4 June 2018, africacenter.org/spotlight/african-militant-islamist-groups-again-on-the-rise/.

Compared with Algeria, terrorism in Egypt is significantly serious. A great many terrorist attacks in the past years have once again sounded the alarm on terrorism in Egypt. In particular, several terrorist incidents occurred  like and the explosion in Central Cairo, 2019,  and terrorist attacks in North Sinai, 2020, greatly impacting the safety of the Chinese in Egypt. Numerous Chinese people working in Cairo say that when walking to work in the morning, the buildings in front of you may just suddenly explode. They are not willing to work now, for their place of work is near the main buildings in Cairo, where terrorism is likely to occur.

Seid, a political science professor at Cairo University, believes that Egypt’s increasingly volatile external environment and the increased number of security variables in the Middle East are putting great pressure on Egypt’s anti-terrorism work. Simultaneously, the Egyptian government is also faced with the pressure of economic development, which accounts for the root causes of terrorism and other issues. Counter-terrorism still has a long way to go.(http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0523/c1002-31098673.html

Suggestions

Based on the findings, we conclude a few suggestions that may help the Chinese in Algeria and Egypt to address their cultural and security challenges.

For Cultural and language adaptation, Firstly, actively learn local languages, improve communication skills with locals, and get rid of excessive dependence on translation assistance. Furthermore, reduce stereotypes of locals, try to go out of the Chinese community, and further integrate into the local society. Besides, learn more about local culture and laws, such as religious culture, friendship culture, labor regulations, etc.

For security challenges, Chinese people can avoid risks by paying close attention to local news, being aware of some dangerous areas, and seeking help from the Chinese embassy when they feel necessary to do so.

All people’s names mentioned in the article are alias.

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