For long, China has exported almost anything to Africa. From televisions, clothes, and a wide array of other gadgets, Africa has been the recipient of almost everything Chinese. A new phenomenon however is on the rise - the Chinese are exporting sex to Africa too. Over the recent years, there has been a proliferation and sharp increase in the number of Chinese prostitutes who are flocking Africa for better riches.
Basically, it's another scramble for Africa, just a bit unusual one and nuanced one. From Uganda, to Cameroon, influx of Chinese prostitutes is deeply palpable. There seems to be a fertile ground in this continent for them to flourish, capitalizing on every bit of improvements that the African middle-class is achieving. So, as China has made considerable inroads in Africa - signing mega-deals with governments, building resplendent infrastructure and opening special economic zones - Chinese sex workers have also followed suit, offering services to both locals and expatriates.
Basile Ndjio, a Cameroonian who is studying this phenomen, has some interesting insights on the development. In the paper he wrote in Urban Studies, Sex and the transnational city: Chinese sex workers in the West African city of Douala, he asserts that the flocking of Chinese prostitutes to Africa is a continent-wide phenomenon, and he estimates that between 13,000 to 18,500 Chinese sex workers are currently in sub-Saharan Africa. Such figures can be attributed to how Africa's middle-class has tripled over the last three decades as Deloitte reports. It translates to an improved purchasing power and "imported sex" is readily affordable.
Ndjio has been studying this for quite some time, probably the only African scholar devoting his time to this phenomenon. He is anthropology professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon. The way this phenomenon struck him is fascinating, really. As he sought to put himself through graduate school, he had to work as a casino croupier. He learned through boozy conversation and late-night confession that “Shanghai beauties”–as they are known in Cameroon–congregated in the back rooms of Chinese restaurants, hotels and lounges.
Code words like asking for “stress relief,” “rest” or “acupuncture” would get Ndjio the access to go behind the curtains and see everything for himself. This is not new, Chinese sex workers first arrived in Africa during the cold war, but from the early-2000s, there has been a marked increase in migrant sex workers. Speaking of Cameroon, Chinese prostitutes now compete with local women all along the price spectrum–from $50 at upscale brothels to a thousand francs ($1.75) on street corners.
Local sex workers hold the Chinese ones with deep contempt, revulsion and they simply despise them. They label them putes sorcières (“witch-bitches”) and the unending fight for who has greater turf results in violence. “There is a feeling of invasion and yellow peril,” Ndjio says. “You would think there were ten times as many Chinese sex workers.”
Around the globe, the Chinese are quite infamous for appalling levels of human trafficking. Most women who involuntarily work in prostitution rings do so under the control of Chinese pimps and these prostitution rings are protected by corrupt local officials. It means Chinese sex labour migration borders more on the involuntary.
The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2015 listed China on its “Tier 2 Watch List” for countries with significant or increasing human trafficking volumes.
In Cameroon, Ndjio has found that most Chinese sex workers are rural women that move abroad for gigs as waitresses and secretaries, only to arrive and find traffickers demanding sex work for the repayment of plane tickets and visas.
Despite that, Ndjio notes that police "free" Chinese sex workers from the prostitution rings. Realizing the fortunes they can make stemming from the improved economic fortunes of the middle-class as noted before, some of them declare to stay in Africa and some go on to move to Nigeria or Ghana, where they know the fortunes will even be more lucrative.
Clearly, imported sex is on the rise in Africa. The wings have been spread. The trade is flourishing. It seems as if it's a subtle gift to Africa, symbolizing the heavy presence of the Chinese on the continent in every facet of life.