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Zou finds Chinese entrepreneurs are loving the ‘ziyou’ they find in Ghana

  • Yijie Zou
    Return to Ghana:  Yijie Zou is planning a return to Ghana to continue his anthropological study of the Chinese entrepreneur community in the West African country. The Wenner-Gren Foundation recently awarded him a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant. Zou and Wenner-Gren agreed that he could begin his work remotely until the COVID-19 situation in Ghana is resolved.  Photo by Kana Harada
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The Chinese word for freedom is ziyou, and it’s a term that Yijie Zou heard quite often among the entrepreneurial community of Chinese expatriates in Ghana. 

“I found it extremely interesting,” Zou said. “They experience Ghana as a land of freedom.” 

Zou is a Ph.D. student in William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology. He is planning a return to the west African country to continue observing the interaction of the Chinese community and native Ghanaians.  

His return to Ghana is supported by a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Zou and his contacts at Wenner-Gren agreed that he can continue his work remotely, until the Covid-19 situation in Ghana becomes more settled. Zou did some pilot research in both Ghana and China in 2018 and 2019 on the Chinese entrepreneurial community. 

“This is a modern phenomenon,” Zou explains. “It’s mostly from the second half of the 20th century that a Chinese-speaking population, mostly from Hong Kong or Taiwan, migrate to Ghana looking for business opportunity.” 

Today, the expatriate community in Ghana occupy every rung of the entrepreneurial ladder, from massive infrastructure construction projects and mineral extraction down to retail shops in the local markets.  

But Zou says that from boardroom to convenience store, the Chinese he interviewed place ziyou at the top of the list of things they like about their life in Ghana. 

“They have more time at their disposal; they can do whatever they want,” he said. Ziyou in Ghana meant not only more free time for leisure, but also more time to devote to various business ideas. The concept also meant freedom from the governmental oversight, interference and regulations that chafed at Chinese entrepreneurs back home. 

“It’s very flexible in Ghana,” he said. “They can do a lot of startup projects, compared with working in China. The payment is good in China, but sometimes you have to work a fixed amount of time for the company.” 

Zou’s dissertation is plumbing the social organization of the Chinese entrepreneurial community in Ghana: “How they perceive the environment in Ghana, how they cope with it. Their strategies, including how they organize themselves and the economic strategies they adopt to accommodate themselves within the context of Ghana.” 

Zou said one of his foci is on the contrast between “Chinese time” and “Ghanaian time.” The social dynamics that emerge when Chinese time meets Ghanaian time are of particular interest in an ethnographic investigation.  

In his proposal to Wenner-Gren, Zou reported that his pilot work among the expat entrepreneurs revealed that “the Chinese speed of flexible accumulation, the slow motion of African time, and low consumption expenditure in Ghana allow them to keep their labor investment-leisure time ratio at a satisfactory level, compared with the grueling work in China.”  

“A lot of the entrepreneurs believe that they are the avatars of ‘Chinese speed’ in Africa, that they truly represent the efficient business practice of China,” he said. “They may be workaholics, but on the other hand, the African works diligently at his daily life.” 

Zou says that he believes his ethnographic research “from the inside” will reveal complexities about the relationship between the Chinese entrepreneurs and the native Ghanaians that are usually overlooked by the international media. He said that headlines usually concentrate on conflict, such as the 2015 direct-action campaign against some of the Chinese gold miners by Ghanaians.  

But Zou says it’s a mistake to judge the relationship of the two groups by violent outbreaks, even protests that culminate on raids on mining operation and impounding and burning equipment. 

“I like to use the word ‘friction,’” he said. “Because friction is kind of an intermediate zone between head-on clash and total harmony.” 

At the basis of the relationship is a kind of national fellow-feeling among the two groups. Zou noted that both Ghana and China have a socialist basis and Ghanaians perceive that China was, not long ago, a relatively poor country that worked its way to prosperity.  

But the relationship gets complicated quickly. 

“So, in Ghana they say, ‘They’re kind of like us,” Zou said. “But how can they become so rich here? And why are they taking our resources?”