Working the edge, embodying frontiers: Brokers in China‒Africa trade

Authors: Heidi Haugen*, University of Oslo
Topics: Economic Geography, Africa, China
Keywords: Trade, logistics, brokerage, China, Africa
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Napoleon C1, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Chinese global engagements are deepening across a diversity of sectors and geographical regions. This presentation fills specific gaps in knowledge about how China’s extraversion advances by examining the role of brokers who mediate between local and transnational fields in China‒Africa trade. Brokers based in Guangzhou, South China, promise to provide African traders with an edge in highly competitive markets by connecting them with low-cost producers, transmitting knowledge about the latest fashion trends, and employing the most effective logistics technologies. At the same time as the brokers span boundaries between “here” and “there”, they embody these frontiers. Conventional network theories have highlighted brokers’ abilities to navigate between cultural contexts and negotiate different moral frameworks. For example, Burt (2005: 17) claims that brokers who link structurally separate actors may display “different beliefs and identities to each contact”. In contrast to this image of seamless switching between cultural codes, ethnographic studies have emphasized that as brokers translate between different registers, suspicions arise from the contrasting sets of attributes they embody and turn them into figures of moral ambiguity (James, 2011; Björkman & Chu, 2015; Lindquist, 2015). While African traders rely on brokers to surmount the obstacles presented by borders and geographic distance, they often call the loyalty and honesty of these brokers into question. The presentation draws upon 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork among African and Chinese entrepreneurs in Guangzhou to explore the opportunities and hazards of operating on the edge.

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