On a brisk autumn evening in 2010, male coffee shop patrons in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek were treated to the sight of young Chinese women in miniskirts circulating to hand out brochures for a new massage parlor. It was an unusual sight indeed for Egyptian public space — both the women’s attire and the presence of so many Chinese. Besides a small number of Chinese Muslim students at al-Azhar University, Chinese immigration to Egypt is a very new phenomenon.

The price of a massage (about 100 Egyptian pounds or $14) was a luxury for the mainly lower middle- and middle-class men who frequent such coffee shops. Though regular massages may have been out of reach, some of the men might have heard, through friends or on the Internet, that marriage to a Chinese woman was definitely within reach for a man looking to settle down. Since it was widely presumed that Chinese women would not expect a dowry, they were seen as bargain brides during the economically desperate Mubarak years, when a slew of state and media reports suggested that Egyptian men were delaying marriage because they could not afford the high costs of dowry and establishing a home. [1]

The aggressive application of neoliberal reforms during the final years of President Husni Mubarak’s rule created an economic pressure cooker: Cheaper imported goods (many from China) eroded Egypt’s manufacturing sector; privatization of state industries made the labor market more volatile; and social service spending failed to fill the gaps as more Egyptians slipped into poverty. With the economic bases for achieving dignity so radically destabilized, people had to devise new strategies to maintain a decent quality of life, or just to survive, in increasingly unsettling times.

In 2010, at the height of social concern about a surplus of single men and women, a moral panic over Egyptian men marrying Chinese women began to take root. The spokesman for the liberal Wafd Party demanded that the head of Parliament ask the prime minister to comment on the “invasion by Chinese girls of the Egyptian marriage market.” [2] A female representative of the Ministry of Family and Population appeared on television programs and was quoted in newspapers warning of the “danger to unmarried Egyptian men and women alike,” of the phenomenon of cheap Chinese brides. That same year, police raided Chinese massage parlors throughout Cairo, claiming to investigate charges of prostitution. A Ramadan television comedy sketch about Egyptian brides went viral online. Since 2010, media moralizing, comic portrayals of Egyptian-Chinese intermarriage and state surveillance of personal service businesses have continued unabated.

Cooperating Commodities

That the Chinese — and women in particular — have become a target of both marital interest and moral opprobrium in Egyptian society reflects China’s visible, but ambiguous, role in the political economy of Egypt over the past two decades. As the Mubarak government opened the economy to increased private and foreign investment, encouraged by the terms of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program, China became an important economic model. Mubarak and other state officials visited China several times in the 1980s and 1990s to strengthen economic ties and learn about Chinese free market reforms. After a trip to the Tianjin economic development zone in northern China, Mubarak began negotiations to create an Egyptian-Chinese business zone in Egypt. In 1998, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri signed an agreement with Chinese premier Li Peng to establish a special economic zone in Suez, long the gateway between Egypt and the global market and already a duty-free zone since the early capitalist reforms instituted under Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s.

By the time the Egypt-China Suez Cooperation Zone was formally launched in 2009, 18 Chinese companies were already operating, producing everything from heavy machinery to textiles and home goods. [3] Twelve more companies opened soon after. Goods produced in this zone — by both Egyptian and Chinese companies — are subject to significantly lower taxes than goods produced outside of it. Zone-produced items also receive Egyptian certificates of origin that give them preferential access to those countries with whom Egypt has free trade agreements. Many of the goods compete with those produced by pre-existing Egyptian companies, some of which are state-owned.

Structural adjustment policies also required changes to tariff laws that made imported goods more competitive. On the eve of the revolution in 2011, Egypt was China’s third largest export market in Africa, and China was the second largest supplier of foreign goods to Egypt after the United States. Total trade between Egypt and China was $8.8 billion, up 40 percent from 2008. [4] Of the goods produced under the umbrella of the Suez economic zone deal, not all were actually manufactured there. In a classic colonial arrangement, many items were made in China with raw materials exported from Egypt, and then the finished goods were imported to the Egyptian market with low or no tariffs.

The result of these increasing economic ties between Egypt and China was twofold: the massive influx of cheap Chinese products into the market and, by the mid-2000s, the presence of more and more Chinese workers, peddlers, small businessmen, manicurists and masseuses. Affordable kitchen appliances, electronics, home decor and children’s toys and clothing from China enabled many Egyptians to set up, and maintain, a home and a family — key indicators of respectable adulthood. Yet for many, the presence of so many cheap foreign products, and the new community of foreign workers, upset local commodity and labor markets.

Cheap Goods, Cheap Values

News programs on both state and satellite television have set the terms of the so-called problem of China in Egypt. A Middle East News Agency special in 2013 begins by discussing the “Chinese invasion” that has brought a never-ending “scourge” to Egyptians. Images of a Chinese woman seller in Cairo are narrated: “Maybe you have noticed them once or twice…[in] the streets of downtown Cairo, these Chinese girls with their mobile phones laid out for sale on the sidewalk.” With the lurking threat clearly established, the announcer goes on to blame these vendors for undercutting Egyptian shopkeepers. The program frames the competition between Chinese and Egyptian vendors as a life-and-death struggle, with Egyptians forced to “defend their daily bread in the face” of Chinese who sell their goods for less. An interview with a shopkeeper reinforces this narrow view of the conflict — Chinese versus Egyptians — but unwittingly complicates the story of the Chinese winning out simply by selling cheaply. Describing vendors who buy cheap items but sell them on the street at inflated prices, the shopkeeper suggests that “they” (viewers infer he means Chinese) are greedy and unscrupulous about fleecing Egyptian customers. In this and other programs, the very real economic suffering of small shopkeepers is attributed to the presence and tactics of Chinese businesses rather than the Egyptian government’s economic restructuring policies.

Like other places where a particular ethnic group is blamed for domestic economic woes (such as Roma in Europe or Mexicans in the US), the charges take on a particularly toxic mix of racist, sexist nationalism, which is sometimes expressed in ugly humor. Media portraits of Chinese brides are a prime example. The potential bride is frequently described as if she were exactly like the cheap Chinese goods that flood the market. A 2010 program on the private satellite network al-Mihwar on the Chinese bride phenomenon starts by telling viewers, “Everything you find in your house is marked ‘Made in China’ and now they have this for brides.” When the reporter polls people on the street, one man jokes that there is no difference between Chinese and Egyptian brides, except Chinese women could be “broken or something,” and laughs. The word “broken” (madruba) is the same term used to describe a machine, such as a household appliance, when it stops working. Another man jokes to the camera that the brides are so cheap he could “buy four” and surround himself with them. While other men and women respond without racist humor, nearly all express some concern about the consequences for Egyptian women if all the men marry Chinese women.

While Chinese women in Egypt are blamed for rising rates of Egyptian spinsterhood, Chinese goods are simultaneously corrupting young women’s morality in the form of artificial hymens. As a female university student described the availability of fake hymens: “In general China is bringing us lots of things. The price [of the fake hymen] is affordable for girls so it helps them do the wrong things.” A number of other interviewees on the program draw a straight line from Chinese hymen kits to the moral degradation of young Egyptian women, ending in social chaos. Cheap goods — or at least the wrong kind — cheapen social values, the reporter argues: “One hundred pounds equals a girl’s virginity,” he says, “One hundred pounds equals the honor of a family.” This program, like others on Chinese brides, was uploaded to YouTube by individual users (rather than the network that produced it) and has received more than 850,000 views.

Other media portrayals of the “invasion” of Chinese women and consumer goods eschew the narrative of gendered nationalism and economic protectionism. Many comedic films and television shows instead traffic in overtly misogynist racism. The comedy sketch that went viral during and after Ramadan 2010, and was later the subject of a report on Egypt’s famed television show “Good Evening Egypt,” might be the most egregious example. A fake commercial for Chinese brides, the sketch shows a young Egyptian man sitting on a couch watching television, and asks him (and, by implication, the male viewer) if he is feeling like he wants to get married, but lacks the resources. As the man nods in affirmation, the fake company announces the solution: a Chinese bride. The next shots show the man demonstrating the “product” — played by an Egyptian woman dressed up in stereotypical Chinese garb. As the announcer describes each benefit of the Chinese bride, the man pantomimes how to “use” it. With the woman suspended in his arms, he folds her at the waist as the announcer says, “Small in size, easy to use.” The announcer continues, “The Chinese bride has low consumption, due to her small stomach.” The man puts the woman in a closet as the announcer says, “The Chinese bride. You can [store] her anywhere.” And the product comes with a bonus gift — a remote — which you can use to “turn off [her] voice.” The man holds the remote up to the woman’s face to mute her, grinning back at the camera. The commercial ends with the enticement that spare parts are available in any supermarket, and that brides cost only 1,000 Egyptian pounds, plus shipping. Egyptian viewers know that this sum is at least ten times cheaper than a typical marriage.

Last Laugh

This sketch has been uploaded countless times to YouTube since 2010. One video alone has over 200,000 views and continues to garner comments from people who approve of its humor. The sketch resonates in part because it offers comic relief for thousands of Egyptian men who struggle to achieve one of the basic social requirements of manhood. But in this case, as in the broader moral panic over the Chinese in Egypt, the attempt to diagnose social problems mistakes consequences for causes. Pitting Egyptians against mainly working-class Chinese communities in Egypt shields government and business elites who have opened the Egyptian economy in ways that benefit their own interests.

Humor has been a powerful revolutionary tool in the process of trying to transform the economic system that has bred so much immiseration and suffering. One of the key characters in the productive humor of the Egyptian revolution is known as al-wad al-sini — The Chinese Guy — an Internet meme that is a cartoon derived from a photo of the basketball star Yao Ming laughing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Egyptians have, over the past three years, taken the image of The Chinese Guy and placed it next to sarcastic texts that poke fun at various powers that be. One example skewers government mismanagement by playing on the lyrics of a popular revolutionary song: “In every street in my country, the electricity is shut off, guys!” In this genre of humor, The Chinese Guy stands in for a skeptical and savvy Egyptian public. Despite the proliferation of negative images of Chinese, their purchase is not universal. There are many Egyptians who hold no such stereotypes, who cultivate loving marriages with Chinese partners, who seek to do business in China and who lay the blame for the economic situation where it belongs — at the feet of government elites and their cronies. The Chinese Guy, and the Egyptians who use him for biting social commentary, may have the last laugh.


[1] Hanan Kholoussy, “The Fiction (and Non-Fiction) of Egypt’s Marriage Crisis,” Middle East Report Online (December 2010).
[2] Al-Watan Voice, August 27, 2010. [Arabic] [3] Deborah Bräutigam and Xiaoyang Tang, “African Shenzhen: China’s Special Economic Zones in Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies 49/1 (March 2011).
[4] New York Times, August 29, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Jessica Winegar "The Moral Panic Over Chinese in Egypt," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This