What killed Asia's largest African community?
Africans began arriving in Guangzhou in the late 1990s as China's market reforms gained traction and the economy - driven by double digit growth and the burgeoning purchasing power of a billion people - overheated.
China’s economies of scale, mass export potential and lax attitude to counterfeit goods became an unmissable opportunity for many African traders and entrepreneurs acting as middlemen between businesses in Africa and Chinese factories. Everything from knock-off Nike’s to microwaves to tacky key chains were shipped by the container-full to destinations across Africa.
“Guangzhou is the marketplace for all the goods that are produced in the Pearl River Delta, so Africans come to Guangzhou for short periods to buy goods to ship back to Africa, but there’s also many people who have set up longer-term businesses, restaurants, barbershops and all kinds of others things,” noted photographer Daniel Traub in 2015.
In a similar vein, Gordon Mathews, author of The World in Guangzhou argues that the city is the best place in the world to examine what he calls ‘low-end globalization’ - namely globalization as experienced by the majority of the world’s population. Mathews eschews the over-reported influence of multinational corporations, arguing that globalization’s greatest impact has been the web of connections created between individual buyers and sellers around the world.
By capitalizing on globalization’s logistics infrastructure and China's economies of scale many Africans seized the opportunity that China represented. Buying in bulk (combined with China’s low manufacturing costs during the 2000s) allowed many Africans to strike it rich in Guangzhou. For instance, as early as 2002, trader Madina Diallo was sending 250 containers back to Guinea each year, netting him an annual income of some $375,000 - great money anywhere, but a veritable fortune back home where the per capita income is only $470.
Such tales of success led thousands of others to make the journey in the hopes of becoming successful merchants. A 2017 film about the city, aptly titled Guangzhou Dream Factory highlights the grand expectations and naivete of many who make their way to the city.
Perceptions of China also vary depending on where these individuals are coming from; one West African trader explain to Quartz that “Africans who come to China straight from Africa see it as wonderful and they want Africa to be like that. But those who have lived in Europe or the U.S don't like China much [...] For me after the United Kingdom, China was like ‘the world turned upside down’. The laws aren’t followed in China. Contracts are like toilet paper.”
The gap between the glitzy image perpetuated by recent immigrants and reality also led to opportunities for fraud. For instance, many Africans found themselves in Guangzhou after being scammed with promises of factory jobs, despite the fact that such positions are not open to foreigners in the first place. Many of those duped were women, who as a result often fell into sex work in order to survive. Hundreds of thousands more made visits to Guangzhou on shopping holidays to load up on goods for themselves. As a result, by 2012 as many as 100,000 Africans had flocked Guangzhou, according to Africans in China author, Adams Bodomo, professor of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Vienna.
If this figure is to be believed, this would have made Guangzhou home to the largest African community in Asia. It should be noted that there were significant problems when it comes to estimating the number of Africans in Guangzhou during the heady boom years. Many Africans remained in the city illegally after their visas expired, as China’s three to six months visas often did not provide enough time for individuals to conduct their business. As a result, estimates for the number of African residents in Guangzhou between 2010-2014 run anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000.
The latter number would represent two percent of Guangzhou’s population of 14 million, and is simply a rumour according to Chinese police. Specifically, Chinese authorities say that of the 20 million single entry visits by foreigners to Guangzhou in 2016, 200,000 were Africans. This number obviously includes multiple entries by the same individuals as well as visiting shoppers from Africa on short visits.
Moreover, other sources from 2016 list some 100,000 foreigners of all kinds residing in Guangzhou, with only 51,000 having long-term visas, putting claims of 200,000 Africans around 2012 in serious question. That said in 2014, Chinese state media reported that the city was home to some 150,000 Africans, which seems to corroborate higher end tallies of Guangzhou's African population. Conversely, researchers on the ground such as Robert Castillo, lecturer at the African Studies Programme of the University of Hong Kong, maintain that these numbers are greatly over-inflated, with between 15,000-25,000 Africans in the city.
Welcome to ‘Chocolate City’
This confusion over the number of residents is telling, especially in a country like China which keeps strict tabs on the comings and goings of its population. Such population dynamics are indicative of a boom-town, which various neighbourhoods in Guangzhou - collectively known as ‘Chocolate City’ or ‘Little Africa’ by the city’s Chinese inhabitants - effectively became. The neighbourhoods of Xiaobeilu and Guangyuanxi became worlds unto themselves, with an explosion of market stalls, restaurants, shisha bars and a host of other venues catering to the influx of Africans in the city. Instead of Cantonese, English and French dominated, combined with a smattering of Igbo, Swahili, Arabic and a raft of other African languages.
One of the symbols of this boom-town that emerged during these years was a hitherto humble pedestrian bridge. The bridge itself originally played host to a range of vendors, both Chinese and African, acting as a village square and a fitting metaphor for the relationship between the two regions. The eventual implementation of a ban on hawkers by municipal authorities dismantled the bridge’s communal atmosphere.
Said bridge became an informal landmark of 'Little Africa', with thousands having their portraits taken to commemorate their time in China. The 2015 project Little North Road - after the English name of one of Guangzhou’s neighbourhoods - documents the eclectic nature of the city’s African inhabitants and visitors. The eponymous film and book by Daniel Traub and Robert Pledge, features a collection of portraits of Africans in Guangzhou from over 25,000 taken by Chinese photographers Zeng Xian Fang and Wu Yong Fu on the once-bustling bridge.
The difference from the rest of the city was stark, with some Chinese residents complaining that they felt like a foreigner in their own city. Already faced with the demands of mass migration from China’s rural hinterlands, the prospect of dealing with dozens of nationalities and languages was overwhelming for municipal authorities. Trying to keep tabs on thousands of people, many of whom came and went at random, and almost all of whom lacked Chinese language skills was a nightmare, as evidenced by the large number of illegal and undocumented Africans in the city during those years.
In order to facilitate better relations with Chinese authorities, various nationalities in Guangzhou elected (and continue to elect) their own semi-formal representatives, or ‘ambassadors’ to liaise between communities and the police. These ambassadors also arbitrate disputes within their respective communities and organize various events. While such organizations may make communication with the authorities easier, they - representing little pockets of participatory democracy - are also a threat in eyes of the Chinese government, namely civil society elements outside Beijing's purview.
Despite various misgivings as well as cultural and language barriers, many Chinese nevertheless found their way into these districts, both for business and a sense of curiosity. The proliferation of African food exposed many Chinese residents to their first tastes of foreign cuisine, with the more daring foodies leaving their comfort zones to become regular customers at the plethora of African foods stalls and restaurants.
Other Chinese residents began to actively seek out African businesses to patronize in order to improve their English. Even the district’s African sex workers noted that alongside catering to the demands of the (disproportionately male) African community, at least fifty percent of their clients were Chinese men curious about sexual experiences with African women.
At the end of the day, business dominated (and continues to dominate) interactions between Guangzhou’s African and Chinese residents. One interesting industry that has emerged is the trade in human hair in Guangzhou. Primarily sourced from Xuchang county in Henan province, (the home to China’s hair factories), the hair sold by the one hundred or so hair vendors at the Meibocheng Beauty Exchange Centre in Guangzhou is tailored to the city’s African clientele. Meibocheng is the largest hair trading centre in Guangzhou, and possibly China; all the vendors are Chinese (many relatives of those working in the hair business in Henan), the majority of customers are African.
While some long-term African residents have learned Cantonese or Mandarin, most interactions between the two communities is facilitated by ‘calculator communication’. As business dominates, buyers and sellers interact by using basic phrases while typing in competing offers into calculators to show their counterparts, wherein the other displays agreement of disapproval.
Part pantomime, part numerical creole, this system of communication highlights the limited nature by which the two communities interact. As I reviewed various articles, interviews and other media about the African community in Guangzhou it became abundantly clear that few Africans had any meaningful contact with their Chinese counterparts, and vice versa: almost all interviewees stated that they were not part of any interracial friendships.
This divide is not unique to various diaspora communities and the ghettos which often spring up in the wake of mass migration to foreign lands. That being said, it does highlight the sense of 'otherness' experienced by Africans in China. The African enclave that sprung up in Guangzhou surprised and confused Chinese officials unaccustomed to such migration patterns. The disquiet experienced by the local government was apparent as early as 2008, with Wikileaks detailing how Guangzhou's authorities were “extremely concerned” by the visible African population in the city.
These fears were heightened by the 2009 protests (and clashes with riot police) in Guangzhou following the death of a Nigerian man who jumped to his death rather than face a passport check by Chinese authorities. These protests marked the first large scale, foreigner-led demonstration in China, and one that catapulted Guangzhou’s African community to national attention. A similar protest occurred in June 2012 after a Nigerian man died in police custody under suspicious circumstances after being arrested following a dispute over a taxi fare.
What China giveth, China taketh away
While foreigners in China account for less than one person in two thousand, fears of a ‘foreign takeover’ repeatedly crop up in Chinese media and government sources; multicultural immigration is painted by many as the harbinger of the dilution of the Chinese race, culture and nation. Despite the stark decrease in the number of Africans in Guangzhou in recent years, political fear mongering about the impact of Africans continues. As recent as March 2017 senior Chinese politicians expressed concerns about Guangzhou’s ‘African question.’ Speaking on the issue, Pan Qinglin - a member of the country’s top political advisory board, the People’s Political Consultative Conference - argued that:
“Black brothers often travel in droves; they are out at night, out on the streets, nightclubs, and remote areas. They engage in drug trafficking, harassment of women, and fighting, which seriously disturbs law and order in Guangzhou [...] Africans have a high rate of AIDS and the Ebola virus that can be transmitted via bodily fluids [...] If their population [keeps growing], China will change from a nation-state to an immigration country, from a yellow country to a black-and-yellow country.”
When rhetoric from China’s highest echelons matched that of Guangzhou’s officials, the stage was set for a coordinated crackdown on ‘Little Africa.’ Years before Pan’s comments, the wheels were already in motion to begin dismantling Asia’s largest African community. In an effort to clamp down of individuals with expired visas, local authorities instituted an aggressive campaign of police checkpoints and document checks, rounding up thousands in the process.
This campaign was bolstered by the 2011 Guangdong Act, which offered Chinese citizens rewards for reporting on foreigners with expired or forged documentation. Furthermore, the new legislation made it illegal for employers, hoteliers and educational institutions to serve illegal migrants, with heavy fines for offending businesses. The act also allowed any police officer, not just members of the Foreign Affairs Bureau to stop foreigners and ask for documentation.
The frequent police raids increasingly contributed to a toxic atmosphere, which combined with legislation banning street vendors only hastened the demise of Guangzhou’s African enclave. Obtaining a visa in Guangdong (the province of which Guangzhou is the capital) had long been difficult, yet most Africans simply opted renew their documents with the more accommodating authorities in neighbouring Hong Kong of Macau.
New legislation implemented by the Chinese government soon closed this work-around, as foreigners now had to return their home countries to renew their visas, a tremendous burden for the majority of Africans in Guangzhou who could only obtain three or six-month visas. Another hurdle is the fact that only foreigners with a coveted one year visa were likely to secure accommodation from Chinese landlords.
In 2013 China went further, updating legislation governing foreigners - the Entry-Exit Administration Law - for the first time since 1986. Africans hoping for reforms were swiftly disappointed as the government merely introduced harsher penalties for overdue visas and illegal workers. In 2014, Guangzhou authorities demolished large swathes of Little Africa's common areas and roads in the name of beautification; banning vendors during and after the renovations. The changes saw the elimination of the eclectic and bustling street markets that provided the livelihood for many Africans in the area, with wider streets and several new police stations and security checkpoints effectively sterilizing the neighbourhood's character.
What of 'Little Africa’s' interracial families?
The exodus of many Africans from Guangzhou saw Little Africa’s boom-town population collapse as the mass of primarily young, single men left for greener pastures. That being said, settled long-term residents (some with more than a decade in the city) are still facing the same kinds of economic and legal pressures.
“Sadly I’ve heard African men saying if the economy slows down, and business goes bad they will have to leave, even if their families do not follow them,” remarks Castillo. “People without [options in China] are worried about the prospect of being forced to abandon their families.”
The growing numbers of interracial marriages in Guangzhou provide both parties with the means to fulfil their aspirations. Romantic considerations aside, for Africans in the city having a Chinese wife allows for better communication with Chinese customers, with many wives becoming business partners. Chinese spouses also help with visa requirements as well as in interacting with local authorities.
It is interesting to note that many interracial marriages are not occurring between Africans and Guangzhou citizens, but rather with Chinese migrants from the country's rural hinterlands. For these women, many successful African businessmen represent access to greater prosperity and a higher standard of living, with business success doing much to win over prospective Chinese in-laws.
The growing number of African-Chinese marriages in the wake of the African influx adds another wrinkle to the local dynamic, as government rules threaten the breakup of many of these families should African husbands fail to secure visa renewals.
Worries over constant visa renewals severely hamper the efforts of African men to plan for their futures, putting family ties at risk. To this end, some Africans in Guangzhou have begun to demand better access to visas for individuals with families in the city. For instance, back in 2012, Ojukwu Emmanuel of the Nigerian-Chinese Family Forum lobbied the local government for more lenient visas for the group’s 200 or so interracial couples and their offspring. The Guangzhou Public Security Bureau (PSB) was swayed, providing members of the aforementioned group with three-year, renewable visas. While a significant victory, the Nigerian-Chinese Family Forum encompasses only a tiny amount of Guangzhou’s African population.
Moreover, it is uncertain as to whether the change of heart by Guangzhou’s authorities will set a precedent or if it was a one-off concession. Elements which point to the latter include the fact that (in 2012) Nigerians constituted the largest demographic in Little Africa, and that unrest in the same year as well as in 2009 both centred around the treatment of Nigerians by the police. Consequently, this move by the PSB can be seen as a move to placate this large and vocal sub-group.
Macro-economics hastens Little Africa’s demise
It is important to note that while China made little effort to make Guangzhou more welcoming from 2011 onwards, changing economic circumstances arguably played a larger role in the decline of Little Africa. Originally drawn by China’s cheap manufacturing costs, the margins for many African traders steadily dwindled due to rising wages: between 2001 and 2016 hourly manufacturing wages in China increased by an average of twelve percent per year.
Moreover, as African customers back home became more familiar with Chinese products, particularly the raft of fakes pouring out of the country. No longer fooled by Chinese imitations of Western products, they began to demand lower prices. This mirrored the Chinese government’s crackdown on fakes during the same period in order to improve trading relations with the West and cultivate greater respect for intellectual property rights at home.
Other important factors were the steady appreciation of the yuan during this period as well as the ‘dollar drought’ among many West African countries. The collapse of oil prices and the end of the commodity super-cycle in 2014-2015 further squeezed profits for African entrepreneurs. With foreign currencies harder to access, trade suffered since most deals were conducted in dollars, as indicated by the legions of money-changers sporting thick wads of American bills catering to Guangzhou’s foreign trader population.
Lower margins saw many African traders and other boom-town residents pack their bags and seek out cheaper markets in countries like India, Vietnam and Bangladesh. The maturation of the economies of China’s coastal cities has also seen a shift in migration patterns to cheaper provinces such as Henan and Hubei. The Chinese government is also more comfortable with the idea of a diffused African presence: any ghettoization or concentration of Africans (or other foreigners for that matter) in one place makes Beijing nervous. Africans are also increasingly being drawn away from Guangzhou to Zhejiang province, with Wenzhou and Yiwu both popular destinations.
In many ways Yiwu mirrors Guangzhou, with the former famous for its small commodities trade: Yiwu exported $7.56 billion worth of goods to Africa in 2015 alone. Yiwu is described as “Walmart on steroids” - producing half the world’s Christmas presents; it’s other name is ‘Sock City’ as the city pumps out three billion pairs of socks annually. The city is also experiencing the same kind of population influx that characterized the heady days of Little Africa in Guangzhou; some 3,000 Africans call the city of two million home, but experts claim the actual number could be ten times as many. If this is the case, then that means that there are - proportionally - more Africans in Yiwu than Guangzhou at its height (1.5 percent vs. 1.07 percent of the population).
This growing African population has led to efforts to document this new facet of life in Yiwu. To this end, Saudi-born, Somali Hodan Osman Abdi, researcher and lecturer at Zhejiang Normal University’s Institute of African Studies (IASZNU) and her colleague Zhang Yong are working on a six-part documentary titled Africans in Yiwu to explore the lives and stories of Africans in the city. Speaking on why she decided on the project, Abdi states that “what spiked my interest in the project was the desire to increase the presence of Africans in Chinese media. As China becomes more and more globalized, diversity needs to be seen as a positive thing for people to embrace.”
Drawn by China’s heady growth and awe-inspiring economies of scale, thousands of Africans journeyed to the Middle Kingdom during the first decade and a half of the new millennium, hoping to capitalize on claims that the 21st century would belong to China. Cheap goods, guided by the hand of globalization’s logistics network, flowed from cities such as Guangzhou to the African continent making many a middleman rich in the process.
Tales of success soon drew the naive and nefarious alike, with Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’ transforming into a veritable boom-town, replete with an optimism and cast of characters that would not have been out place in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush. Young men seeking their fortunes poured into Guangzhou, quickly become a serious concern for Chinese authorities worried about the concentration of so many foreigners in one location. Tensions with the police over visas, crime and discrimination also led to increasing calls by locals and politicians to clamp down on African immigration.
The implementation of increasingly harsh visa regulations as well as China’s maturing economy meant that the conditions which initially sustained the creation of ‘Little Africa’ were eroding. The result: a ninety percent drop in the number of Africans in the city. Many moved on to the cheaper regions of China, while others sought new opportunities in less developed markets in Southeast Asia. Those who have settled down and raised families find that their margins continue to shrink, while the government makes little effort to facilitate their stay in China.
Whether cities such as Yiwu will become the next hotspot for African migrants remains to be seen, although the city is already displaying some of the same boom-town characteristics. The experiences of Africans and Chinese authorities in Guangzhou may yet serve as a template to learn from past mistakes and create more welcoming and sustainable communities elsewhere in the country.
Edits and additions regarding estimates of Guangzhou's African population made after discussion with Robert Castillo. The author would like to thank Mr. Castillo for his insights on the matter.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.