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Africans in Guangzhou: How foreign trade is changing China

But are the good times over as familiar tensions surface?

Front entrance of the Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market in Guangzhou

Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market, Guangzhou

According to estimates, the number of Africans in Guangzhou can be put at anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000. Since the late 1990s, the city has been a magnet for African traders looking to capitalize on the growing demand for cheap goods back home and the availability of those goods in China. With its close proximity to the manufacturing heartland of Guangdong, Guangzhou quickly became the default destination for newly arrived Africans in the workshop of the world.

I hadn’t actually planned to be in Guangzhou at all. But arriving late on the first day of Qing Ming was never going to work out well. With all tickets to Beijing sold out until at least the next day, and no hotels around the station accepting foreign guests, I soon found myself being driven, bags and all, on some kind of lawnmower-sized truck through the late night streets to God knows where.

But instead of being driven a short way from the station as I’d been promised by the strange, hotel-touting woman I’d found, we had, for all appearances, pulled up in some kind of African trading town. Everyone was black, and if they weren’t black they were Moroccan or Algerian or of some other North African-looking origin. On the street, people sat outside restaurants, some with shisha and coffee, others eating grilled kebabs that were smoking away across the road. Inside, huge packages were being shifted in and out of lifts with bundles and boxes stacked on top. As far as I could tell from those spilling out, lying around or otherwise dumped where there was space, clothes were the primary contents and there was little room for anything else.

I later found out we were in the middle of the largest African community in Asia. Indeed, such are the numbers of Africans in Guangzhou, the area around the Yuexiu and Baiyun districts has come to be known among many locals as Chocolate City or Africatown. The area has traditionally been the gathering place of immigrants since before the China-Africa trade took off. It is now home to the majority of Guangzhou Africans that call the city their home, and most of those that don’t.

Suit stores inside Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market, Guangzhou

“Suits You!” Inside Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market, Guangzhou

The majority of Africans in Guangzhou originate from West African countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon and Liberia. They come to China, and to Guangzhou in particular, because goods are cheap. Labour costs are low, which mean goods can be manufactured inexpensively and traders can purchase at wholesale prices before shipping them back to Africa for profit.

Large-scale wholesale markets such as the Canaan Export Clothes and Trading Centre sprung up in the early 2000s and much of the business of buying and selling has gone on there and in places like it ever since. Factory seconds or end of line goods, from handbags and denim to mobile phones can be found, along with fake copies of every well-known brand you could imagine. Almost all of it will find its way into the eager hands of African consumers thousands of miles away as dozens of countries seek to satisfy demand for luxuries never before so widely available or affordable.

The extent of this China-Africa relationship has gone a long way towards helping China overtake the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner, with billions of dollars-worth of goods and materials being traded between the two each year. In 2010, for instance, China-Africa trade was worth US$114 billion. That rose to US$166 billion in 2011 and to almost US$164 billion in the first 10 months of 2012. There are an estimated 800 Chinese companies currently operating in Africa and an estimated 1 million Chinese citizens are now said to be resident on the continent.

Back in Guangzhou, however, since the African boom of the mid-2000s, when a 30-40% rise in Africans arriving in the city was seen year on year, there has since been a perceived crackdown on illegal residence amongst the African community. With official estimates of the number of permanent African residents in the city usually quoted around 20,000, the actual figure is likely many times higher as many have overstayed their visas and remain in China on questionable legal ground. As a result, renewal of tourist visas and the granting of employment visas has become much more troublesome, police raids have become much more frequent, and the feeling of increased ill-treatment amongst the Guangzhou African community is becoming a regular part of daily life.

Inside Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market, Guangzhou

China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, with billions of dollars-worth of goods being traded between the two each year

This could, of course, be put down to the authorities simply doing their job. Illegal immigration and the overstaying of visas is, after all, illegal. But there is a sense in Guangzhou that while some foreigners are left to get on with their business relatively hassle free, the immigration status of certain others is viewed as needing rather more heavy handed scrutiny than one would ordinarily deem necessary.

Stories of protests, detentions, fines, accidents and even the recent deaths of some who have jumped from buildings in desperation to avoid the police, have brought this complex set of problems further towards the spotlight of discussion. As the president of the Association of the Nigerian Community in Guangzhou said in a 2010 interview with the Guardian newspaper: “You go home: the police are knocking on your door. You are on the street: police will hold you. You are on the bus, inside a restaurant – it’s everywhere.”

Segregation from the local population hasn’t helped matters. China has never been an immigrant nation. But though such separation is in some ways understandable, as the rather less than tactful ‘Chocolate City’ moniker suggests, it has led to issues such as racism and the effects of immigration assuming much more significance in Guangzhou than they have previously warranted.

Each side needs to play their part in solving these issues. China’s growing influence in Africa needs to be balanced by an appreciation of the role Africans in China play in sustaining the relationship. While many of the traders’ complaints centre around the inability of Africans in China to do business under tightening visa regulations. The recent clampdown has only heightened tensions in what seems a self-perpetuating deterioration of relations, but whatever the rules, if rules are not adhered to, consequences generally follow.

With busines having dropped off since the early boom days and conditions becoming ever more intolerable, many Africans in Guangzhou have already taken the decision to leave the city in order to seek more tolerant places to do business. But while it may not be the free-for-all it once was, Guangzhou is still the primary destination for Africans in China looking to do business. If it is to remain so, however, it seems much more is needed to be done in order to prevent this unique relationship disappearing under a cloud of prejudice and mistrust.

Dirty hotel bathroom with broken tiles, sink and shower

Not exactly five star. The bathroom of my Y120 room for the night.

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