Posted by: Home Strange Home | November 3, 2010

China in Africa, but what about Africa(ns) in China?

A continual hot topic of discussion has been the role of China in Africa, which is now China’s second largest trading partner after the US.  An often-cited example of this is the presence of Chinese workers in Africa, who migrate there on a temporary basis to work on Chinese-financed infrastructure projects.  But a lesser-known phenomenon is the movement in the opposite direction, of Africans to China.  Some 20,000 Africans live in China according to the Chinese government, but this is estimated to be closer to 100,000 according to a researcher at the University of Hong Kong.

With the tightening of European borders, and the effects of the global recession which have hit Western economies harder than China, Africans are looking away from “traditional” immigration destinations and toward business opportunities in the East.  The increase in African immigrants to China began as early as 1998 and picked up pace after China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001.  From 2003 to 2007, the number of African migrants to China increased a rate of 30-40% per year.

However, despite an upward trend over the past decade, in the last two years the African population has decreased somewhat because of changes to the immigration laws.  Previously, Africans were able to get unlimited, multiple-entry visas.  But in 2008, prior to the Peking Olympics, the Chinese authorities adopted a tougher stance vis-à-vis undocumented Africans and completely stopped renewing visas within the country, forcing businessmen to return to their home country to renew their business visas.  Some Africans ended up getting deported or detained in immigration centers or prisons – in the first half of 2009, 77% of foreigners detained for illegal immigration and visa expiry were African.

These African migrants are unquestionably economic – they go to China to earn money.  The vast majority of Africans arriving in China are tradesmen and small-scale entrepreneurs, a so-called “transnational commercial African bourgeoisie.”  For example, 90% of Africans in Canton province are businessmen.  Many resident Africans act as intermediaries between Chinese factories and clients on the African continent, a place where Chinese businessmen consider it dangerous to operate.

Each year, thousands of containers full of Chinese goods are shipped to ports in Africa (Dakar, Mombasa, Abidjan, Douala), increasing in volume by 294% between 2003 and 2007.  Around 90% of products on African markets are made in China, Thailand, or Indonesia – even “typically” African products such as wax cloth prints are manufactured by Chinese suppliers.  China is supplying Africa with products 4 to 5 times cheaper than European imports, which is good for the purchasing power of African people, but bad for the local economy in that nothing is manufactured locally.  Some refer to the trend as a sort of “Chinese neocolonialism.”

Many African immigrants gravitate to the industrial city of Guangzhou, located in the south of China two hours away from Hong Kong by train.  A section of the town where many of them live is referred to as “Africatown” and nicknamed “Chocolate City” by the Chinese.  As the name may imply, they are not always welcome here.  The African population is often stigmatized by the Chinese population, who regard them with fear, distaste, and even overt racism.  Integration is difficult, with Africans often resting on the fringes of Chinese society, although inter-marriages are becoming increasingly common and a growing number of Africans are learning Chinese at local universities or Confucius Institutes.

When we think about Chinese involvement in Africa, we usually think about the Chinese government cutting deals directly with African governments.  And we think more about China doing business in Africa than the other way around.  But there is a more nuanced story of a two-way exchange that is occurring at the level of individual African businessmen and businesswomen living in China.

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