The year is 2009. The location is Tangqi wholesale mall in Guangzhou, China. Little shops, some the size of storage units, line the mall’s breezeways selling cheap goods of dubious quality. The sound of tape ripping and snapping fills the air as the wholesalers begin to prepare their clothes for shipment back to their origin countries in Africa. Many of these wholesalers hold advanced degrees from universities back in their home countries but unfortunately, a lack of opportunity led them to become wholesalers in China’s lucrative manufactured clothing game. All of a sudden, destroying the calm focus of the Tangqi wholesale mall, plainclothes officers spring into action, beginning a raid of the mall to arrest undocumented workers and enforcing China’s strict immigration laws. In the panic, one undocumented worker, Emanuelle Okoro, a citizen of Nigeria, leaps two stories to his death to escape the clutches of Chinese immigration police. In protest, over 100 African expats carried Okoro’s bloody and lifeless body to the nearest police station. For over six hours, they blocked a busy Guangzhou intersection, ripped up plants in anguish, waved tree limbs, and loudly denounced harsh immigration enforcement by local Chinese police officials. The protests were put down swiftly and harshly by Chinese police. This is ‘Africatown’ (Porzucki 2012).
The Chinese Dream
‘Africatown’ wasn’t always like this. Before the shattered dreams, immigration raids, and dwindling population, ‘Little Africa’– or derisively called ‘Chocolate City’ by some Chinese — was an economic hub for African expats and a cultural center for hundreds of thousands of Africans living in China. In the mid-1990s, China’s economy began opening up and forming lucrative trade partnerships with the African continent. In 2000, Beijing held the China-African Cooperation Conference with just this goal in mind. Soon, frustrated by lack of opportunity in their homeland, wealthier Africans, many with money to spend for travel, and 40% of whom had tertiary degrees from African universities, began to look to China as a ‘promised land’ of economic opportunity (Marsh 2016). Go east, young man!
Traders and wholesalers came from the African continent in droves, settling in Guangzhou because of its plethora of factories. Buying direct from the factories, African expats began buying everything from fake Levi’s to high-end electronics in bulk and selling it on the streets of “Little Africa” for profit. However, the real money came from shipping these goods back home to Africa where they could be sold for even more. Expensive goods exported to Africa from other parts of the world couldn’t compete with the rock-bottom prices set by exporters from China, and soon African traders in China began to corner the market to great profits (Marsh 2016). In 2015, a quick survey showed that 20% of traders in Little Africa were earning upwards of USD $4800 a month, more than local workers in China were making at the time. Some traders even reported earning over USD $300,000 a year through this lucrative venture (Kuwonu 2018). Just like the gold rush of the 1800s, where there is money to be made, that is where people will flock.
However, characterizing African migrants to Guangzhou as economic migrants, or characterizing migration to be solely in the direction of Africa to China, would be an oversimplification. As Professor of Global Development at the University of Helsinki, Franklin Obeng-Odoom states, “African migration to China confirms [a] circular and combined causation of migration [between Africa and China]. The Nigerians who send an estimated $8million daily to Guangzhou for business transactions (Lee, 2014, p. 32) are driven by a panoply of factors. Differential cost of production between Nigeria and China is one of them. The prevalence of duty-free regulations that apply to goods exported from China is another (Lee, 2014, p.34). The limited opportunity for public sector employment in Nigeria is a third factor. Other African migrants first went to China as students. They became labour migrants during or after their studies through a mosaic of reasons. Consider the social spaces that their education in China opened and inter-marriage. These are not necessarily related to business cycles” (Obeng-Odoom 2021, 8). Evidently, African migration to Guangzhou is part of a circular migration pattern between China and Africa indicative of deepening relations between the two countries. Although the reasons for initial migration may seem economically motivated, they often take on a deeper social meaning.
Whatever the reasons for migration, what is undeniable is the speed at which it occurred. Soon, the once quiet urban village of Dengfeng in Guangzhou became reinvigorated by the vibrant new African expats coming to the area for trade (Marsh 2016). Nigerian missionaries began a pilgrimage to spread the word of God in ‘Africatown’ (Watts 2013), Afrobeat became the sound of the city, and English, Igbo, and Yoruba became the sound of commerce in the bustling markets (Schiller 2009). De-facto governments even began to form based on country of origin. Immigrants from each country elected a leader to keep track of the comings and goings of each countries’ citizens, and a greater representative was chosen from among that group to oversee all of ‘Africatown,’ similar to Tammany Hall (Marsh 2016).
Most importantly, African restaurants began popping up in Dengfeng, serving as crucial cultural centers of heritage and placemaking for the ‘Africatown’ of Guangzhou. As Professor Adams Bodomo of the University of Vienna details, “During important sports events, like the Soccer World Cup, Africans who follow soccer religiously are seen glued to large-screen television sets while eating and drinking at these African community spots that the restaurants have become. These restaurants have not just become merely places to get together momentarily; they indeed serve as spots where Africans come together to meet people of the same cultural backgrounds and interests” (Bodomo 2012, 17). Many miles away from their homeland, the Africans of Guangzhou seek familiar solace in the warm embrace of the dinner table and the comfortable hum of soccer in the background.
If it sounds like a thriving African enclave peacefully coexisting with neighboring communities in the middle of a bustling 21st century manufacturing epicenter was too good to be true, that’s because it is. Boasting an estimated 100,000 African expats at its peak in 2012, experts estimate that Africatown’s population is less than half of that today. The reasons many say for this population decline are as wide and varied as the goods sold in a bustling Guangzhou market, and by the end of this article, I hope you will draw your own conclusions about which had the most to do with this modern-day lost paradise.
Many simply blame the population decline of ‘Africatown’ on dollars and cents. The economic opportunity dried up, and so did the population, like a 21st century mining boomtown. As China’s economy continued to mature, its worker wages also continued to increase, and the price of goods in China went up. After a while, some claim, the price of goods became too high to justify buying and reselling goods to Africa, and many expats went to neighboring countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam, where the price of goods was lower, to conduct their trade. This compounded with a depreciation of many African currencies against the Yuan caused the central banks of many African countries to restrict access to paper currency overseas, making trade in China untenable and causing many expats to pack up shop and move elsewhere (Marsh 2016).
However, many blame outright racist and hostile treatment by Chinese natives as the main reason that caused African expats to lose patience with ‘Africatown.’ Almost universally, Africans describe feeling like “a celebrity for all the wrong reasons” when walking on the streets of Guangzhou wheremany Chinese watched and pointed at them, with some even taking pictures of them simply for the color of their skin (Whitehead 2014). Unfortunately, many Africans encountered racism after spending a few months in China. Whether it be taxi drivers refusing to pick up African riders (Watts 2013), discrimination in business, or even racist advertisements on TV (Marsh 2020), it seems that African expats in China can’t help but encounter explicit racism. On Chinese neighborhood social media sites, conversation often devolves in extreme xenophobia with, for example, a local Guangzhou landlady writing on Netease that a black tenants’ skin color came off on the white walls of the apartment of the apartment she had rented out (Marsh 2016), and one blogger on the Chinese site Tianya writing, “A lot of Chinese don’t like Africans, but there’s nothing we can do. They’re flooding into Guangzhou” (Pomfret 2009). In addition, English signs advertising local trade and the thriving street markets that were the cultural epicenter of ‘Africatown’ were torn down and shoved out of view by the local Chinese government in the name of “beautification” (Marsh 2016).
The social costs of racism in Guangzhou are high, particularly for African migrants who marry local women and try to make a living by renting storefronts. As Professor Obeng-Odoom explains, “Migrants’ bi-racial, Afro-Chinese families face widespread racism and ostracism at school and at work. They become, as Robert Coles (1971) famously theorised, ‘children of crisis’. The local ‘growth machine’ (Molotch, 1976) that generates economic boom in migrant towns based on iterative and interactive networks and interactions with locals and institutions (Obeng-Odoom, 2016, pp. 83-106; Saunavaara, 2017; Wang and Giovanis, 2019) also creates major problems. A local property market is called forth by the activities of African migrants, but Chinese landlords extract significant rent by either letting or subletting their shops to Africans. This stream of rental payment enables landlords to live as rentiers, capturing rents which are socially created” (Obeng-Odoom 2021, 11-12). Evidently, even attempting to perform activities that should be commonplace, such as marriage or renting space, are met with stern otherization by Guangzhou society.
Unfortunately, recent pandemics like Ebola and coronavirus, intensified racism against the African community in Guangzhou, with racist platitudes mimicking legitimate ‘public health concerns.’ During recent coronavirus waves in China, Africans describe being evicted from their apartments without cause, being subjected to forced and frequent testing, and being turned away from hotels and restaurants. The Chinese government claims the West is just exaggerating isolated incidents of racism for foreign policy gain, but the videos, stories, and words of Africans living in China clearly tell a different story (Marsh 2020) (Davidson 2020).
Perhaps the most direct cause of the population decline of ‘Africatown’ is the recent crackdown of illegal immigration in Guangzhou. Many Africans living in Guangzhou are undocumented due to China’s strict and uneven visa laws. Obtaining short-term 30-day visas to Guangzhou is relatively easy. In fact, if an African wanted to get a visa to attend the International Canton Trade Fair and then return home after 30 days, some Africans describe the process as even easier than obtaining a visa to the US. However, 30 days is too short a time to conduct meaningful and profitable trade business, so many Africans find that they need extensions on their visas. Obtaining visa extensions through official channels is an arduous and lengthy process. On the other hand, paying a Chinese agent to obtain a visa the quick way can cost upwards of USD $2,000, and for many traders it makes more economic sense to allow their visa to lapse and take their chances as an undocumented trader (Pomfret 2009).
When Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping described the opening up and reform process in the 1980s that accelerated China’s economic growth and positioned it as a leader on the global stage, he cautioned against runaway immigration writing, “Once we open our window, flies and mosquitoes will come in as well.” It seems that Chinese immigration policy continues to follow this maxim (Porzucki 2012). Instead of making visa extensions easier or making the process to obtain longer-term work visas less arduous, Chinese officials instead began a crackdown on immigration of epic proportions. China updated its Exit-Entry Administration Law in 2013 to harshen penalties for those who overstay their visas. Guangzhou has begun to issue shorter and fewer visas, causing many Africans to try and obtain visas from different provinces with more lenient visa policies (Marsh 2016). Some Africans in China also have a perception that the Chinese immigration officials are corrupt and brutal. This is compounded by reports of Chinese officials conducting raids purely to shake down liquid African traders for cash, and Chinese officials detaining African immigrants for months before allowing them to pay their fine and go back to Africa (Porzucki 2012). This, coupled with Africans being stopped on the street for random visa checks, and their places of worship and business being constantly raided, made the conditions ripe for the rare rebuke of the Chinese government that we saw in 2009.
The Bigger Picture
The current treatment of African migrants in Guangzhou is an exercise in what treatment African governments are willing to tolerate in the name of strengthening their relations with China. African relations with China have always been strong. African governments have repeatedly stood up for China on the international stage, including issues like China’s membership in the UN in the 1970s, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang (Li 2020). They have even bought into China’s One-China policy, shifting support from Taipei to Beijing. As Bhaso Ndzendze of the University of Johannesburg states, “African countries who switched support from Taipei to Beijing between 2001 and 2016 did so to avert the opportunity cost of losing Chinese aid and to enhance trade access. The results I obtained signify that there was an economic motivation at play in switching support, highlighting an important aspect of African realpolitik: African countries use their agency in their relationship with Beijing to maintain funding streams” (Ndzendze 2019). Driven by a desire for shared economic success, African relations with China have mainly been sunny, but treatment of Africans in China has evoked harsh rebukes from African governments. The Nigerian ambassador to China met with Chinese government officials to urge the Chinese government to do something about the local mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou. A group of African ambassadors in Beijing even wrote a letter of complaint to the Chinese government asking them to respond to what they felt was “discrimination and stigmatization” of Africans by Guangzhou officials and landlords.
This outcry is not unjustified. After all, China is not upholding its end of the bargain. Specifically, it is not upholding its commitment to the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which China ratified in 1981. The convention’s language specifically states that governments are to “[f]ully implement legislation and other measures already in place to ensure that people of African descent are not discriminated against” (ICERD 1965). Furthermore, governments should “[r]eview, adopt and implement national strategies and programmes with a view to improving the situation of people of African descent and protecting them against discrimination by State agencies and public officials, as well as by any persons, group or organization” (ICERD 1965). China is clearly in violation of this treaty, not just by being passive towards the blatant racism and xenophobia currently present in Guangzhou, but also by facilitating racially motivated immigration policies and pandemic measures.
Whatever the reason for the decline of Guangzhou’s once-thriving ‘Africatown,’ it is clear that ‘Africatown’ is a shell of its former self. The bustling markets have been sidelined, shops close up halfway through the day because there is simply not enough foot traffic to justify them staying open, and the leaders of ‘Africatown’s’ de-facto self-government speak fondly of economic opportunities in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and back home.
However, one question may linger in the minds of readers as this article draws to a close: why should I care?
‘Africatown’ was an ethnic and racial enclave that existed halfway around the globe that rose and fell in the span of less than 30 years, so why does it matter to anyone not invested in the China-Africa trade dynamic? I believe that the reason to care is also economic in nature: opportunity cost. What could have been? What could have been if the African community and the surrounding city of Guangzhou could have found a way to intermingle socially as well as economically? If Chinese officials did not weaponize China’s rigid visa system to push out African migrants? Could it have served as a model for diverse communities across the globe dealing with ethnic and racial strife? Surely if China, one of the most conservative cultures in the world, could have found a way to welcome a community of educated African traders, Europe could learn to find a way to welcome refugees from war-torn Syria, and America could have learned to welcome immigrants from its Southern border. What could have been if Guangzhou became a land of opportunity for African traders? Could it have meant a panacea for the pain of a continent still grappling with the shadow of its imperialist past? Indeed, the opportunity cost of the failure of ‘Africatown’ seems even greater than the dashed economic hopes of the tens of thousands of traders who left ‘Africa town’ in search of greater opportunity. Today, what haunts ‘Africatown’ even more than the faded sound of Afrobeat or the increasingly hushed voices of business transactions being conducted in Yoruba is that one remaining question: what could have been?”
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