Guangzhou is home to Asia’s largest African migrant population, who come to China chasing business opportunities, reputable universities and low living costs. Carlotta Dotto reports.
‘China represents not only the land of our dreams, but an opportunity for all Africa,’ says Jojo, a 33-year-old Ghanaian who left his family and friends in search of fortune.
He recalls that, at the beginning, it was not easy. ‘There is no real employment in the country. You have to be creative and employ yourself.’ After almost four years, Jojo has managed to become a trade representative, mediating business deals between Chinese and Africans, a fashion designer, designing and manufacturing clothes that he sells in both countries, and the owner of an ultra-modern African restaurant in the heart of Guangzhou, together with his Chinese wife.
Nicknamed ‘Little Africa’, the prosperous southern city of Guangzhou is home to Asia’s largest African migrant population, who come to China chasing business opportunities, reputable universities and low living costs.
Although there are no precise figures, more than 15,000 Africans, particularly from Egypt, Mali, the DRC and Nigeria, are estimated to live in the bustling city, which forms part of the Pearl Delta Region – the largest urban area in the world in terms of size and population. More than half a million travel here each year to buy every imaginable ‘Made in China’ product, from air conditioners to fake Nike sneakers, and send them back to Africa.
Dealmakers and dreamers started arriving in China as the country liberalized the economy in the mid-90s, but the number grew in the 2000s as Beijing deepened its economic relations with Africa. China overtook the US as Africa’s largest trading partner nine years ago, and in September 2018 President Xi Jinping pledged a further $60 billion in loans and investments.
Masoud, a 32-year-old medicine student from Niger, who was between one of the 50,000 African students to receive a Chinese government scholarship in 2015 to study abroad, sees China as ‘the new land of opportunities, where anything is possible.’ In less than 15 years the African student body has grown 26-fold thanks to scholarships and each year more students arrive in China from Africa than from any other region, making it the second most popular destination for Africans studying abroad after France, according to UNESCO. Most of those heading to Chinese universities hail from Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Morocco, Eritrea and Cameroon.
Xiaobei Lu, the heart of Guangzhou’s Little Africa, is filled with halal food shops, bilingual signs and women carrying bags on their heads. Africans and Chinese make deals and interact in the polychromatic markets and malls, as the social life in Little Africa revolves mainly around business.
There is of course time in the evening to enjoy the nightlife in the restaurants. The Chinese have a saying: ‘if you want good food go to Guangzhou’. This is also where most Afro-Chinese romances blossom, and each Sunday an on-growing number of mixed families fill churches and mosques, as a new generation of Afro-Chinese children plays in the courtyards.
In the midst of a vibrant conglomerate of economies, languages and ethnicities, the lives of Chinese and Africans are closely knit depending on each other in their daily activities.
But it is far from plain sailing for those who have chosen to set up home here. Poor social-security benefits, almost hardly any adequate medical benefits and stricter migration rules mean that the vast majority of African migrants in the city live under uncertain conditions, ‘often at the mercy of brutal Guangzhou security personnel’, according to author Adams Bodomo. ‘Without a legal path to residency, Africans live mainly at the fringes of society and have to fend completely for themselves and their families.’
Chinese embassies in Africa have made it progressively more difficult to attain visas to enter the country, and opportunities to obtain residence permits or long-term visas have been recently curtailed. At the same time, the control of foreign residents in the city has been tightened.
And as the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau denies African husbands full citizenship rights, families live in the constant fear of being torn apart.
‘Even if they are married and have children, most of the African people never know how long they will be allowed to stay,’ says the researcher Heidi Østbø Haugen. ‘Foreigners cannot buy properties, don’t have any financial security and no legal rights to their kids. They will never be integrated, if they don’t know what the future will bring.’
While the on-growing new generation of mixed-race children born in China have full citizenship, allowing them to attend public schools and be fully integrated, their parents continue to face persistent prejudice and hostility.
‘In China, people are not used to foreigners,’ says Jin Qigang, a 23-year-old waitress from Guangzhou. ‘Most Chinese have never seen foreigners in their lives, so they are very afraid of them, even to touch them or talk. But the situation is changing and we’re getting used to it.’
‘Every day before I leave my house to go to the market, I spend about 10 minutes gathering all the documents that prove that I am legally resident in China,’ explains Yugo (pictured above), from Nigeria, who married a Chinese woman 15 years ago and had 2 children. ‘With the way the current visa system is structured, they let you know that this will never be your home.’
But despite these tough conditions, Yugo is not ready to give up on the Chinese dream. ‘While Europe is rejecting migrants, China is doing a lot for helping us.’
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