Trouble in China's little Africa
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - In order to tap into Africa's rich mineral and oil resources, China has injected billions of dollars in aid and investment into the continent while at the same time giving a free pass on despotism and human-rights abuses to nations such as Zimbabwe and Sudan. Chinese merchants and laborers are also increasingly a presence.

This has given rise to heated international debate over whether Chinese leaders are practicing a new form of colonialism and whether ordinary Africans, and not just a corrupt elite, are benefiting from China's involvement.

A subplot often overlooked in this larger story, however, is the increasing number of Africans who have come to China to ply their trade. Lured by the promise of China's prolonged economic boom, they have arrived by the thousands seeking cheap goods that they can resell back home for a profit.

The southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the country's (and much of the world's) manufacturing hub, has seen the largest influx of Africans, with most of them doing business in a single neighborhood in the provincial capital city of Guangzhou. An estimated 20,000 Africans now live in Guangzhou, with thousands more regularly streaming through the city as visitors who buy pirated DVDs and Chinese-made clothes, shoes, electronics and other products for resale back home.

That makes Africans the largest foreign population in the city - and their numbers in Guangzhou more than double those in Beijing and Shanghai combined.

African traffic to and from Guangzhou has grown to the point that, in November of 2008, Kenya Airways began the first non-stop flight from Africa to the Chinese mainland with its Nairobi to Guangzhou express. Indeed, Guangzhou has become such a haven for Africans from a variety of different countries that the Canaan Export Clothes and Trading Center in and around which they thrive is referred to by locals as "Chocolate City".

The Canaan market opened six years ago. In that time, other imitation markets, filled with African buyers bargaining with Chinese sellers, have sprouted around it, giving the impression of a Little Africa in Guangzhou.

In the name of promoting China and its communist ideology, African students have long been accepted into Chinese universities, resulting in series of racial clashes on campuses across the country in the 1980s. But this is China's first encounter with the continent's business class.

Not surprisingly, again there are problems. The racism and harassment that this new wave of Africans faces has created tensions that at times have boiled over into ugliness. In July, for example, after two Nigerians were injured, one severely, while trying to avoid an aggressive passport check by Guangzhou police, 200 of their African compatriots staged a rare protest by foreigners on Chinese soil, snarling traffic in the city for hours.

China has a rich history of anti-foreigner demonstrations. There was the Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 1901, an uprising against Western imperialism and the rising influence of Christian missionaries. That was followed by the May Fourth Movement of 1919, protesting the Chinese government's anemic response to the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I but reinforced European domination of China and gave Shandong province, controlled by Germany during the war, to Japan.

More recently, pilgrimages by Japanese leaders such as former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine - a sacred Shinto memorial dedicated to Japanese soldiers, including World War II war criminals, who died fighting to uphold the emperor - ignited angry nationalistic protests in China. In addition, there have been demonstrations against the French international hypermarket chain Carrefour after protesters in Paris interrupted China’s Summer Olympic Games torch relay last year.

The Chinese diaspora also got into the act when, following Beijing's crackdown on riots in Tibet last year, thousands of Chinese Americans and overseas Chinese gathered in front of the Hollywood offices of the American cable news network CNN to protest remarks by a CNN commentator, Jack Cafferty, characterizing Chinese leaders as "goons and thugs".

By contrast, foreigners in China usually keep their mouths shut. After all, most of them are well-heeled professionals cashing in on China's rise as an economic world power. They live in comfort, quite likely make more money than they did at home and do not want to risk deportation with complaints about the Chinese government.

The African traders in Guangzhou, however, do not fit the usual expatriate profile. They are a foreign underclass generally living in shabby quarters and treated as second-class citizens and third-world poachers who are trying to elbow their way into the light of China's economic miracle.

Media stereotypes portray them as unreliable and untrustworthy, some taxi drivers refuse to pick them up and local police routinely harass them with visa checks, which only intensified in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, hosted by Beijing. Since residency is all but impossible for an African to obtain and visas generally extend no longer than three months, many overstay, dodging police checks to remain in the country.

All this came to a head in July in the wake of a police raid on the Tangqi Foreign Trade Clothes Plaza. To avoid the police, two Nigerian traders went to the extreme of jumping out a second-story window; one of them was badly injured. The protest that followed - consisting mostly of Nigerians, who are a majority in Little Africa - besieged a local police station and shocked the city.
No doubt in response to that protest and out of concern that others may follow, Guangzhou officials are now taking a softer line by offering a two-month amnesty to Africans who have overstayed their visas and initiating reconciliation talks with community leaders in Chocolate City. Those leaders hope this marks the beginning of a better relationship with Guangzhou authorities.

In the end, the increasingly sweet deal Beijing enjoys in Africa argues for better treatment of Africans in China. China is now Africa's second-largest trading partner, behind the United States, with Chinese-African trade rising a stunning 700% between 2002 and 2007, to US$73 billion. And the products China receives in this exchange - among them timber, copper and lots of oil - are going a long way toward fueling the country's continued economic rise.

Meanwhile, roughly during this same period, the number of Africans arriving in Guangzhou on tourist visas has quintupled, but these new arrivals have hardly been welcomed with open arms. Instead, there has been a grudging acceptance and enduring suspicion of their presence, and the restrictions on their visas make it far more difficult for them to do business in China than for their Chinese counterparts to work in Africa.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at