Research Proposal

Africans in China: a transnational analysis of the emergence of an African community in Guangzhou*  

*working title


This study will investigate one of the least researched areas within the wider framework of contemporary Sino-African cultural and political exchanges: the presence of West African migrants in southern China. The focus of the research will be to analyse how ‘new’ African diasporic identities are being formed in China, and to examine the plausibility of the ‘emergence’ of African communities in the Pearl River Delta region – particularly in the city of Guangzhou – from a Cultural Studies/Cultural History perspective. In particular, this research will gather and evaluate data from historical records, popular culture, political discourse, personal journeys, racial representations, and global economic and cultural trends that inform how people from several different African nationalities might experience China.

Proposed Study Area

Are African communities emerging in China? Several sources account for up to 100,000 Africans from different nationalities already legally settled in the country – along with an unknown number of illegal migrants. If the Chinese economy continues to grow, and China’s involvement in Africa deepens, it is likely that the African presence in China will persist and expand. This will result not only in the emergence of African communities in major Chinese cities, but could potentially set the foundation for a new ethnic group in China: African-Chinese people.

The African presence in China came to international and Chinese media attention in July 2009, when traders from several African nationalities had a conflict with the law enforcement authorities in Guangzhou. A crowd of around 200 angry traders gathered in front of Guangzhou’s Municipal Security Bureau demonstrating against what some of them described as police harassment and racial persecution. The incident was – as Adams Bodomo (2010) suggests – reported by Western media to create the impression that ordinary Chinese citizens and members of the African community ‘were at each other’s throats’. Surprisingly, Chinese media (Xinhua) did carry the episode, but portrayed it as evidence of an uncontrolled growing population of illegal aliens. Both Chinese and international media, however, highlighted the fact that the incident was the first time in the history of the ‘New China’ that a group of foreign nationals had demonstrated against the law-enforcing authorities on Chinese territory.

Nevertheless, the African presence in China dates back to long before 2009, and is one of the least researched areas within the wider framework of Sino-African cultural and political exchanges. Most of the scholarship concerning Sino-African relations considers recent historical, political and economic factors from an international relations or business perspective (see David Shinn’s [2008] extensive bibliography on Sino-African relations), and primarily concerns Chinese investment in Africa and its likely implications. Relatively few sources cover the area of contemporary cultural exchanges between African and Chinese people; and there are even less sources assessing the socio-cultural impact of the ‘emerging’ African community in Mainland China (from different perspectives, Bodomo, 2010; Li Z, et al, 2008; Li, 2008; and, Bertoncello & Bredeloup, 2007; have outlined a few aspects of this phenomenon). Attempts to seriously investigate this remarkable case from a cultural studies perspective are difficult to locate. In light of this, in this research I will: 1) look at historical contacts and exchanges between Africa and China (Shin’s bibliography [2008]); 2) research previous African migratory experiences to other parts of the Chinese world – namely, Macau and Hong Kong (Morais, 2009; Bodomo, 2008; Bertoncello & Bredeloup, 2007); 3) explore historical and contemporary representations of Africans in the Chinese imagination (Shen, 2009; Sullivan, 1994; Dikötter, 1992; and Snow, 1988) and of Chinese in contemporary African imagination (Alden, 2006); 4) analyse the impact of globalisation on Chinese social spaces (Li Z. et al, 2008; Li, 2008; Mathews, 2007); and 5) examine theories of diaspora (Appadurai, 1996; Ang, 1993; and Hall, 1990), community building, globalisation (Hannerz, 1998; Castells, 1996; Giddens, 1990) and transnationalism (Portes, 2001; Smith & Guarnizo, 1998; Basch et al, 1994).

In the following sections, I will: introduce the research topic; outline the objectives of the research; provide a literature review on the relevant debates; establish a theoretical framework and methodology for the study; state the purpose of the research and its relation to my previous work; present a work plan; and provide a sketch of the preliminary bibliography.

Research Topic: the African community in Guangzhou

Nobody really knows how many Africans live in China. There are no official statistics, no authoritative account. Nevertheless, from 2003 to 2009, different sources (Bodomo, 2010; Osnos, 2009) reported an estimated 30 to 40 percent annual increase in the African population in Guangzhou alone. Several sources account for up to 20,000 traders and entrepreneurs (mainly from West African countries), legally living, visiting and doing business in what Guangzhou’s taxi drivers have baptised qiaokeli cheng (‘chocolate city’) (Li, 2008; Osnos, 2009; Li Zhigang et al, 2008; Bodomo, 2010).

Li Z. et al. (2008) claim that the majority of African traders come from francophone countries such as Mali, Togo, Guinea, Senegal and Congo, and are unable to communicate in either Mandarin or English. Contrastingly, Bodomo (2010) claims that young Nigerian males (English speakers) account for more than 70 percent of the ‘community’. The greatest concentration of Africans in Guangzhou is in Tianxiu Building, located at a walkable distance from the core of qiaokeli cheng: the Canaan Export Clothes Trading Centre, in Yuexiu District. The rest of the population is spread through the neighbourhoods surrounding the Trading Centre – the Nigerian neighbourhood, the Malian, the Ghanaian, and so forth (Brautigam, 2010). While nationality and language still play an important role in forging ties between Africans in China, religion (Islam and Christianity) provides a more fundamental divide (Li, 2008). The Huaisheng Mosque and the Shishi Church are cultural landmarks that work – as Li suggests – as places of ‘enforceable gathering’ in which ‘ethnic’ and ‘inter-ethnic’ connections are built. Moreover, Li (2008) reports that most of the traders describe themselves as self-employed importers who enter China on tourist visas with limited capital to outsource different types of merchandise (Li, 2008; Li Z. et al, 2008). Once these visas expire, it is possible to renew them in Hong Kong, but visa runs can only be made a few times before exhausting the possibility for consecutive renewal (renewal is strongly dependant on nationality). In the last four years, the Chinese government has tightened its regulations on visas, making it particularly difficult for Africans to renew their visas; as a result, many of them have opted to stay illegally in China. As depicted by several media reports, the lack of visas or residence permits (and the consequent police harassment) is perhaps the most widely experienced problem amongst Africans in Guangzhou (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn).

The contemporary presence of African people in China is the outcome of a recently invigorated exchange between these two regions. There are two major global processes informing this presence. The first is China’s intensification of its ‘opening-up’ after joining the WTO in 2001. Following that event, several African traders shipping Chinese products back to their homelands via Hong Kong decided to reduce their expenses by relocating to Guangzhou – a city where they found significantly different social and institutional conditions. By 2003, foreign traders (of all nationalities) had become a common sight in major Chinese cities, and Africans had become very active in southern China’s import-export sector (Michel, 2009: 13). The second is Beijing’s interest in investing in, and extracting resources from, the African continent. Between 2002 and 2007, trade between the two regions – mainly oil, timber, copper and diamonds – increased by about 700 percent to US$73 billion, ranking China as Africa’s second largest trading partner behind the United States (Osnos, 2009: 52).

It could be argued that contemporary exchanges between these two civilisations mark a significant shift in their relation. For the first time in the modern era they are completely free from the mediation of third parties. If China’s economic plans in Africa are long-term and coherent with Chinese political discourse, then the African presence in China is likely to increase. If Bodomo, who foresees the rise of an African-Chinese ethnic minority in less than 100 years from now, is right, then it is imperative to thoroughly investigate how the microscopic stories of these African diasporic subjects in China are positioned within these macroscopic global processes.

Objectives of the Investigation

In order to achieve the research objectives outlined below, I will take a cross-disciplinary approach grounded in my existing disciplinary expertise (Cultural Studies, History, International Relations), and developed (during this research) through engagement with other relevant theoretical and methodological perspectives.

The objectives of this research are:

  1. To highlight an important migration pattern that has been under-researched; and to build a comprehensive account of the experience of African people in China.
  2. To investigate who migrates from Africa to China, explore what ideas inform their journey, and analyse how new diasporic Sino-African identities are being created, developed and performed.
  3. To examine the cultural preconceptions that people from Africa have about Chinese people and vice versa; and to examine how these preconceptions appear in popular representations.
  4. To assess whether discriminatory practices against African migrants exist in China, and if so, research how they impact on the lives of the migrants.
  5. To evaluate the extent to which this current migratory trend is a consequence of China’s renewed engagement with distinct African nations.
  6. To evaluate the possibilities for the long-term establishment of a viable African community within the Chinese socio-political establishment.
  7. To locate this ‘African community’ within the framework of globalisation and against the backdrop of China becoming a strong, and sometimes controversial, player in African politics (fair trade, resource extraction, development, human rights, etc.).
  8. To describe the transnational networks that structure the emergence of these African communities.
  9. To investigate to what extent the stance the Chinese government adopts in its treatment of the African diasporic population within its borders mirrors the government’s prevailing (real) approach to African continental affairs.

Current debates on the topic

Literature on the contemporary African presence in China is far from extensive. Nonetheless, two main approaches dominate the discussion about the African population in Guangzhou. On the one hand, Bodomo (2010) strongly supports the idea of the ‘emergence of a community’. He argues that the ‘community’ works as a ‘bridge between civilisations’ and proposes what he calls the bridge theory for describing the role of the ‘emergent migrant community’. On the other hand, Li Z. et al (2008) and Li (2008) reject the idea of the ‘emergence of a community’ and, instead, describe the African population of Guangzhou as an ‘ethnic enclave’. While Bodomo – a Ghanaian researcher based in Hong Kong University – sees the emergence of a community that acts as a linguistic, cultural and economic bridge between the source and the host communities (2010), Li Z. et al. – a Chinese researcher based in Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou – describe the phenomenon as one purely dependent on trade factors and link the idea of ‘enclave’ to a physical place (a market): a ghetto of traders.

This research will suggest that instead of being depicted as two opposing concepts (the ethnic enclave and the community), the two approaches should be regarded as consecutive stages in the establishment and consolidation of a sizable African presence in Chinese territory.

If few things are known about Africans in China, even fewer things are known about the transnational networks and social structures that inform this diasporic process. Arguably, new ‘transnational social spaces’ have been appearing (and will continue to) as a consequence of ‘from below/low end’ globalisation processes (Kivisto, 2003). Li Zhigang et al. (2008) argue that these transnational social spaces add a new dimension to Chinese cities: that of socio-spatial segregation based on ethnicity. This research will place particular emphasis on analysing the dynamics that have transformed some parts of Guangzhou into the so-called ‘chocolate city’, and will assess if this African settlement functions as a ‘transnational social space’. For that it will first follow and expand on Li’s study (2008) to evaluate whether or not the evolution of spatial dynamics that, at the local level, structure the existence of such settlement are a local reaction to opportunities brought by globalisation (like those in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, see Mathews, 2007). Second, it will investigate to what extent the African community constitutes a space in which decisions taken by (or in) organisations, institutions, networks and people, based in different countries, converge in a geographical location – a characteristic of transnational social spaces, as suggested by Basch, L et al. (1994). And, third, through empirical research this study will assess if the networks and processes associated to the African population in Guangzhou allow migrants to ‘forge and sustain multi-stranded social, economic and political relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement, and through which they create transnational social fields that cross national borders’ (1994: 6).

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

This project will focus on the creation of new transnational social spaces outside the centre-periphery paradigm that has traditionally informed conceptions and studies of globalisation. The idea of a single globalisation process that expands from the centre to the outskirts of the modern world seems difficult to sustain (as suggested by Hannerz [1998]). Consequently, an assumption will be made that it is not one, but multiple globalisations taking place as a consequence of the disorganised expansion of capital. The notion of multiple globalisations will allow us to decentre the analysis of the African population in China and make sense of the recent historical factors informing the Sino-African relationship.

The methodological and theoretical frameworks of this study will concentrate on the concepts of: migrant community, bridge theory, ethnic enclave, diasporic identity, transnational social spaces, transnationalism and low-end globalisation, as understood in current Social Sciences and Cultural Studies debates. This research will move between micro-analyses (individual migrant stories to be collected through ethnographic work) from a cultural studies and sociology perspective, and cross-disciplinary macro-analyses (theoretical discussions from the fields of politics, international relations, economy and geography) concerning African migration to China and the formation of transnational social spaces.

At the micro level, the significant disagreements outlined in the last section over the positioning of Africans in China indicate a need for further research and clarification. This study will aim to fill this gap by undertaking extensive ethnographic work during short-term residences in Guangzhou (scheduled for the second year of the research) and making frequent visits to the area before and after that year. Along with academic investigation, surveys, questionnaires, and participant observation, this research will attempt to document the everyday lives of African people in China. Extensive interviews will be conducted in French, English and Mandarin (over a 12 month period) with members of both the African and Chinese communities in Guangzhou and other parts of China (potentially, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong). The fieldwork, however, will predominantly take place in central Guangzhou, focusing on repositories of everyday life such as churches, mosques, hairdressing salons and marketplaces. Qualitative data produced by the residence will be assessed with regard to the existing sources relating to the emergence of an African population in Guangzhou and to the theories of globalisation outlined below (when applicable).

At the macro level, a core theme in contemporary discourses of transnationalism is the penetration of national cultures and political systems by global and local forces. Although the idea of transnationalism is not new, its conceptual framework provides a useful tool for understanding certain contemporary patterns of global migration (Smith & Guarnizo, 2006; Portes, 2001; and Basch L et al, 1994). Consequently, the thesis will evaluate the characteristics that inform transnationalism, namely: the intensification of global capitalism with its destabilising effects on less industrialised countries; the technological revolution in the means of transportation and communication; global political transformations such as decolonisation; and, the expansion of social networks that facilitate the reproduction of transnational migration, economic organisation and politics (Smith & Guarnizo, 2006: 4). This project will also draw from the subsidiary concept of transnationalism from below to assess how this process affects power relations, cultural constructions, economic interactions, and, more generally, social organisation at the level of the locality.

This study will also analyse how transnational social spaces organise exchanges that are not limited by geographical constraints. The concept of transnational social spaces explores the principles by which ‘geographical propinquity, which implies embeddedness of ties in one locality, is supplemented or transformed by transnational exchanges’ (Faist, 2004). Conceptualising this community as a transnational social space will allow for the analysis of sociospatial organisation and symbolic relations, namely ties and transactions that impact these diasporic processes.

The backbone of this project will be a cultural analysis of the diasporic identities being formed in these transnational social spaces, with particular emphasis on African diasporic subjectivities in China. Accordingly, the study will follow in the footsteps of academics such as Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, Arjun Appadurai, Ien Ang and Rey Chow who have extensively and intensively analysed diasporic subjectivity and identity. This study will draw on theories of diaspora, as diasporas are ‘fundamentally and inevitably transnational in their scope, always linking the local and the global, the here and the there, past and present, they have the potential to unsettle static, essentialist and totalitarian conceptions of “national culture” or “national identity” with origins firmly rooted in fixed geography and common history’ (Ang, 1993: 26). Thus, the project will be informed by three assumptions: 1) migration is not a singular experience, it takes place under a multitude of conditions and circumstances in vastly varied contexts (Ang, 1993); 2) transnationalism is a multifaceted, multi-local process (Smith & Guarnizo, 2006); and 3) African presence in China is a multidimensional phenomenon.

In addition, Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) macro-analysis of cultural flows brings ethnicity and diaspora together in the notion of ethnoscapes, providing a solid framework for the study of migration patterns (such as the one concerned in this proposal) against the backdrop of intensified, multiple and low-end globalisations (this project will also interrogate the appropriateness of framing the African presence in China within the notion of low-end globalisation). Furthermore, echoing Appadurai, this project will contend that the increase in economic and cultural flows between China and Africa will eventually make this case study acrucial one to the understanding of global politics and cultures.

Finally, this project’s thesis will be structured by the notion of ‘multiple globalisations’ (a concept drawn from Eisenstadt (1999) ‘multiple modernities’). These ‘multiple globalisations’ are a series of transnational, regional and local processes experienced, to varying degrees and intensities (including deglobalisation processes), by a great part of the world’s population. This notion will allow for the decentring of ‘classical’ theories of modernisation that have impacted on how we perceive ‘the global’.

This research will be conducted in four stages: a literature analysis of the case study and related theories (a content analysis of newspapers and other periodicals dealing with processes that impact on the presence of Africans in China will also be undertaken); ethnography (which will also involve conferring with relevant academics in the region); evaluation and assessment of qualitative sources and data; and writing.

Purpose of the study

The case study of contemporary African migration to China (and the ensuing production of Sino-African subjectivities in the Pearl River Delta region) attests to the growing diversification of the consequences, visions and understandings of these ‘multiple globalisations’. Furthermore, the emergence of African communities in China not only provides a unique opportunity to investigate how transnational and diasporic identities are being produced (against the backdrop of globalisation), but also evinces the magnitude of the shift in (and dispersion of) economic and political power resulting from a more active participation of China (and other Asian economies) in the global world order. Direct exchanges between several different regions of Africa and distinct parts of China amount to a process of intensified cultural diversification, characteristic of current global transformations/multiple globalisations. The study of Sino-African cultural exchanges becomes even more valuable when posited against the backdrop of decolonisation, post-colonialism and transnationalism. Is it possible that we could witness the emergence of Nigeriatowns in Chinese cities, for instance?

The case study stresses one of the least discussed issues undermining the current political and economic rapprochement between these two geographical regions: the movement of people from Africa to China (and vice versa) and its cultural, political and social implications. By doing this, the research will contribute to a more accurate understanding of how these different areas of China and Africa are adapting to, and participating in, global dynamics and trends. The case study will also provide important evidence on how the global and the local intersect (outside traditional patterns of migration)*, in Chinese social spaces. As mentioned before, African presence in China adds a new dimension to Chinese cities: that of socio-spatial segregation based on ethnicity (Li Z. et al, 2008). In light of this, the research will also assess how global transformations are affecting Chinese social and urban landscapes.

This project will endeavour to describe the journeys undertaken by African migrants in China. The study aims to thoroughly investigate how the microscopic stories of these African diasporic subjects in China are positioned within these macroscopic global processes. Moreover, I intend to present and promote the outcomes of this study in order to assist and inform certain political decision-making processes at a global level that have impact on the lives and experiences of these migrants. Policy-makers on both side of this relationship need to acknowledge that their economic and business exchanges will bring on higher levels of integration amongst their peoples. It is necessary for governments in Africa and in China to lay down a comprehensive and functional framework that protects and facilitates the movement of migrant subjects between the two regions.

Ultimately, I believe that this research is significant also because the emergence of transnational African subjectivities in China challenges previous ways in which the formation of communities has been imagined. Moreover, the case study strengthens the view of globalisations as a series of highly complex processes occurring at varying locations, and being experienced, negotiated and, more importantly, felt in distinct ways from different socio-geographic positions.


Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

November 2010

Updated: July/August 2011 in Darwin, NT, Australia

* By ‘traditional patterns of migrations’ I mean patterns like those of Mexicans migrating to the US, Algerians to France or Indians to the UK. The former is structured by geographical propinquity and informed by a North-South divide, and the latter two examples are structured by a colony-metropolis relationship.


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