[Media Report] Are Africans really leaving Guangzhou? Views from the Chinese media

By Barry van Wyk for the Wits China Africa Reporting Project

In early July CNN published an extensive feature by Jenni Marsh on the recent trend of Africans leaving Guangzhou; of hundreds or thousands of them “giving up on the Chinese dream” amid a dollar drought and slowing economy in Africa, and hostile immigration policies and racism in China – all said to be putting the city’s competitive edge at risk.

The CNN feature inspired responses from the Chinese media, and in the last few weeks several reporters were sent Guangzhou. They were especially interested to answer for themselves whether there is some mass ongoing exodus of Africans from Guangzhou, and more importantly: China. From the various interviews they conducted with Chinese officials, traders, estate agents and academics in Guangzhou, the reporters concluded that there are several reasons why the city’s small African town has fallen on hard times, and it’s too early to say with certainty if there is a definite trend of Africans departing China en masse.

Chengdu Business Daily, a newspaper published in distant Sichuan province, sent it’s lead reporter to Guangzhou, Wáng Yì, who filed a lengthy feature on July 25. Another article was published online by China Business News on July 27, by Féng Yìqīng and Qiū Yīfēi. Both present the stark decline yet perseverance and idiosyncrasies of the small African town on Xiǎo Běi Road (Little North Road) in the area of Dēngfēng. Their reports aim to infuse recent events with an air of normality, but they also clearly show that while times are tough around Xiǎo Běi Road, times may also have changed.

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Are they really all leaving?

Arriving at the once bustling Yuèyáng Business and Trade Plaza in the Xiǎo Běi Road area, where most of the advertising billboards are only in English, the Chengdu Business Daily reporter noted a marked decrease in commercial activity compared with former times. There were only a few customers and several shops stood empty. The reporter found a clothing shop where the owner, a man named Lǐ Qiáng, sat dispirited watching television dramas. He said he had not had a single sale for three whole days.

China Business News reporters arrived in Dēngfēng at 11 one morning, when they expected it would be at it’s busiest. But they were surprised to find the area mostly deserted. They soon realised their mistake, however, when a local Chinese person informed them that all the Africans were at home sleeping at this time; but they should come back at one to two in the morning, the busiest hours. Such is their custom, the local man said, it’s different from the hours the Chinese keep.

Nevertheless, it is clear that many of the African traders who used to frequent Xiǎo Běi Road are gone. And for those who remain, as well as for Chinese shops and businesses in the area, it is equally clear that times are very tough. All the people interviewed by the Chinese reporters seem to agree that things starting changing around two years ago, and that everyone – both Chinese and African – can now only earn about half of what they used to make; most are making losses.

The situation seems to have reached a desperate point, for Yuèyáng Plaza at least. The management company responsible for the building told Chengdu Business Daily that shop rents have been falling repeatedly; those for shops on the second floor have already fallen by 50%. The traders can’t make any money, the customers are gone, and rents cannot drop any further.

For the African traders who have established themselves in China and who are still in Guangzhou, the situation is no better. Chengdu Business Daily also went to speak with Fēilì, presumably the same Felly Mwamba, the Congolese “ambassador” in Guangzhou who also appeared in the CNN feature.

Fēilì told the Chinese reporters that he has been much vexed by the decline of the market. His income has fallen by about 40%, and it’s hard for him to make money at all now in China. The best years for Fēilì was 2005 to 2010 when he sent around ten containers to Africa each year. Then a decline set in from 2011, and the last two years have been especially tough. He now sends home only four or five containers a year.

In the last two years Fēilì has also seen hundreds of his fellow African traders leave the city, now he thinks there’s just about 300 left. He can see a clear trend: the many African traders who used to come on shorter visas are gone; the only ones left are those like him who have longer term visas. Yet the main reason for this, he concludes, is related to the economy: goods and the dollar are more expensive, costs are higher, incomes unstable.

China Business News talked to Kǎlǐfǎ from Sierra Leone, currently an MBA student at a university in Guangzhou and several years resident at Xiǎo Běi Road. Guangzhou’s goods have simply become too expensive, he said, and ever since late 2014 African traders – or the young and adventurous ones, as another African trader named Kùālā put it – have sought better opportunities elsewhere. Kùālā has lived in China for almost 20 years and set up a household, and he agrees that only those long term residents like him are left, the others have gone to India, Vietnam or elsewhere in southeast Asia.

Changing times

Ālóng from Mali is another very experienced trader, with 14 years of living in China behind him. He is emphatic about the main reason why so many Africans have left Guangzhou: stricter enforcement of visa regulations. Fines of 2,000 renminbi and – in more serious cases – deportation, he says, meant many Africans had to leave. Yet Ālóng also relates another factor: the clampdown on counterfeit goods. It used to be easy for traders like him to buy fake goods in China and ship them back home; but these days, he relates, this has become rare. Punishment can be severe and offenders risk being expelled.

Further indications of the visa clampdown is provided by Ms Zhào, whose real estate company at a small office right in Dēngfēng assists foreigners with long term rental contracts. Some of her customers had to leave because they were unable to renew their visas, and only foreigners with proper long term visas (renewed annually) are able to get longer rental contracts. For those who stay, rent is more expensive: apartments managed by Ms Zhào’s company start at 8,000 renminbi per month. Ms Zhào added that if the Africans remaining in the city can afford this, they must still be earning well.

For a broader perspective on the events in Guangzhou, both of the Chinese articles turned to Wàng Liàng, an associate professor at Guangzhou University who is said to have studied the long term trends of Africans living and working in China. Wàng explained that many of the Africans “scattered” when the so-called Anti-sanfei campaign to deal with the three (三 sān) illegals (非 fēi) was launched. The three illegals refer to foreigners illegally entering, staying and working in China. The campaign was first announced by police in Beijing back in June 2012 as a 100-day operation.

But this, says Wàng, is only one of several reasons why there is a lot less people in Xiǎo Běi Road these days, and it does not necessarily mean there are a lot less African traders in China. Rising costs in the city have also contributed to foreigners heading to other less expensive areas like Húběi and Húnán provinces. Some enter China from other locations, and only then make their way to Guangzhou.

So how many are left?

There is reportedly a rumour in Guangzhou that as many as 200,000 Africans live in the city. Yet Páng Bō of the Guangzhou Entry and Exit Administration was able to clarify that this is certainly not true. In fact, of the total 20 million single person entries of foreigners at Guangzhou annually, around 200,000 are from African countries. Thus, says Páng, the number denotes person entries and not number of people, and especially not the number of illegal Africans in the city.

But is there a trend of many Africans leaving Guangzhou?, the reporter asked. Páng would not give a definitive answer, saying just that it would be better to first analyse more data before coming to a firm conclusion. He said that there are currently around 100,000 foreigners in Guangzhou, the daily rate varies between 80,000 and 120,000. Numbers peak during the Canton Fair in October and reach a low ebb at Christmas.

Chengdu Business Daily also quoted statistics provided by the Public Security Bureau of Guangzhou indicating that the number of foreigners with long term visas living in the city increased from 38,000 at the end of 2013 to 51,000 by June 25, 2016. Of this number, around 5,000 are African. In addition, there are currently around 6,000 Africans in Guangzhou on short term visas, making for a total of around 11,000, a decrease from 16,000 in November 2014.

Waiting for better days

All the traders interviewed by the Chinese reporters in Guangzhou spoke of their loss of income and the gloomy outlook. But all, even the dejected Lǐ Qiáng in his quiet shop in Yuèxiù Plaza, expressed their determination to hold on until things get better.

Fēilì is confident the good times may come back sometime, and Ālóng is philosophical about the future. Things of the future, he says, must be left to the future.

Just outside Yuèxiù Plaza the Chinese reporter found a Nigerian student from Wuhan University in Hubei province taking some pictures. Fēnní came to Xiǎo Běi Road for the summer and sought out some of his compatriots because he believes Guangzhou is a special place for Africans. Referring to the Chinese saying, “Until you reach the Great Wall you are not a proper person”, Fēnní said, Until you get to Guangzhou’s Xiǎo Běi Road, you can’t say you’ve been to China.

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