Africans in China Africans in Guangzhou

China’s African Traders Confront a Formidable New Foe: Alibaba

By Wu Peiyue for Sixth Tone

ZHEJIANG, East China — Olivier Mugabo cuts a lonely figure as he wanders through the gleaming, neon-lit corridors of Yiwu International Trade City.

The gargantuan market is the world’s largest hub for wholesale goods — an Aladdin’s cave filled with cheap, made-in-China products. During normal times, traders throng its halls, sourcing everything from lingerie to Christmas lights for retailers across the world.

Today, however, Mugabo is the only buyer to be seen.

Yiwu used to be a magnet for African businesspeople who earn their livelihoods connecting companies in their home countries with Chinese manufacturers. But the city has changed dramatically in 2020.

Around 80% of Yiwu’s African residents left China during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, just as China’s coronavirus outbreak was starting to take hold. Few have returned, with China imposing sweeping travel bans in late March.

The roughly 1,500 Africans that stayed here, meanwhile, have had a tough year. While they avoided the problems encountered by Black residents in southern China, they endured weeks of lockdown and months of flatlining sales.

Now, business is finally picking up again at the International Trade City. Yet Mugabo — a middleman who mainly serves clothing firms in his native Rwanda — says he’s more worried about the future than ever.


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