Africans in Guangzhou Research

Africans in Guangzhou: Is the ethnic enclave model applicable in the Chinese context?

Xin Jin, Gideon Bolt, and Pieter Hooimeijer for Cities


  • Existing studies have been limited in the interferences they could make about the important aspects of more long-term international migrants and their geographical configurations in particular in a long run period.
  • The present study tackles this problem by combining population data with detailed geographical data on African concentration from a cross-sectional perspective in 2015 and 2016.
  • This allows us to examine the effects of ethnic concentration at a wide variety of geographical scales – including the very local level – and to provide a detailed spatial configurations inside the African concentration.
  • Besides, we also have ethnographic data in 2012 and in 2016 beyond the African concentration to other clustering areas, with both geographical data and narrative data.
  • According to these different types of data, we find supports to our argument that the African concentration in Guangzhou is different from the ethnic enclave model in Anglo-Saxon literature in the Chinese context.

1. Introduction

International migration to cities comprises an increasing diversity of groups, such as middle- and high-income groups, knowledge workers, refugees, entrepreneurs, and a diversity of origins. Sometimes they spread over the destination cities, but quite often they concentrate in specific areas. As a result, cities all over the world experience a diversity of ethnic enclaves in urban as well as suburban areas (Alba et al., 2014Li, 2009Marcuse, 1997Peach, 2005). Some typical examples of ethnic enclaves are located in cities in western countries, such as Chinatown in San Francisco, Koreatown in Los Angeles and Little Italy in New York (e.g. Logan et al., 2002Zhou & Lin, 2005). Ethnic enclaves are generally defined as specific localities where ethnic minorities congregate and where some specific cultural amenities, like religious and commercial services, are retained (Qadeer, 2003). Ethnic enclaves are especially attractive for new immigrants due to the opportunities they offer in terms of accommodation, employment, and protection from hostility (Marcuse, 1997Peach, 2005). Although ethnic enclaves are dynamic, characterized by the in-movement of recent immigrants and the out-movement of migrants that have climbed the social ladder, their role in anchoring a certain migrant group tends to be quite stable (Zhou, 2013Alba et al., 2014).

The question in this paper is whether the ethnic enclave, as described in the Western literature, is also applicable in the Chinese context. While China has historically been an emigration country, it has emerged as a destination country for international immigrants, especially since its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 (Lan, 2015). A very large proportion of those foreign migrants are entrepreneurs, and many of them are concentrating in large Chinese cities where they gradually develop some ethnic-related businesses catering for their own groups (Kim, 2003Zhang, 2008). The African enclave in Guangzhou has become the largest concentration for African entrepreneurs (Bodomo, 2012) and has attracted strong attention from scholars and media (e.g. Bodomo, 2012Bork-Hüffer et al., 2014Bork-Hüffer et al., 2016Haugen, 2012Li et al., 2009Li et al., 2012Zhang, 2008). Most of these African entrepreneurs are regularly moving back and forth, while some settle more or less permanently in China. Nevertheless, it is not easy for Africans to establish themselves in China. First, they do not have access to jobs in the regular labour market due to visa restrictions and the abundance of labour supply resulting from migration from the rural areas in China (Ma, 2004). The only option is to migrate to China as an entrepreneur or to find an (informal) job as employee of an African entrepreneur. Second, China’s strict immigration policies make it very difficult to obtain a valid long-term (i.e. one-year) permit. They are basically two routes to get such a permit. One is marrying a Chinese national, the other one is to have access to an adequate amount of economic and social capital. To stand a chance in the application process, an entrepreneur needs to rent an office, have Chinese employees, to pay taxes in China, and to have the necessary Chinese contacts that help them in the application process (Castillo, 2016aHaugen, 2012). Since 2008, foreigners in China have been categorized as ‘floating population’, which is also a common designation for internal migrants with a rural hukou1 (Lan, 2016). As a consequence, they are subject to a complex system of population control and police surveillance (Castillo, 2016a). In 2012 a new Exit and Entry Administration Law was passed. Although the aim of the law was to manage immigration in a more coherent way, there is substantial local variation in how the 2012 law is interpreted and implemented. Some provinces and cities are more restrictive than others and even within cities there are differences between administrative districts in accepting the registration of foreign tenants. Migrants respond to these differences by moving to areas that are less restrictive and when they overstay their visa, they need to rely on informal, for-profit agents who help them to circumventing the law (Haugen, 2019Lan, 2015). This is a risky strategy, as they cannot report it to the police when they are cheated.

Given these specific circumstances it can be questioned whether the neighbourhoods where Africans are concentrated can fulfil the functions that are associated with ethnic enclaves. Whereas Li et al. (2012) described ‘Chocolate City’ (as the main African concentrations are nicknamed in the Chinese media) as an enclave, Bertoncelo and Bredeloup (2007) argue that it should be seen as a trading post, which facilitates the trade between China and Africa, but misses many characteristics that are part of the definition an ethnic enclave. Many studies have described the declining presence of Africans in the initial neighbourhoods of settlement since 2008 as a consequence of changing visa regulations and police control (e.g. Castillo, 2016aHaugen, 2012Lan, 2016), but with a few exceptions (e.g. Bork-Hüffer et al., 2014) there is no attention for the other parts of Guangzhou and neighbouring Foshan where Africans have found refuge. In this paper, we will give an overview of the changing dispersal patterns of Africans in Guangzhou and we will explain how the new African clusters are connected to the old ones. The initial African clusters may have lost their dominant role in the housing of African migrants, they are still the focal point of the African communities in Guangzhou, as both commercial and leisure activities remain concentrated here (Bredeloup, 2012). We argue that while there is no enclave (anymore) in the sense of a contingent area where Africans constitute a big part of the population, the initial clusters of settlement still fulfil some functions that are associated with an ethnic enclave. However, the obstacles that the Chinese authorities put in the way of obtaining a long-term residence permit make it highly unlikely that African clusters in Guangzhou will develop into the type of ethnic enclaves that are described in classical immigration countries, like the US, Canada, and Australia. The African clusters in Guangzhou have unique Chinese characteristics due to the specific registration and immigration regulations. At the same time, the numerical dominance of mobile entrepreneurs (many of which have a comprised legal status) in the migrant community can also be seen in many other places that are hubs in the global circuit of South-South mobility and trade, like Nairobi, Lagos, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Istanbul, and Dubai (Carrier & Mathews, 2020).


This video is NOT related to the published article

0 comments on “Africans in Guangzhou: Is the ethnic enclave model applicable in the Chinese context?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: