Earlier this month in Beijing, amid the pomp of China’s annual rubber-stamp parliament meetings, a politician proudly shared with reporters his proposal on how to “solve the problem of the black population in Guangdong.” The latter province is widely known in China to have many African migrants.
“Africans bring many security risks,” Pan Qinglin told local media (link in Chinese). As a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory body, he urged the government to “strictly control the African people living in Guangdong and other places.”
“Black brothers often travel in droves; they are out at night out on the streets, nightclubs, and remote areas. They engage in drug trafficking, harassment of women, and fighting, which seriously disturbs law and order in Guangzhou… Africans have a high rate of AIDS and the Ebola virus that can be transmitted via body fluids… If their population [keeps growing], China will change from a nation-state to an immigration country, from a yellow country to a black-and-yellow country.”
On social media, the Chinese response has been overwhelmingly supportive, with many commenters echoing Pan’s fears. In a forum dedicated to discussions about black people in Guangdong on Baidu Tieba—an online community focused on internet search results—many participants agreed that China was facing a “black invasion.” One commenter called on Chinese people (link in Chinese) not to let “thousands of years of Chinese blood become polluted.”
The stream of racist vitriol online makes the infamous Chinese TV ad for Qiaobi laundry detergent, which went viral last year, seem mild in comparison. The ad featured a Asian woman stuffing a black man into a washing machine to turn him into a pale-skinned Asian man.
Not about reality
Of course, while a growing number of Africans work and study in China—the African continent’s largest trading partner—the notion that black people are “taking over” the world’s most populous nation is nonsense. Estimates for the number of sub-Saharan Africans in Guangzhou (nicknamed “Chocolate City” in Chinese) range from 150,000 long-term residents, according to 2014 government statistics, to as high as 300,000—figures complicated by the number of Africans coming in and out of the country as well as those who overstay their visas.
“Guangdong has come to be imagined to embody this racial crisis of some kind of ‘black invasion,’” said Kevin Carrico, a lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia who studies race and nationalism in China. “But this is not about actually existing realities.” He continued:
“It isn’t so much that they dislike black residents as they dislike what they imagine about black residents. The types of discourses you see on social media sites are quite repetitive—black men raping Chinese women, black men having consensual sex with Chinese women and then leaving them, blacks as drug users and thieves destroying Chinese neighborhoods. People are living in a society that is changing rapidly. ‘The blacks’ has become a projection point for all these anxieties in society.”
The past year or so has seen heated debate among black people living in China about what locals think of them. In interviews with Quartz, black residents referred to online comments and racist ads as more extreme examples, but said they are symptomatic of broader underlying attitudes.
Madeleine Thiam and Christelle Mbaya, Senegalese journalists in Beijing, said they are saddened but not shocked when they are discriminated against in China.
“Sometimes people pinch their noses as I walk by, as if they think I smell. On the subway, people often leave empty seats next to me or change seats when I sit down,” said Thiam. “Women have come up to rub my skin, asking if it is ‘dirt’ and if I’ve had a shower.”
Yet on a recent coffee break most passersby politely admired the fashionable women as if they were going down a catwalk.
One Chinese man, gazing at Thiam in her purple lace blouse and a yellow dress flaring around her hips, let out an admiring “wow” as the elevator doors opened to a third-floor café. Servers greeted their regulars with warm smiles and asked them in English, “How are you?”
Racism or ignorance?
Such experiences speak to the duality of life for black people in China. They may be athletes, entrepreneurs, traders, designers, or graduate students. Some are married to locals and speak fluent Chinese. Yet despite positive experiences and economic opportunities, many are questioning why they live in a place where they often feel unwelcome.
They grapple with the question: Is it racism or ignorance? And how do you distinguish the two?
Paolo Cesar, an African-Brazilian who has worked as a musician in Shanghai for 18 years and has a Chinese wife, said music has been a great way for him to connect with audiences and make local friends. However, his mixed-race son often comes home unhappy because of bullying at school. Despite speaking fluent Mandarin, his classmates do not accept him as Chinese. They like to shout out, “He’s so dark!”
The global success of black public figures, such as politicians, actors, and athletes, appears to have a limited effect on Chinese attitudes.
“People would say to me, ‘Obama! You’re a black American!’ And I’d be treated better than my African friends,” said Jayne Jeje, a marketing consultant from Maryland who has worked all over mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong. “I think it’s a class thing. If you’re African you’re from a poor place and should be treated with less deference, but if you’re African-American, that’s great, and you get some grudging respect.”
In response to international criticism of racism against blacks in China, some commentators have argued that the racism is not as serious as it is in other countries. Hong Kong columnist Alex Lo wrote in the South China Morning Post that criticism from Americans is “rich coming from a country that was founded on black slavery… China has racial problems. But murderous racism against blacks isn’t one of them.”
And of course racial tensions occur elsewhere, sometimes with ethnic Chinese as the victims. In France this week, Chinese protesters gathered in northeast Paris to protest the shooting of a Chinese man by police. Many complain of racism directed against them, and also of being targeted by gangs (video) of North African descent.
Looking deeper into history, evidence suggests a preference for slaves from East Africa in ancient China. African slavery in the country peaked during the Tang (618 to 907) and Song (960 to 1279) dynasties.
More recently, violence broke out after the Chinese government started providing scholarships allowing African students to study in the country in the 1960s. Many Chinese students resented the stipends Africans received, with tensions culminating in riots in Nanjing in the late 1980s. The riots began with angry Chinese students surrounding African students’ dormitories in Hehai University and pelting them with rocks and bottles for seven hours, with crowds later marching through the streets shouting anti-African slogans.
In the past few years, loathing among some Chinese toward foreign men who date local women has led to a recent rise in violent attacks against foreigners.
Yet most respondents Quartz interviewed remain optimistic. Vladimir Emilien, a 26-year-old African-American actor and former varsity athlete, said that for him, learning Chinese was crucial to better interactions with locals. Emilien volunteered last year as a coach teaching Beijing youth the finer points of American football. He said that once he was able to have more complex conversations in Chinese, he was struck by the thoughtful questions locals would ask.
“They’d say, What do you think about Chinese perception of black people? How does that make you feel?’ So they are aware that there is a lot of negativity around blacks and against Africa as a very poor place.”
Emilien hopes that more interactions between Chinese and black individuals will smooth out misunderstandings. But others say that improving relations requires more than black people learning the language, since that shifts responsibility away from the Chinese.
“The government has never done anything serious to clean up racist ideas created and populated by the [turn-of-the-20th-century] intellectuals and politicians that constructed a global racial hierarchy in which the whites were on the top, Chinese the second, and blacks the bottom,” said Cheng Yinghong, a history professor at Delaware State University who researches nationalism and discourse of race in China.
Instead of addressing discrimination, the Chinese government has focused on promoting cultural exchanges while pursuing economic partnerships with African countries. However, many have pointed out that relationships appear unbalanced, with China taking Africa’s limited natural resources in exchange for infrastructure investment.
“Racism is racism, period, and although some people would say that in different places it is more explicit, nuanced, or implicit, as long as there are victims we have to call it racism and deal with it,” said Adams Bodomo, a professor of African studies focused on cross-cultural communication at the University of Vienna. “China can’t be the second-largest economy in the world and not expect to deal with these issues.”
You can follow Joanna on Twitter at @joannachiu.
CGTN, or the ‘new’ face of CCTV, just came up with a short series of clips covering African presence in Guangzhou. Interestingly, the angle taken in these clips is (obviously) not replicated in CCTV’s domestic broadcasts.
Africans in Guangzhou: Challenges for African-Chinese marriages
Visas a major problem for Africans in Guangzhou
Africans in China: Challenges of integrating into local life in Guangzhou
As the global media apparatus is full on building a narrative of ‘Africans leaving China’, it’s important to keep in mind that besides Guangzhou there are other cities like Yiwu and Wuhan with significant African populations.
Global Times: As Guangzhou African community shrinks, other Chinese cities see growing numbers
Yiwu, home to the world’s biggest wholesale market, is also becoming a hub for China-Africa trade as its African community thrives. Many African traders regard Yiwu as their second home, as they are given opportunities to participate in the city’s affairs, enjoy a high level of religious freedom, and are treated with respect by law enforcement officers.
Senegalese businessman Sourakhata Tirera sits in his office in Yiwu. Photo: Zhang Yu/GT
Sitting in his office in Yiwu, East China’s Zhejiang Province, Sourakhata Tirera, a Senegalese businessman, shifts easily between Chinese, French and his mother tongue Soninke to answer phone calls from his suppliers, partners and employees.
A successful businessman who has lived in the city since 2007, Tirera, known by locals as his Chinese name “Sula,” is now a proud representative of the thriving African community in Yiwu.
The local government put up a poster with his face on it in the train station and on billboards alongside the city’s main road, as a way to laud his entrepreneurial spirit but also to showcase the city’s embrace of foreign traders.
While Guangzhou was the first Chinese city to receive large numbers of African traders and still boasts the country’s biggest African community, experts say it is increasingly losing its leading position to Yiwu, which is becoming China’s model international and multicultural trade city.
While recent reports show that the number of Africans in Guangzhou is gradually shrinking, Yiwu’s African population is on the rise. “When [Africans] leave Guangzhou, some leave China but some go to other places in China, like Yiwu. Those that leave Guangzhou leave because, among other things, they want to find better opportunities in other parts of China and elsewhere,” Adams Bodomo, Professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna and author of 2012 book Africans in China, told the Global Times.
The exact number of Africans living in Yiwu, which sits in the manufacturing hub of East China’s Zhejiang Province, is hard to come by. Local authorities estimate that about 80,000 African traders visit Yiwu each year, in addition to about 3,000 traders from over 50 African countries who have settled in the city of some 1.2 million. But experts say the number of Africans living in the city may be as high as 30,000.
Yiwu is also playing a growing role in China-Africa trade. In 2015, Yiwu exported 48.21 billion yuan ($7.24 billion) of commodities to Africa, a 50.9 percent year-on-year increase.
Walking on Yiwu’s streets, it’s impossible to miss the African presence. In Yiwu International Trade City, Moroccan women wearing headscarves and robes bargain with local shop owners through the medium of calculators and broken English. Nigerian traders gather outside logistics companies as they pack bags of underwear into cartons which are about to be shipped. At night, businessmen from North Africa relax in the city’s many halal restaurants, as they smoke hookah pipes after a day’s work. And on Friday, the area near the mosque by the Yiwu river, one of the largest mosques in China, buzzes with Chinese Muslims and traders from North Africa and the Middle East, who flock to the mosque to pray. [KEEP READING HERE]
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.
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.
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.