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Guangzhou finds it can’t live with or without its enterprising, and growing, African population (David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
Guangzhou finds it can’t live with or without its enterprising, and growing, African population (David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Essay

In Africa Town, everything to gain Add to ...

This place is not really China, nor is it Africa; it lies in the midst of major highways in Guangzhou, southern China (formerly known as Canton). Officially, 20,000 Africans - probably more like 100,000 - live in or pass through the 10 square kilometres of "Africa Town," where Igbo, Wolof and Lingala mingle with Mandarin and Cantonese. Some Chinese call it "Chocolate Town."

In this roaring city of 18 million inhabitants and tens of thousands of micro-factories, the commercial activity is very different from the oil deals and huge public-works contracts the Chinese have secured in Africa.

Africans ship back generators, shoes, cotton buds, mopeds, construction materials, human hair and toys. "You can get anything you want in China," quipped Joseph, a peddler from Cameroon, "even blacks."

Each year, thousands of containers are shipped to Dakar, Mombasa, Abidjan and Doula, growing by 294 per cent between 2003 and 2007. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao estimated bilateral trade in 2008 at $106.8-billion, up 45 per cent from 2007.

"Almost 90 per cent of goods in African markets come from China, Thailand and Indonesia," said Sultane Barry, president of Guangzhou's Guinean community. He runs an entire floor of a 35-storey tower crammed with shops bursting with factory samples, representative offices, freight-forwarding companies, legal and illegal African restaurants, hairdressers and furnished apartments let by the week.

"We're not here for fun," said Ibrahim Kader Traore, an entrepreneur from Ivory Coast. "We work hard and do well. In Abidjan, people still swear by France, where you might be able to save $13,000 over 25 years; in China, you can have $130,000 in just five years."

Between 2003 and 2007, the number of Africans in China grew by 30 to 40 per cent a year. The Chinese government has never faced immigration on this scale before. In 2007, would-be immigrants were shocked when the authorities reverted to a line taken by the public security ministry in 2004: "China is not a migration-targeted country and the new regulations are aimed at attracting high-level foreign personnel. There will not be many foreigners applying for green cards." In other words, there would be fewer visas for Africans.

"The African population shrank," said Mr. Barry. "We were used to being granted one-year visas allowing multiple entry and unlimited length of stay. In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, the authorities decided to tidy up. They stopped renewing visas here. You had to return to your own country to get another work permit." Since then, the constant quest for precious visas can become absurd. Ladji, an Ivorian whose visa status is irregular, sells pirated T-shirts. He showed me the dozens of visa stamps he had collected, mostly in Macao. "At present, visas are only valid for 30 days. So you have to leave mainland China once a month."

During the Beijing Olympics, the authorities increased identity checks. Guangzhou is staging the Asian Games in November, which worries both the Africans and their Chinese neighbours: "I sell more than 50 per cent of the output of my brother-in-law's TV factory to Africans," said one saleswoman. "We need them and I'm worried there are going to be fewer of them."

During a police raid in 2009, two Nigerians, desperate to escape arrest, threw themselves through a window. One was seriously cut by broken glass, the other fell on his head and was in a coma for several days. Both recovered but the rumour of their deaths spread rapidly, provoking China's first-ever immigrant riot. Around 100 people stormed Guangzhou's central police station while the international media, sure that the men were dead, complained of China's continual violation of human rights.

"The raids started again," said one African. "My wife opened the door to the police, who wanted to see our visas, but I had their papers with me. The policemen started shouting at my children, who were in tears, telling them they'd go to prison - even though my family is registered with the immigration authorities. They knew our papers were in order."

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