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globe essay

Guangzhou finds it can’t live with or without its enterprising, and growing, African population

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."

In 2009, Mo Lian, deputy director of border control operations for Guangdong province's public security department, told Xinhua news agency that 70 per cent of the foreigners detained in 2008 for illegal immigration and overstaying their visas were from Africa. In the first half of 2009 the figure rose to 77 per cent, and a black market began. According to Ladji, you can buy a "genuine" visa: "Some Africans are paying as much as $2,600. They simply use private agents to bribe the authorities."

"By trying to contain immigration, the Chinese government is pushing people into the arms of the African networks, which are just growing stronger," said Ojukwu Emma, president of a Nigerian community association. "Newly arrived immigrants sell their passports for cash. When they are deported, they just go home, change their identity and come back. Others end up in drug trafficking or prostitution. This kind of thing gives Africa a very bad name.

"Our community is fighting lawlessness. We've created the 'peacekeepers,' a band of 50 young men with machetes who catch African criminals and hand them over to the police, to protect our image."

Thanks to this initiative, Mr. Emma was able to sign, in November, 2009, an "amnesty agreement" with the local government, applicable to every African who gives himself up to the immigration authorities. "On March 8, 2010, 400 Nigerians whose visas had expired left China. I also negotiated the fine down to $300, half what it had been. I'm down at the immigration office every day, along with many other African community leaders. As soon as they have the money, those who leave in this way will be able to return legally."

Those who cannot pay the fine or the cost of a plane ticket home go straight to prison and, according to some reports, are put to work in state factories.

"Chinese people have always feared Africans," said a professor at Guangdong University, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Chinese may be no more racist than any other nation, but less reluctant to show it. Vincent, a Nigerian who has lived in China for five years, said, "Even if it's worse in Indonesia or Malaysia, you get insults like 'black devil.' On public transport, people hold their noses, and some children run away when they see me in the street. You just have to live with it." Jean-Bedel, a Congolese student, said: "When you go to hospital, even if you only have a little fever, they always take an unusually large number of vials of blood from you, and automatically test you for HIV. They don't do it with their own people. They also put on gloves with a great show of taking precautions before examining you. It's only for blacks."

"Those black devils are into drugs and prostitution," said one taxi driver. "They even try to haggle over the fare. I never stop for them. Anyway, I can never understand where they want to go."

Most African migrant workers do not try to integrate. The Africans blame the Chinese: "It's difficult to get closer because most Chinese denigrate us and don't believe we are their equals," said Mr. Barry.

But in the business centres and freight zones of Africa Town, the Chinese have realized that the Africans can contribute to their country's prosperity. In the rest of China, Africans are exposed to hostile reactions.

However, popular uprisings against Africans, as at Nanjing University, Beijing, in 1988, no longer happen. Then, demonstrators attacked African students and poured into the streets chanting "Death to the black devils!" Their excuse was that a Chinese student had been beaten to death, but they were also angry at Africans' interest in Chinese girls.

Since then, mixed marriages and mixed-race children have become more visible around Africa Town. "Thanks to China opening up to the world, there is now some hope for coloured foreigners here," said Yane Soufian. "We are learning their customs and we obey their laws." Mr. Soufian, from Niger, arrived eight years ago "almost broke and knowing only black tea, not green." He has been married for five years to Hanna, a Chinese woman, and they have a 10-month-old son, Arafat. "My in-laws never opposed our marriage. Their only fear is that, some day, we'll go back to Niger. My wife trusts me because she understands that Africans who stay in China have shown they can adapt. They fight for themselves and have joined the modern world. We have a lot of respect for our wives and help them with the daily chores."

Mr. Emma estimates there are between 300 and 400 mixed marriages. Some Africans only marry to obtain a residence permit. Ladji confirmed this: "To be able to start a business you have to marry a Chinese woman. That's what my brother did, and it's what we all dream about."

Africans are learning Chinese, in China, at university or in one of the many Confucius Institutes in Africa. Mr. Barry recalls how ill-equipped the host nation was: "The arrival of the Africans taught the Chinese how to look for business opportunities. The secretaries we had here didn't speak a word of English. Our presence started a craze for learning languages: English and French. The Chinese didn't know the basic rules of international trade. They knew nothing about documentary credit. They paid for everything cash in hand."

A new transnational African business class may be emerging, which could flood sub-Saharan Africa with low-cost products from China. "China is trying to keep things at government level," said Mr. Barry, "but the Chinese people will soon realize that it's better for business to deal directly with ordinary Africans." China would prefer Africans to do business with China without living here, yet 90 per cent of Guangzhou's Africans act as intermediaries between the African continent and Chinese factories.

Beijing has everything to gain from looking after its African population. "The door to the Chinese market has only opened a crack, mostly because visa requirements are so tough," said Zango, a trader from Mali. "The future is elsewhere - India, perhaps."

Tristan Coloma is a journalist with a focus on Africa and writes for Le Monde diplomatique. Translated by Robert Waterhouse