HONG KONG - In order to tap into Africa's rich mineral and oil resources, China
has injected billions of dollars in aid and investment into the continent while
at the same time giving a free pass on despotism and human-rights abuses to
nations such as Zimbabwe and Sudan. Chinese merchants and laborers are also
increasingly a presence.
This has given rise to heated international debate over whether Chinese leaders
are practicing a new form of colonialism and whether ordinary Africans, and not
just a corrupt elite, are benefiting from China's involvement.
A subplot often overlooked in this larger story, however, is the increasing
number of Africans who have come to China to ply their
trade. Lured by the promise of China's prolonged economic boom, they have
arrived by the thousands seeking cheap goods that they can resell back home for
The southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the country's (and much of the
world's) manufacturing hub, has seen the largest influx of Africans, with most
of them doing business in a single neighborhood in the provincial capital city
of Guangzhou. An estimated 20,000 Africans now live in Guangzhou, with
thousands more regularly streaming through the city as visitors who buy pirated
DVDs and Chinese-made clothes, shoes, electronics and other products for resale
That makes Africans the largest foreign population in the city - and their
numbers in Guangzhou more than double those in Beijing and Shanghai combined.
African traffic to and from Guangzhou has grown to the point that, in November
of 2008, Kenya Airways began the first non-stop flight from Africa to the
Chinese mainland with its Nairobi to Guangzhou express. Indeed, Guangzhou has
become such a haven for Africans from a variety of different countries that the
Canaan Export Clothes and Trading Center in and around which they thrive is
referred to by locals as "Chocolate City".
The Canaan market opened six years ago. In that time, other imitation markets,
filled with African buyers bargaining with Chinese sellers, have sprouted
around it, giving the impression of a Little Africa in Guangzhou.
In the name of promoting China and its communist ideology, African students
have long been accepted into Chinese universities, resulting in series of
racial clashes on campuses across the country in the 1980s. But this is China's
first encounter with the continent's business class.
Not surprisingly, again there are problems. The racism and harassment that this
new wave of Africans faces has created tensions that at times have boiled over
into ugliness. In July, for example, after two Nigerians were injured, one
severely, while trying to avoid an aggressive passport check by Guangzhou
police, 200 of their African compatriots staged a rare protest by foreigners on
Chinese soil, snarling traffic in the city for hours.
China has a rich history of anti-foreigner demonstrations. There was the Boxer
Rebellion between 1898 and 1901, an uprising against Western imperialism and
the rising influence of Christian missionaries. That was followed by the May
Fourth Movement of 1919, protesting the Chinese government's anemic response to
the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I but reinforced European
domination of China and gave Shandong province, controlled by Germany during
the war, to Japan.
More recently, pilgrimages by Japanese leaders such as former prime minister
Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine - a sacred Shinto memorial dedicated to
Japanese soldiers, including World War II war criminals, who died fighting to
uphold the emperor - ignited angry nationalistic protests in China. In
addition, there have been demonstrations against the French international
hypermarket chain Carrefour after protesters in Paris interrupted China’s
Summer Olympic Games torch relay last year.
The Chinese diaspora also got into the act when, following Beijing's crackdown
on riots in Tibet last year, thousands of Chinese Americans and overseas
Chinese gathered in front of the Hollywood offices of the American cable news
network CNN to protest remarks by a CNN commentator, Jack Cafferty,
characterizing Chinese leaders as "goons and thugs".
By contrast, foreigners in China usually keep their mouths shut. After all,
most of them are well-heeled professionals cashing in on China's rise as an
economic world power. They live in comfort, quite likely make more money than
they did at home and do not want to risk deportation with complaints about the
The African traders in Guangzhou, however, do not fit the usual expatriate
profile. They are a foreign underclass generally living in shabby quarters and
treated as second-class citizens and third-world poachers who are trying to
elbow their way into the light of China's economic miracle.
Media stereotypes portray them as unreliable and untrustworthy, some taxi
drivers refuse to pick them up and local police routinely harass them with visa
checks, which only intensified in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, hosted by
Beijing. Since residency is all but impossible for an African to obtain and
visas generally extend no longer than three months, many overstay, dodging
police checks to remain in the country.
All this came to a head in July in the wake of a police raid on the Tangqi
Foreign Trade Clothes Plaza. To avoid the police, two Nigerian traders went to
the extreme of jumping out a second-story window; one of them was badly
injured. The protest that followed - consisting mostly of Nigerians, who are a
majority in Little Africa - besieged a local police station and shocked the
No doubt in response to that protest and out of concern that others may follow,
Guangzhou officials are now taking a softer line by offering a two-month
amnesty to Africans who have overstayed their visas and initiating
reconciliation talks with community leaders in Chocolate City. Those leaders
hope this marks the beginning of a better relationship with Guangzhou
In the end, the increasingly sweet deal Beijing enjoys in Africa argues for
better treatment of Africans in China. China is now Africa's second-largest
trading partner, behind the United States, with Chinese-African trade rising a
stunning 700% between 2002 and 2007, to US$73 billion. And the products China
receives in this exchange - among them timber, copper and lots of oil - are
going a long way toward fueling the country's continued economic rise.
Meanwhile, roughly during this same period, the number of Africans arriving in
Guangzhou on tourist visas has quintupled, but these new arrivals have hardly
been welcomed with open arms. Instead, there has been a grudging acceptance and
enduring suspicion of their presence, and the restrictions on their visas make
it far more difficult for them to do business in China than for their Chinese
counterparts to work in Africa.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at