Long a land of emigration, China has become one of immigration. Surprising? Not really. Life is now better there than in most of the Third World. Meanwhile, with fewer people leaving the Chinese countryside for the cities, employers have to offer higher wages and better working conditions … or get their labor elsewhere. Finally, with migrant communities taking root and growing larger, it is becoming easier for newcomers to overstay their visas and vanish into the crowd …
Where are they coming from? Mostly from Africa. Their growing numbers mirror the similarly growing numbers of Chinese on that continent—already over a million. Indeed, when asked what entitles them to live in China, some will shoot back: “We are here because you are there!” (Bodomo and Ma, 2010)
The African influx is most noticeable in Guangzhou. This South China city, formerly Canton, is renowned as a place where foreign wholesalers can buy inexpensive garments, footwear, and electronic products. This is why so many Africans come as traders and, increasingly, as immigrants. The term “trader” should be understood broadly. Some of them are indeed rich businessmen, but others are poor and can scarcely pay for their airfare. In a survey of this community, Li et al. (2007) offer the following quotes as typical:
‘…They don’t even have 100 dollars in their pockets, and could hardly pay for bills of hotels in the first few days when [they] arrived in Guangzhou…’ (Interviewee No. 22).
‘…Unlike those who have money for two weeks in their pocket, we Africans start from nothing… In order to have the money for meals tomorrow, we have to work immediately when we arrive in Guangzhou…’ (Interviewee No. 25).
African traders began to come in large numbers only in the late 1990s, when the Asian financial crisis strengthened the hand of market reformers who wished to open up China’s economy to the world, this process culminating in their country’s admission to the WTO in 2001. In particular, rental accommodations became more accessible to foreigners. Over the next decade, several predominantly African districts began to take shape, the biggest one being nicknamed “Chocolate City” (Bodomo, 2010; Li et al., 2007).
How many Africans live in Guangzhou today? Officially, only 16,000—those with resident status (Pinghui, 2014). A larger group of migrants eke out a semi-resident status by periodically renewing their short-term visas. Finally, the largest group encompasses those with no status at all. A recent study puts the total at over 200,000, with up to half being “three illegals”—people who have entered illegally, overstayed illegally, or obtained work illegally (Wang, 2014). For China as a whole, Bodomo and Ma (2010) suggest a total of nearly 500,000 Africans.
The gap between official figures and reality is consistent with what Castillo (2014) reports from conversation with Nigerians at a soccer pitch:
In addition to the players, a three-year-old is kicking a ball around. With play at the other end of the patch, the goalkeeper turns and asks sternly for the half-Nigerian half-Chinese child to show his passport and visa. Everyone laughs. “There are many young Nigerians here without valid visas,” Tony says, explaining the joke. “There may be hundreds only in Guangzhou.” At today’s training session, only five people have valid visas—the rest are overstayers. (Castillo, in press)
These Africans seem to live a precarious existence, always in danger of deportation. Yet the danger is more apparent than real. China depends on their continent for resources to sustain her current economic growth, and any mass deportation would jeopardize access to those resources. After a 2012 crackdown in Beijing on African migrants, Nigerian authorities retaliated by arresting 45 Chinese traders (Marsh, 2014). And it’s not as if Africa cannot sell her resources to the U.S. or Western Europe. So Beijing has learned to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration for the sake of economic interest. This is not to deny that undocumented Africans are often harassed by public officials of various sorts, but this harassment usually comes from lower levels of authority, particularly the Guangzhou municipal government.
So mass deportations seem unlikely. Efforts to limit immigration will remain low profile … and largely ineffective. This reality is understood by African immigrants, who have learned to elude the authorities accordingly. Mathews et al. (2014) describe the strategies of visa overstayers in South China: “These strategies include laying low beneath the notice of the state, using one’s social networks and cultural capital in one’s evaluation of uncertain information, and engaging in self-presentation that remains carefully concealed.” Another strategy is to disperse to other urban centres, particularly Foshan:
During the last years, the neighbouring city of Foshan has become a second centre of African migration. While a growing number of migrants have been moving from Guangzhou to Foshan, an increased direct migration to Foshan can also be witnessed. (Bork-Huffer et al., 2014)
Yiwu is likewise mentioned as an increasingly preferred destination:
In Yiwu both ordinary Chinese residents and Chinese law-enforcement agencies treat Africans with greater civility, and incidents of discrimination by Zhejiang law enforcement officers are — based on our experience, interviews with Africans in both cities, and field work — notably less. (Bodomo and Ma, 2010)
Evidently, these strategies—lying low, using social networks, and dispersion to other cities—reflect a strong motivation to stay:
A distinctive feature of Africans in China, which differentiates them from other foreign nationals, is their expressed intention to settle in China for a long period […] Most Africans are actually seeking a life in China if the local situation permits them to remain. Moreover, a significant part of African immigrants are relatively poor when they arrive at China. (Zhu and Price, 2013)
In addition to the threat of economic reprisals by their home countries, African immigrants have other points working in their favor:
Rudimentary immigration control. China is only now learning how to deal with illegal immigration. Controls are still weak and unevenly applied. Africans themselves know this and will often go to centers outside Guangzhou to renew their visas.
Illusion of demographic superiority. Because China has well over a billion people, one might think that it could absorb millions of Africans without any noticeable change. In reality, China’s population has a shrinking base of young people and is aging rapidly because of a very low fertility rate. The number of 15- to 24-year-olds will drop by 38 million, or 21%, over the next ten years (Anon, 2013). In contrast, African immigrants are much younger and accustomed to having large families. They already make up 2% of Guangzhou’s population and are well positioned to grow numerically through immigration and natural increase.
Seeing the future in terms of the past. Chinese authorities see their country’s future as a better version of the past. While China has a history of foreigners forming enclaves on her territory, these enclaves never had the potential to become demographically important. Their power was economic and political. Consequently, no historical precedent exists and comparisons to the past will lead to flawed responses.
Among academics, there is a growing consensus that the African community will continue to grow and become comparable in size to similar communities in Western Europe. Liang (2014) argues that African immigration to China has a potential not only for further growth but also for growth of an exponential nature. Pioneer communities have formed and will provide further immigrants with the means to get established and, if necessary, with cover to evade the authorities. Local businesses are also coming to depend on African immigrants, either as workers for low-wage jobs or as tenants for substandard flats. The potential for growth is strong:
This study shows that though China is a nonimmigration and developing country, the current immigration of Africans in Guangzhou has entered its early stage. A migration network connecting Africa and China is rapidly emerging […]
As long as the Chinese economy continues to develop and maintains social stability, transnational migration will continue to increase in China. At some point, foreign immigrants will form a powerful pressure group. China has entered the stage in which labor costs are starting to rise; meanwhile, an aging society is also beginning to take shape. […] With the rise of domestic economic levels and social living standards, immigration issues will gradually develop from a peripheral social problem into an important social problem that will ultimately affect politics, economy, society, diplomacy, national security, and other issues.
Castillo (2014) concurs, seeing African immigration as a growing embarrassment for the Chinese, who can neither halt it nor fit it into their dream of a better future:
The difficulty that Africans and many other foreigners encounter in China suggests that the Chinese Dream, if it ever becomes more than a political slogan, might be closer to an exclusionary ethno-nationalist fantasy of Han ‘prosperity’ than to a dreamland of opportunities for ‘outsiders.’
Interestingly, although Liang wishes to limit African immigration, he justifies his stance on purely economic grounds. Immigration should be limited to “those African immigrants who bring in capital and trade opportunities.” Like Castillo, he sees China as an entity that should exist to maximize “opportunities” in a global marketplace, and not as a vehicle for perpetuating the Chinese people and their identity.
And the future?
It would be easy to conclude that African immigration will be halted at an early stage, given the intensity of nationalist feeling in China. This is typically an outsider’s view. In reality, there are both nationalist and globalist currents in contemporary China, and it is far from clear which is stronger.
In any case, contemporary Chinese nationalism is part of the problem. It is driven by “Big China” thinking—a wish to make the country a major global player. To that end, the economy must continue to grow at a high rate, and to this end there must be unhindered access to African resources, yet it is this very imperative that justifies the current lax policy on African immigration.
This dilemma will become more acute in coming years. Chinese nationalism, as it now exists, shares many premises with globalism, and a viable third way will emerge only with great difficulty.
Anon (2013). Peak toil, The Economist, January 26. http://www.economist.com/news/china/21570750-first-two-articles-about-impact-chinas-one-child-policy-we-look-shrinking
Bodomo, A. (2010). The African Trading Community in Guangzhou: An Emerging Bridge for Africa-China Relations, The China Quarterly, 203, 693-707. http://www.hku.hk/linguist/staff/ChinaQuarterlySubmission2009ResearchPaper.doc
Bodomo, A.B. and G. Ma (2010). From Guangzhou to Yiwu: Emerging facets of the African Diaspora in China, International Journal of African Renaissance Studies – Multi-, Inter and Transdisciplinarity, 5, 2, 283-289. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18186874.2010.534854
Bork-Huffer, T., B. Rafflenbeul, F. Kraas, and Z. Li. (2014). Global Change, National Development Goals, Urbanisation and International Migration in China: African Migrants, in F. Kraas, S. Aggarwal, M. Coy, and G. Mertins (ed.), in Megacities. Our Global Urban Future, International Year of Planet Earth, pp. 135-150, Springer. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-90-481-3417-5_10#
Castillo, R. (in press). ‘Homing’ Guangzhou: emplacement, belonging and (alternative) citizenship amongst Africans in China, International Journal of Cultural Studies http://africansinchina.net/2014/12/03/research-homing-guangzhou-emplacement-belonging-and-alternative-citizenship-amongst-africans-in-china/
Castillo, R. (2014). Un-dreaming the ‘Chinese Dream’: precarity, solidarity and organisation amongst Africans in Guangzhou, paper delivered at: Producing Anthropology, the 113th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Washington, DC, 3-7, 2014. http://africansinchina.net/2014/12/09/research-un-dreaming-the-chinese-dream-precarity-solidarity-and-organisation-amongst-africans-in-guangzhou/
Li, Z, D. Xue, M. Lyons, A. Brown. (2007). Ethnic Enclave of Transnational Migrants in Guangzhou: A Case Study of Xiaobei. http://asiandrivers.open.ac.uk/lyons%20brown%20zhigang%20li%20ethnic%20enclaves%20china%20(2).pdf
Liang, Y. (2014). The causal mechanism of migration behaviors of African immigrants in Guangzhou: from the perspective of cumulative causation theory, The Journal of Chinese Sociology, 1:2. http://www.journalofchinesesociology.com/content/1/1/2/
Marsh, J. (2014). Afro-Chinese marriages boom in Guangzhou: but will it be ’til death do us part’? South China Morning Post, June 1. http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1521076/afro-chinese-marriages-boom-guangzhou-will-it-be-til-death?page=all
Mathews, G., D. Lin, and Y. Yang. (2014). How to Evade States and Slip Past Borders: Lessons from Traders, Overstayers, and Asylum Seekers in Hong Kong and China, City & Society, 26, 217-238. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ciso.12041/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false
Pinghui, Z. (2014). Guangzhou clarifies size of African community amid fears over Ebola virus, South China Morning Post, November 1. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1629415/guangzhou-clarifies-size-african-community-amid-fears-over-ebola-virus
Wang, N. (2014). Guangzhou Home to Largest African Expat Population in Asia, Many Illegal, The Nanfang Insider, September 1. http://www.thenanfang.com/blog/guangzhou-home-to-largest-african-expat-population-in-asia-many-illegal/
Zhu, G., and R. Price (2013). Chinese Immigration Law and Policy: A Case of ‘Change Your Direction or End Up Where You are Heading’? Columbia Journal of Asian Law, 26, 1-30. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2088683