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In the recent year, the attention of major media organisations was spontaneously drawn to a new phenomenon - an increasing number of African emigration is now aiming for China as their new destination, and most of these immigrants concentrate on Guangzhou, a relative economically prosperous city in south China.
Since China has always been an emigration country and has not developed a mature immigration administrative system, there is no official data on immigrants in China. However, according to Chinese media, there are now between 20,000 to 200,000 African immigrants living in Guangzhou. The Guangzhou Academy of Social Science, a research institution with governmental background, declared that the number should be around 100,000.(2)
The following paper will firstly discuss the causes for this new trend, outline the lives of African immigrants in China and, finally, describe the Chinese attitude towards the phenomenon.
Why China is seen as the new immigration destination
Though China and Africa have had a long friendship ever since the Mao era, the current immigration wave began from the end of last century. Starting in 1998 and accelerating after China joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO), African immigration to China increased by 30-40% annually between the years 2003-2007.(3)
As China’s economy has enjoyed rapid growth, the last two decades also witnessed a fast development in Sino-African economic relations, and the economic ties between China and Africa have become crucial to both sides. In the year 2011, China became the biggest single trading partner of Africa,(4) and more than 2,000 Chinese enterprises are now investing in the continent.(5)
The increasing close economic contacts also propel the population mobility between China and Africa. According to an estimation, there are now around one billion Chinese citizens staying in Africa.(6) However, the Chinese in Africa still cannot completely answer the local needs for Chinese products. Also, African businessmen are no longer satisfied with acting as the agents of Chinese exporting companies, but are eager to open up their own import channels and bring cheap Chinese products directly back home. Out of these economic motives, African immigrants rush into China to chase their dreams.
Also playing a role is the European Union (EU) and North America – the traditional destinations for immigrants - however, it is much easier for Africans to acquire a Chinese visa. On one hand, as indicated by Zhai Liang, Professor of Sociology at State University of New York-Albany, “After all, as Chinese companies invest in Africa building infrastructure, these efforts inevitably create social connections between Africans and Chinese. Some Africans simply used these kinds of connections to get visas to China.”(7) More importantly, in the absence of a department of immigration in central Government, the regulations on immigrants in China are relatively loose and the scrutiny on visa application is not taken as seriously as in Western industrialised countries. It is quite easy to get a travel, business or even study visa to China. And after the expiry date of their temporary visa, instead of going back to Africa or applying for an extension visa, many African people stay in China as illegal immigrants without the high risk of being exposed, arrested and, eventually, deported.
Compared with the EU and America, African immigrants in China could enjoy a friendlier environment. Both being considered as the Global South, immigrants find that the lifestyles in China have more in common with their lives in Africa than the West does. Rufito, an immigrant from Nigeria, said "In China we live like in Africa. You have your bottle – you share it with others. In Europe? They do not share the bottle,"(8) and he is quite confident of his future in China, as he believes “China is moving. Europe is not, European people should also learn from China – to co-operate and be friendly, not be a big fish eating a small fish.”(9)
Lives of African immigrants in China
African immigrants in China come from almost every corner of the African continent. But the majority of these immigrants are from Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, and The Gambia.
Most of the African immigrants in China engage in trade. What attracts them to China is the cheap Chinese products and the relatively stable and mature Chinese market. After years of development, in Guangzhou, there are now several commercial communities specialising in Sino-Africa trade. In these commercial malls, represented by Tianxiu Building, products are selected according to the African market, and focus is on African immigrants, who ship these products back to their own countries after stocking up on their commodities here. Typically, these buildings combine commercial and accommodation functions: the upper floors are built into hotels and the lower floors operate as shopping malls. Many African immigrants prefer to live in these hotels for convenience. Since these areas are concentrated with Africans, they are known as ‘chocolate city’ by the local people.
African immigrants have formed their own community. They live in concentrated areas and develop into a relatively separated society against the mainstream local Chinese people. They go to African bars for drinking and eating, African hair salons for haircuts, certain mosques for worship, and “the lives of many Africans never extend out of the 20 kilometer ‘Chocolate City.’”(10) African immigrants highly depend on their fellow people, and lots of them come to China together with their family members.
Few African immigrants choose to settle down in China. On one hand, according to Chinese policy, it is very difficult to become a permanent Chinese resident. On the other hand, most Africans find it hard to integrate into the Chinese communities, and the Chinese language is considered too complicated to acquire. Even those African immigrants who successfully gain their positions in Chinese society - most by marriage - still heavily rely on their connections with their mother countries for business. Most of the immigrants only see China as an arena to chase their dreams rather than a second homeland.
Chinese attitudes towards African immigrants
Even though lacking experience in dealing with African immigration, Chinese society tends to view the issue in a positive way. The influx of African immigrants in China is firstly seen as strong evidence of China’s rapid development rather than as a problem. The statement from Guo Yongyi, the Deputy Editor of the Chinese Journal Africa, could best represent this perspective. “This new phenomena definitely confirms the economic prosperity of China, which is becoming a global power.”(11) He refers to Chinese history and compares present trends with the immigration waves in Tang Dynasty, when huge amounts of foreign nationals came to China, and sees it as an inevitable consequence of development. He also argues that the issue could only be solved by open minds rather than by setting barriers for immigrants.(12)
In Chinese society, there are prevalent positive associations with Africans, whose origins could be found in the Cold War years. In China, African people are always referred to as ‘African bothers,’ and the Chinese, especially among the older generation, keep talking about how the African states helped China find its way back to the United Nations in the 1970s. With both actors being from the Global South, China and African countries shared many common interests and standpoints, and this leads the Chinese to be more sympathetic to African immigrants. Showed in a recent study on local people’s attitude towards the African communities, led by Barry Sautman, a Professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, “about half had a neutral impression of the African community, and far more had a good or excellent impression than a negative one.”(13)
Generally, the immigration issue is not a sensitive topic in China. Among all the problems China encountered in its rapid development, immigration problems remain marginalised and have not raised serious concerns for both the Government and civil society. Even though the number of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, increases exponentially, it remains insignificant when compared to the massive Chinese population and is not prominent enough to provoke either concern or panic among the majority. Until now, there are no systemic laws and regulations on immigration from the central Government or a specialised immigration department. As most of the immigrants are concentrated in Guangdong Province, in the inland cities and provinces, immigrants remain as distant vague images in Chinese people’s mind, which leads to an indifferent attitude between the Government and the mainstream society.
However, changes are taking place softly in Guangzhou. From 2008, Guangzhou Municipal Government started to apply more strict regulations on immigrations, which led to a dramatic drop in the increasing rate of immigrants. Just in 2011, the Interim Provisions of Guangdong Province Foreign Service was enacted. The provisions indicate numerous and detailed rules to deal with the illegal immigrant issue. For example, the hotels as well as owners of private housing in Guangzhou, are required to inspect the validity of a foreigner’s visa, and whoever offers housing or jobs to illegal immigrants has to pay a fine of up to 10,000 yuan (US$ 160).
Also, conflicts and even racial discriminations between African immigrants and local citizens are increasing. Some African immigrants complain that Chinese taxi drivers often refuse to provide Africans with their services.(14) While the taxi drivers defend their behavior this way – “They (African immigrants) always bargain with the taxi fees after [I drive] them to their destinations. And it’s quite annoying that they talk loudly during the whole journey.”(15) Some radical opinions, especially the ones on the Internet, relate African immigrants with robbery, drugs and AIDS. And certain stories, which are very likely to be fabricated, tell about how Chinese girls are raped and killed by African immigrants and are widely spread on the Internet. Stimulated by these statements, the prejudices towards African immigrants among local Chinese people are now aggravating. African immigrants, on the other hand, are also developing hostilities towards Chinese people in reaction towards these discriminations. One Nigerian businessman stated, “The Chinese immigrants are spreading around the world. The world has accepted the outgoing Chinese, but why can’t Chinese citizen accept us?”(16)
African’s immigration to China is a new phenomenon in international relations. The cause for it could be primarily found in the development of the Chinese economy and the increasingly close economic ties between Africa and China. African immigrants in China further boost these connections by setting up new commercial channels between China and their home countries.
The loose regulations towards immigrants in China make it much easier to get a visa to China than to the Western countries. This practical consideration brings many Africans to China. The long-term friendship between China and African countries and the confidence among Chinese society, based on its huge population, both lead to a relatively welcoming atmosphere for African immigrants.
Though the new phenomenon has not yet caused serious concerns from either the central Government or the mainstream society in China, changes are undertaken in Guangdong province, where the immigrants concentrated. More strict regulations on immigrants are put into practice. What may have a more far-reaching impact is that as the contacts between the immigrants and local people grow in number, the cultural conflicts and racial prejudices are intensifying. Beyond doubts, the immigration wave from Africa to China will continue in the coming future, and more attention should be paid to this issue.
(1) Contact Kaiyu Shao through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit (email@example.com)
(2) Guangzhou Academy of Social Science website, http://www.gzass.gd.cn.
(3) Palash, G., ‘“African immigrants gravitating to China’,” International Business Time, 16 August 2010, http://www.ibtimes.com.
(4) The European Union, as a whole, still playremains Africa’s the biggest trading partner. of Africa
(5) Tong, Z., ‘“China became the biggest trading partner of Africa’”, China.com, 30 January 2012, http://www.china.com.cn.
(6) Kai, L., ‘“The security of millions of Chinese in Africa needs to be improved’”, People.com, 3 February 2012, http://world.people.com.cn.
(7) Palash, G., ‘“African immigrants gravitating to China’”, International Business Time, 16 August 2010, http://www.ibtimes.com.
(8) Branigan, T., ‘“China cracks down on African immigrants and traders’,” The Guardian, 6 October 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(10) Dali, S., ‘“Guangzhou "Chocolate City": Africans Seek Their Dreams in China’,” China travel, 18 December 2008, http://www.chinatravel.net.
(11) Shen, Y., ‘Ten thousand African chasing dreams in Guandong’, China voice, 5 August 2010, http://www.cnr.cn.
(13) Branigan, T., ‘China cracks down on African immigrants and traders’, The Guardian, 6 October 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(14) Shen, Y., ‘Ten thousand African chasing dreams in Guandong’, China voice, 5 August 2010, http://www.cnr.cn.
(15) Li, Z., et al. 2009. The local response of transnational social space under globalization in urban China: A case study of African enclave in Guangzhou. Geographical Research, 28(4), pp. 920-932.
(16) ‘A Nigerian in Guangzhou’, Economic Information Daily, 14 October 2009, http://www.jjckb.cn.
Written by Kaiyu Shao (1)
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