Yepoka Yeebo

African migrants let down by the Chinese dream

Unlike Chinese migrants working in Africa, Africans in China face hostility and limited economic opportunities

July 1, 2014 1:15AM ET

On June 29, a nonprofit African diaspora organization, the Appreciate Africa Network, hosted the inaugural African Achievers’ Awards gala in Beijing to celebrate the successes of Africans carving out lives in Guangzhou, Beijing, Yiwu and countless other cities across mainland China.

The event highlighted the achievements of African newcomers, from small-business owners to diplomats, and took place a few miles east of the Great Hall of the People at the Landmark Hotel in downtown Beijing.

It was in awkward contrast with China’s hostility toward African migrants struggling to establish lives on Chinese soil. While the central government publicly welcomes the migrants, recent draconian visa legislation has sent a clear signal: Africans in China — even highly prosperous, educated economic contributors — are not welcome.

An unequal relationship

China’s relationship with the continent has deepened over the past decade through diplomatic visits and trade deals. Chinese companies are setting up huge mining operations and building stadiums, hospitals and infrastructure on the continent. In 2012, China-Africa trade climbed to a record $200 billion.

But Sino-African relations are not limited to trade and resource extraction. Nearly 1 million Chinese migrants who have relocated to Africa are establishing Chinatowns from Lagos, Nigeria, to Mombasa, Kenya — creating what veteran journalist Howard French calls “China’s second continent” in his new book by the same name.

Despite widespread perception that Beijing is vested in exploiting African resources, Chinese authorities insist relations with Africa are based on equality and mutual respect. Victor Zhikai Gao, executive director of the Beijing Private Equity Association, is one of many high level officials who trumpets this win-win rhetoric of equality in Sino-African relations. “China wants to engage every African country as an equal,” he told Al Jazeera earlier this year. 

Given this promise of equality, the majority of African migrants in China, including those honored on Sunday, view their presence in China as a logical progression: “We are here because you are there.” But in contrast to the economic opportunities afforded to Chinese migrants in Africa, the lot of Africans in China tells a completely different story.

The megacity of Guangzhou is home to the largest concentration of Africans in Asia — as many as 200,000 by some estimates. But unlike Chinese contractors in Africa, these migrants often go to China without the backing of a corporation or their home country. Legally, they are not able to buy land, open a shop, seek employment or start a factory in China. In order to engage in any commercial activity, many African migrants marry a Chinese wife and register their business in her name, while those with the financial capacity can open a representative office of a Hong Kong–registered firm.

Because of these constraints, many African migrants engage in export trading: They buy Chinese goods such as mobile phones, garments and construction materials in large quantities from Chinese wholesalers and ship them to their home countries.

An African trader watches a stall outside Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market in Guangzhou, China, in July 2013.
Yepoka Yeebo

A quick stroll through the bustling markets of Guangzhou’s Little Africa shows that African entrepreneurs are generating a lot of domestic jobs. A good trader can make a killing. Amadou Issa, a Nigerien trader whom I met earlier this year while researching Africans in Guangzhou, is one of those who have mastered the export business. He arrived in China in 2004 with $300 to his name and today ships 200 containers a year to Niger and Central America, making an average of $2,000 on each shipment.

But he cannot legally open a bank account in China, and despite being married to a Chinese woman and unless there is a change in the law, he will never become a Chinese citizen. Both these factors hinder his economic advancement.

Issa’s story is not unique. Malian-born Cellou Toure is a successful trader who, despite being married to a Chinese national, could not obtain a permanent residence visa. The father of three Malian-Chinese children, he is trilingual (speaking Mandarin, French and English) and holds a university degree, as do 40 percent of African migrants in Guangzhou, according to professor Adams Bodomo’s 2012 book, “Africans in China.” “If I took my wife to Mali, she would get a passport,” Toure said in an interview earlier this year.

China continues to pursue a policy of publicly welcoming African migrants while its legislation makes it logistically arduous for them to work or start a new life.

Rather than welcoming these economic stimulants from its partner continent, China wants to squeeze them out. Last year China passed the long-awaited Exit-Entry Administration Law, which many Africans hoped would provide a legal gateway into China and emancipate them from the endless cycle of renewing short-term visas.

That did not happen. In fact, the law made the visa renewal process even more complicated. In the past, Africans could renew their temporary visas by crossing into nearby Macau or Hong Kong. But the latest changes meant they must now return to their home countries and apply for visa renewals.

Not welcome

The message is clear: Africans are not welcome in China. It is an uncomfortable truth that the Chinese authorities are keen to conceal. Lan Shanshan, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, claims state-owned newspapers have been instructed to report favorably on Africans in China. In 2012 The Guangming Daily ran a three-part special titled “Friends From Africa, How are You Doing in Guangzhou?” It presented a sanitized version of African life in Guangzhou. All the African migrants profiled were successful businessmen with valid documentation (a significant proportion of Africans in China have overstayed their visas). The story sought to quash claims of racial intolerance toward Africans in the country and emphasized Sino-African friendship.

China’s hostility toward Africans on its soil affects the country’s diplomatic ties with the continent’s nations. In 2012 a visa bust in Beijing targeting Nigerian nationals who did not have proper documentation sparked an immediate retaliation raid on illegal Chinese migrants in Kano, Nigeria.

With so much at stake for Sino-African relations, China continues to pursue a policy of publicly welcoming African migrants while its legislation makes it logistically arduous for them to work or start a new life. Meanwhile, Chinese migrants continue to mine Africa’s mineral resources. China awards most contracting jobs to build huge African infrastructure projects to its corporations and nationals, neglecting the transfer of skills to local populations. African leaders are beginning to take stock of this imbalance.

“China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones,” Lamido Sanusi, who was recently suspended as Nigeria’s central bank governor, said last year. “This was also the essence of colonialism.”

It is unlikely China will host an awards night to celebrate the achievements of its citizens in Africa. But if it happens, such a ceremony would be impressive, if uncomfortably out of kilter with the African experience in China. For the economic migrants straddling the two cultures, the much-touted win-win relationship amounts simply to China’s winning twice.

Jennifer Marsh is an assistant editor of Post magazine at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has spent the past six months researching the African diaspora in Guangzhou, China, with a China-Africa reporting grant from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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