In June last year, a large crowd of angry protestors took to the streets of Guangzhou. Hundreds took place in the demonstration, unusual for its size in a Chinese city, given the government’s typically draconian and rapid crackdown on such public displays of defiance. But it wasn’t just their size that made the protests abnormal – it was where the protestors were from. African expatriates, incensed at what they claimed was police brutality, demanded the government produce the body of an African man who had died in custody earlier that day.
After an altercation with a Chinese driver over a motorbike collision, a Nigerian man was taken to the police station for questioning. The police gave little explanation as to his cause of death, sparking the outrage. According to bystanders and photos posted online, around 300 Chinese police guarded their station on Xiaobei Lu, the heart of what locals here call the “Chocolate City,” while some of the protestors hurled rocks at the building and police vehicles.
The event exposed simmering racial tensions in this booming manufacturing city – tensions that wouldn’t even be possible in the vast majority of other Chinese cities. China is an amazingly homogenous society – only .04 percent of its residents are foreign-born. But Guangzhou is different. Starting in the late 1990s, after the Asian financial crisis crippled the economies of most Southeast Asian countries, Africans began moving to relatively unaffected Guangzhou, lured by the city’s role as a manufacturing hub for cheap consumer goods. Today, official government data show that there are approximately 20,000 long-term African residents in the city, but academics estimate the figure to be closer to 200,000. Around 95 percent of these migrants are traders or businesspeople, facilitating the movement of goods between China and their home countries in Africa.
One of the reasons for the discrepancy between official numbers and experts’ estimates is that it’s virtually impossible for Africans to acquire long-term visas here. Just before last year’s protest, the government limited tourist and business visas for most African nations to six months, down from one year. The move left many Africans living on the margins of legality, forcing them to “border hop” back and forth between Guangzhou and Hong Kong to keep their visas fresh. According to researchers at Sun Yat-sen University, there are only six Africans in this city of 12 million people that enjoy permanent resident status.
In Guangzhou, Africans tend to live on the fringes of society, despite their importance to the city’s economy. Photo credit: Lyle Vincent via Flickr
The death of the inmate and the subsequent protest sparked intense and frequently racist debate in Guangzhou and throughout China about how the country should treat its immigrant population. “Kick all of the black devils out of China!” one commenter wrote on a major Chinese online forum. “All the black devils in Guangzhou are illegals anyway,” wrote another. “They should be treated as such.” Not all comments were vitriolic. “Why is this a race issue?” questioned another poster on the same forum. “Why aren’t we upset with the police brutality?”
“In the Chinas today there is a clear racial social hierarchy based on the assumption of racial superiority,” wrote African-American Sinologist M. Dujon Johnson in his landmark study Race & Racism in the Chinas. “The comfort level and the acceptance of a foreigner in the Chinas are directly proportional to the skin pigmentation of that non-Chinese.” Government policies seem to tacitly validate this hierarchy.
While there are foreign-run schools for Western, Japanese and Korean children, Africans have so far been unable to receive permits to set up institutions of their own. And police officers routinely check Africans’ passports on the street and in markets, hoping to find people who have overstayed their visas. Rarely do Caucasian foreigners find themselves subjected to this type of treatment. Further, as in the US, Chinese media portrays negative stereotypes of Africans and blacks in general. “In the media, Africans are often depicted as violent people carrying HIV,” Li Zhigang, Associate Professor of Geography and Planning at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, told a Chinese magazine last year. “This widens the gap between the Chinese and the Africans in the city.”
But despite the fact that Guangzhou appears to have become inhospitable to the African community, some are pushing for change.
“From a geopolitical perspective, Guangzhou is unique in connecting Asia and Africa,” said Li. “Since it is close to Southeast Asia and is China’s hub for air freight to Africa, Guangzhou can act as a trade center between China and Africa. If Guangzhou can make good use of its unique geopolitical position, its trade and economy will prosper.”
Further, there are signs that the local community may indeed be opening up. Dr. Adams Bodomo, a Professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, has written extensively about Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. “What is happening now in Guangzhou and other Chinese cities is clashes between mostly illegal African residents and harsh, draconian and largely corrupt law enforcement authorities, not community clashes between the African migrant communities and the Chinese communities,” he wrote in China Quarterly in 2010. “Not only are Africans getting more proficient in Chinese languages and cultures, but many of the Chinese traders…are learning to speak a form of English that is recognizably African.”
But despite the progress that is being made on both sides of the racial divide, researchers and residents still fear Guangzhou is too inhospitable to be a long-term host of immigrants. Interviews have shown that many Africans are now considering moving on to other cities in China, or even Southeast Asia or India as the RMB’s appreciation knocks out China’s price advantage.
“If the Guangzhou police remain as disrespectful and draconian as they are now, other places in China, such as Yiwu in Zhejiang province, the commodities trading center of China, could replace Guangzhou,” wrote Bodomo in a Chinese magazine last year.