China welcomes growing African trade, but not the Africans who facilitate it
By some counts, at least half the foreigners living in the Chinese trade hub of Guangzhou are Africans. Many face hassles ranging from visa expiration to police raids.
As the southern city of Guangzhou hosts the Asian Games, which will come to a close on Nov. 27 in China, the prosperous city is putting its best face forward and has welcomed foreigners from all across Asia. However, the sweet welcome the visitors are receiving puts the treatment of a growing presence of African immigrants in the city into stark relief.Skip to next paragraph
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Since China moved to an "open-door policy" in 1980 to stimulate economic development, foreigners have flocked to China to tap in to its market. And over the past few years, tens of thousands of Africans, mostly Nigerians, have been streaming into Guangzhou to set up trading firms to export clothing, shoes, electronics goods, and anything churned out by the factories in nearby towns in Guangdong Province that make China such a manufacturing empire.
Though the Chinese trade with the African immigrants, not everybody embraces them as neighbors. Some Chinese cite a language barrier with the English-speaking Africans. Some Africans in China on work visas said they feel they are perceived by the Chinese as violence-prone troublemakers. Still, because most Africans don't speak much Mandarin or Cantonese they do not seem a threat to take jobs, and are just in China to buy goods to take back to their home country and sell.
"People come because there are economic opportunities," says Fu Hualing, head of University of Hong Kong's law department.
But since 2009, local police have begun to regularly raid buildings teeming with Africans as they look for those who have overstayed their visa. Those who are caught face stiff fines and interminable jail time.
In July 2009, two Nigerians jumped to their deaths from a five-story building to evade police pursuit. Though such standoffs are rare, enraged Africans rallied outside the police station to protest the strong-arm tactics leading to the casualties.
"The Chinese need a shift in thinking," says Mr. Fu. "They're used to dealing with rich, Western countries. The influx of Africans is something new. And it will take a long time for China to learn how to behave."
Fu adds, "The Chinese need to broaden the basis of economic cooperation when they're making policies on visas."
Many Nigerians say few of them can get work visas renewed for longer than three months; some can only get a 30-day extension each time they seek to stay longer. Some African traders allege that they have become vulnerable to dishonest Chinese suppliers who would delay delivery beyond the Africans' visa extension, forcing them to choose between losing business and becoming illegal. To remain legal, the only option is to submit their papers and keep their fingers crossed, many say.