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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.

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In fact, it wasn't until 2005 that China unveiled a green-card type program, to help major investors and top-tier experts avoid this type of hassle and to encourage business. And only now are officials and academics putting their heads together to draft the country's first immigration law, according to Zhuang Jijao, a researcher with the China Academy of Social Sciences.

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“I wonder, if China wants to open up the market, why they don't allow people to come?” asks Stephen Kelvin, a polo shirts trader from Nigeria, expressing the frustration that many of his fellow traders have with the setup.

What about families?

According to Chinese law, those who have to come to China to be with a spouse are eligible for permanent residency. But even that doesn't seem to make much of a difference.

For example, Nigerian clothing trader and designer Aku Chigozie and his wife, Esther Xu of Dalian, live together in northern China. The couple married and, with their small son, settled in Guangzhou five years ago to set up their trading firm, which deals in menswear. But Chigozie has to go to the local Public Security Bureau's Entry and Exit Administration every three months to renew his visa. He doesn't complain about the distance or any lines, but the uncertainty of the process.

“Every time I go in, the officials would look at the book and then [they tell me that] for Nigeria, three months only for visa renewal,” says Chigozie. “They are supposed to treat me as a citizen because I'm the husband of one of their citizens.”

Ms. Xu said someday she'd like to move to Nigeria with her husband, but she says she can't while her parents are still living.

“I'm the only child. How can I take care of my parents from Nigeria?” she said. “Of course China has to control immigration, but officials have got to consider individual circumstances. They've got no mercy.”

Xu said when she heard of a possible immigration law, she called local officials to inquire, only to be told that nothing has changed yet and that no one knows when it will. Meanwhile, if Chigozie isn't granted his visa extension, she says, the family could be torn apart and the business will have to shut down.

Mr. Zhuang, the researcher, said that in the absence of an immigration policy, “China's transnational migration management has long been focused on the legitimacy of entry and exit out of economic considerations.”

The national census that started Nov. 1 is the first time foreigners will be counted. Based on 2008 visa administration data, there were more than 50,000 foreigners who spent more than six months in a year in Guangzhou, a city of 10 million people. By some counts, at least half of the city's foreign population is from Africa.

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