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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    China's President Hu Jintao and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (r.) inspect honor guards during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug. 24. Zuma called for greater investment in his country from China, as South Africa seeks to narrow its trade deficit with Beijing and bring growth to its sluggish economy.
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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.

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.

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"People come because there are economic opportunities," says Fu Hualing, head of University of Hong Kong's law department.

Strong-arm tactics

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.

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.

“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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