Bill Schiller, Toronto Star, August 1, 2009
The scene stunned the local, law-abiding Chinese: They’d never seen anything like it.
At a busy intersection in the heart of this southern city recently, angry Africans carried a bleeding black man, held aloft, across eight lanes of heavy traffic to deposit him smack at a police station’s door.
Almost immediately hundreds of other Africans converged on the station–shouting for the police to come out and take responsibility.
The wounded man’s name was Emmanuel Okoro of Nigeria.
Trapped in a police raid on illegal immigrants that afternoon, Okoro chose to leap from the second floor of a shopping mall rather than be arrested.
He landed on his head.
Now, as he lay unconscious on the station’s doorstep, angry protestors fanned out into the street–blocking traffic, ripping up plants, waving tree limbs and denouncing the police.
It took six hours to restore order. No serious injuries were reported.
But it left many asking the same question: Is this the end of China’s African dream?
For a decade now, thousands of African traders have descended upon Guangzhou–the hub of a region called “the workshop of the world”–to buy goods cheaply and re-sell them back home for a profit.
Today more than 20,000 Africans reside in this 10 square kilometre stretch that local Chinese cab drivers call “Chocolate City.”
As many cities around the world have “Chinatowns,” so Africans have come to think of this area as a kind of burgeoning “Africatown.” The sounds of Afrobeat music permeate the air, business gets done in English or Igbo (a Nigerian language) and colourful west African dress abounds.
But the Chinese are not an immigrant nation. Fully 92 per cent belong to one ethnic group alone: the Han. They dominate political and cultural life and remain relatively cool to foreign ways.
Regardless–29-year-old Nigerian Kizito Ezeribe sees himself as a nascent stakeholder.
“For me, coming here was my African dream,” he says, seated inside his shop in the Tanqi Garment centre, busily wrapping bundles of blue jeans to ship back home.
His business card is emblazoned with his motto: “In God I Trust.”
“My brother came here first to seize the opportunity. So I came, too. Everything is so much cheaper here,” he said one recent afternoon.
He and other African buyers tour local factories regularly, he says, looking to buy “seconds” with minor imperfections.
A pair of blue jeans can be had for as little as 15 Chinese yuan, the equivalent of $2.45, he says. These he can sell right here at his stall for 28 yuan, or about $4.60.
But back home they can fetch as much as 45 yuan or $7.35, maybe even more.
Ojukwu Emma, president of the Association of the Nigerian Community in China, who has lived and worked here for more than 10 years, says China is a huge magnet for African traders, and it pulls in more every day.
“China rules the world,” he says. “Much of what African consumers want is made here. It’s good quality and you can get it at a good price–clothing, electronics, auto parts–anything.
“For us, it used to be all about the United Kingdom, Europe or the U.S.A.,” he explains. “Today it’s all about China.”
But Emma also worries about the impact of the unprecedented July 15 riot, he says. He already senses a backlash.
He doesn’t blame the Chinese for that. He says his people–Nigerians–need to take responsibility: they need to understand and respect Chinese law.
“China is a communist country,” he says. “They’re not like us, a democratic country. They have their own laws and regulations that we have to respect.
“You can’t blame the Chinese law for people carrying fake passports,” he stresses. “We have big problems . . . and it’s making (Chinese) people change their minds.
“At first, they welcomed us.”
He worries that Nigerians, in particular, have worn out their welcome.
“We have to rebuild our image,” he says.
“You know, people at this end of the neighbourhood,” he says, referring to the eastern part of the African sector, “they’re people from Mali and Guinea and Congo–they’re not facing the problems we’re facing.
“In Tanqi (where the disturbance took place), it’s all Nigerian.
“It’s time we put our own house in order,” says Emma. “Shutting down traffic was wrong. I don’t support that kind of activity.”
But not everyone agrees.
Ishmail, a trader from Nigeria’s economic capital of Lagos who owns two shops in that city, says the situation on the ground in Guangzhou is more complicated.
“African people are suffering here,” he says. “You can’t help but overstay your visa.”
He says African traders can’t get business done in 30 days’ time and sustain the constant costs of international flights back and forth.
“Plus the pressure and the tension associated with these raids is insufferable,” he adds. “People are being detained for three, four, six months at a time before they can pay their 5,000 yuan fines (about $800). Then if they’re released they face the cost of a $2,000 (U.S.) air ticket home. No one can afford that.”
But isn’t China just doing what any country would to ensure visitors’ visas are in compliance with the law, he’s asked?
“In Nigeria we are free,” Ishmail implores. “We have two Chinatowns in Lagos. The government set aside land for them. No one in Nigeria asks Chinese people to show their visas. Here they can stop you on the street for no reason. And there are more Chinese in Africa than there are Africans in China,” he says. “Plus, they are welcomed in Nigeria.”
But some Chinese businesses welcome Africans and their business, too.
Deng Huarong, who runs an electronics shop in Tongxin Rd., says he does constant business with African traders and enjoys the interaction.
“The poorer ones bargain very hard,” he says. “And if anything goes wrong with their order–a day’s delay for example–they can be very short-tempered. But they’re direct, straightforward and friendly.
“If I had to choose whether to do business with a Middle Eastern businessman or one from Africa–I’d choose the African,” he says bluntly. “The Middle Eastern people are just too shrewd.”
But there are signs that official pressure on the Africans is continuing to mount.
Chinese police have vowed publicly to intensify their campaign to flush illegal Africans out of Guangzhou.
And last Sunday police vans with flashing lights were even parked outside of the Star Hotel in central Guangzhou, where a weekly Christian service for foreigners attracts African worshippers.
As the service ended and congregants poured out into the street, Malcom, an African engineering student, took offence at the police presence.
“Why are these people harassing us?” he said. “They’ve never come here before. Why are they coming now?”
An older African man holding the hand of a young African child was about to exit the hotel, but spied the police and quickly turned back into the hotel lobby.
Barry Sautman, a professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, who has done research on the African community in Guangzhou, says the recent clampdown appears more intense–and might be the result of data suggesting greater numbers of visas are not up to date.
But whatever the reason, the clampdown is raising tensions.
“So far it has only resulted in deteriorating relationships between the African community and the authorities,” said Sautman.
Ojukwu Emma of the Nigerian Community in China says he and the Nigerian embassy are working on an agreement with local authorities to provide exit visas for Nigerians whose visas have expired and who wish to return home.
If formalized, it would allow Nigerians to leave China within 10 days, without threat of detention.