Jenni Marsh, CNN, June 27, 2016
Guangzhou, China — The heart of Little Africa–or Chocolate City, as it has been dubbed by some–is not easy to locate without a tip-off.
At the foot of an unremarkable tunnel, peeling off the busy Little North Road, in Guangzhou, stands a place that just two years ago was totally unlike the rest of China.
Angolan women carried bin bags of shopping on their heads, Somali men in long robes peddled currency exchange, Uygur restaurateurs slaughtered lamb on the street, Congolese merchants ordered wholesale underwear from Chinese-run shops, Nigerian men hit the Africa Bar for a Tsingtao and plate of jollof rice.
Dengfeng–a previously quiet urban village, or chengzhongcun, in central Guangzhou—had been electrified by migration, both from internal Chinese migrants and those from Africa.
By 2012, as many as 100,000 Sub-Saharan Africans had flocked to Guangzhou, according to Professor Adams Bodomo’s book “Africans in China“–if true, it would have been the largest African expat community in Asia–all chasing the same dream of getting rich in China.
Today, that dream is fading–if not finished.
Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds–perhaps even thousands–of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.
A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge.
Africans began pouring into this landscape of factories, producing everything from washing machines to fake Levi’s jeans, in the mid-1990s.
The type of Africans who migrated to China, however, were different to those moving West, Roberto Castillo, a lecturer in African Studies at Hong Kong University, tells CNN.
“Those people [going to Europe] are usually disenfranchised, with no opportunities, looking to settle,” he says. “Africans in China are much more entrepreneurial. Many of them have the financial capability to move around and explore new places.”
Indeed, 40% of African migrants surveyed for “Africans in China” had received at least tertiary education. Some held a PhD.
Each African country has an “ambassador” in the Chinese city–voted for by expatriates from that nation–who liaises with the Chinese police, arbitrates internal disputes, and organizes community events.
The ambassador also keeps track of the population of his community; migrants usually informally register with their community leader upon arrival in Guangzhou, for support.
The true scale of the African population in Guangzhou is hard to ascertain due to the itinerant nature of many traders–some enter and exit the city multiple times per year–and the thousands who overstay their visas.
One reason the Chinese dream is today failing Africans is the maturing Chinese economy.
Firstly, as China’s profile rose globally, African consumers realized they were buying bootleg not bona fide goods, and naturally wanted to pay less, says Dieng.
Furthermore, under mounting international pressure, the Chinese authorities have vowed to protect the intellectual property rights of global brands, imposing tougher penalties on trademark infringement.
As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.
A 2008 Wikileaks cable reported that the local Chinese authorities had long been “extremely concerned” about the “visible” African population in Guangzhou.
“Many Chinese residents do not want to live in ‘Africa Town’ due to ‘differences’ ranging from culture to lifestyle to hygiene,” an American diplomat wrote to Washington, citing research commissioned by the local authorities.
Dieng tells CNN that locals hold their noses when riding the shared lift in their residential high rise, while a Chinese landlady complained to NetEase, a Chinese news portal, that her African tenant’s black skin color came off on the “snow white walls”–echoing a recent racist TV advert that suggested African blackness can be washed off.
[A professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Gordon] Matthews says: “The Chinese would prefer Africans to come in for two to three weeks, buy goods and go home. China is for Chinese.”
In 2013, China updated its legislation governing foreigners–the Exit-Entry Administration Law–for the first time since 1986.
Africans who had lived in Guangzhou for years, paid taxes there, fed Chinese-run factories and warehouses with business, and perhaps even married a Chinese national, hoped the reforms would offer them a path to genuine residency.
“It was very disappointing,” says Castillo. “Very vague, and very similar to the 1986 law. The message was: you’re foreigners, it’s not going to be easy.” The only clear changes were harsher penalties for those who overstay visas and work illegally.
A Foreign Affairs Service Center, manned by eight police at a time, looms at one entrance, multiple police stands are dotted throughout the 300-meter thoroughfare, while a “Multifunction Service Center” has opened in the heart of Dengfeng, also manned by police.