Guangzhou community shrinks under police pressure, economic changes

By Liu Caiyu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/26 21:28:39

A Nigerian trader examines underwear at a wholesale market in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

A small African restaurant on Guangyuan Road in Guangzhou, capital city of South China's Guangdong Province, has gone from prosperity to near bankruptcy in recent years, with its clientele dwindling to less than 10 customers on average most days.

Heng, the Chinese owner of the restaurant who married a Ghanaian man eight years ago, has become anxious about the future of the city's African community - purportedly China's largest.

The number of Africans living in Guangzhou has dropped in recent years, reaching 10,344 as of February 25, the Guangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB) recently announced.

Many of the city's Africans have either returned to their home country or gone to live in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore and Malaysia, Heng told the Global Times.

"Before, many Africans living nearby or those on business in China, chose my restaurant for lunch or dinner," Heng said. "I plan to sell my restaurant this year," she said, the frustration plain in her voice.

This contraction can be seen not only in specialized restaurants, but on the streets of neighborhoods that used to host the city's Africans.

Li Dong, a Chinese photographer, told the Global Times that Baohanzhi Street, in the Xiaobei area, was once home to a significant African community. He spent years photographing the area to tell these immigrants' stories, but it has now declined from its once-bustling peak.

Some Africans used to hawk cheap groceries on the street during the day, Li said. But such scenes are long gone. The number of Africans who left China from Guangzhou has been greater than the number coming to live in the city for the last four years, leaving a gap of 18,000 people over that period, the Guangzhou PSB told the Global Times in an exclusive interview.

Frustrated community

According to Heng, part of the reason why some Africans have left is that they are fed up of being lumped in with the minority of their community who break the law.

"It is normal in Guangzhou that police patrol the streets asking Africans for their passports. Many are just scared of being detained."

When groups of Africans gather on the streets, locals and police alike assume that they are up to no good. The vast majority of Africans living in Guangzhou are law-abiding, a small number are involved in the drug trade, Heng explained.

Sometimes, local Chinese people complain to the police about Africans, or even ask police to meddle in their lives, a student at Guangzhou University from the small West African nation of Togo, told the Global Times.

"These factors compel Africans to migrate to other areas in Guangzhou or other Chinese cities which are more suitable for us," the Togolese student said.

It is true that, due to perceived security risks, Guangzhou police have been trying to spread the African population around the city rather than having it concentrated in a few neighborhoods, Li said.

He added that a portion of Guangzhou's Africans have left the city, but not the country, with the city of Wenzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province being a particularly popular destination.

Visa crackdown

Renewed police efforts to ensure that all foreigners are on legitimate visas have also hit the African community, as shady visa arrangements were common, the Global Times has learned.

Li said that lots of people on short-term business visas seek a quick and easy way to renew their visa without having to travel back to their distant home countries, and have been willing to wade into a legal gray area.

Underground visa services can be found in places such as Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Singapore, and these shady firms usually employ other African expats as support staff, Li told the Global Times.

Data that Guangzhou police sent to the Global Times says that at present, around one-third of Africans in the city are on business visas, about 20 percent are students and 17.8 percent are on tourist visas.

Most businessmen cannot conclude their business in China on a single visa, which lasts no more than three months, Li noted.

The crackdown on visas is part of the reason that the number of Africans in the city is shrinking, Guangzhou police said.

Police claimed that since the crackdown began in 2015, the number of Africans has declined along with the total number of foreigners illegally working and living in Guangzhou.

Moreover, many Nigerian, Egyptian and Malian businessmen who made up the largest subsections of the community left due to global economic troubles, the police said.

African traders who export cheap goods have found that as living costs and the price of commodities both rise in China, their businesses are no longer profitable, Heng noted.

"Those malls and stores welcomed by African businessmen in past years are seeing fewer African visitors."

Also, due to globalization and the spread of e-commerce, African companies are now often working with Chinese firms online, rather than dispatching local representatives to the country, the Togolese student told the Global Times.

Chen Qingqing contributed to this story

Newspaper headline: Unsettled Africans

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