Guangzhou: A bridge for Africa-China relations?

-Sihle Nontshokweni 

In a research report titled Guangzhou: An Emerging Bridge for AfricaChina Relations Adams Bodomo (2010) argues that migrant communities such as Africans in Guangzhou act as a bridge; a linguistic, cultural and economic bridge between their source communities and their host communities.

In this article, I implore that beyond being a bridge, migrant communities such as Guangzhou are an opportunity for the Chinese government to ground the Africa-China relationship, in reality, demonstrating a genuine interest in Africa through a focus on the way Africans are treated in Guangzhou.

Guangzhou should be central to China’s Africa strategy. It ought to be a space that reflects the broader “win-win relationship, brotherhood and/or friendship” China envisages for Sino-Africa relations. This space should be a ground for the international community to witness enriching Sino-Africa cultural exchanges where security for Africans is provided by China. Unfortunately, this is not the current reality for Africans in Guangzhou. To offer insight into the frustrations experienced by Africans in Guangzhou, this article will extensively discuss the 2012 Entry-Exit Visa which was enacted with the aim of combating unauthorised migrants. It will also make reference to interview statements from field research conducted in June 2016. 

China’s Africa policy states that Africa and China “have always belonged to a community of shared future” and “have always been good friends who stand together through thick and thin, good partners who share weal and woe, and good brothers who fully trust each other despite changes on the international landscape.” 

Picture source:

It has become increasingly common to read such lofty statements, which aid in (1) refuting the rhetoric of China’s “neocolonialism” in the continent, ultimately casting doubt on accusations that China’s relationship with African countries demonstrates “parallels with imperial patterns of the past” (French, 2014:53).

Beijing’s strong efforts to build Sino-Africa ties have earned China ringing endorsements from African presidents, notable in the statements below:

“In contrast to coloniser, China is really helping Africa” President Zuma of South Africa.

“Achievement of mutual benefits is the basis of Sino-African cooperation. China is doing what the colonialists failed to do in the past — help Africa out of poverty” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“China is doing to us what we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do” Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Xi Jinping (front L) poses with Robert Mugabe (2nd R) and Jacob Zuma (C) Source:

Yet for all the fanfare, China’s Africa strategy is not without question. A major criticism is that China fundamentally lacks a sustainable Africa strategy.

It would seem to me that in order for Beijing to build sustainable engagement with the continent, it’s approach must rise above narrow government to government initiatives, towards building genuine and potentially long lasting people to people interactions.  This pool of Africans is China’s opportunity to demonstrate a genuine and visible interest in Africa through the positive treatment of Africans in Guangzhou.

Unfortunately, China has not been altogether successful at this. For instance, on the 16th of July 2009 a Nigerian who feared being caught for not having a VISA jumped from his second-floor apartment to the ground, fatally injuring himself. Such stories are telling of the draconian culture and/or maltreatment by law officers towards African migrants in Guangzhou. In response to this, crowds gathered around Gongyuan West Road protesting, disrupting traffic near the Sanyuanli Police Station. Witness reports indicated that protesters set a fire to a police car, angered that one of their own died at the hands of the police. 

What is missing from China’s Africa strategy is the awareness of the fact that Africans in China are of the few Africans who best Chinese cultural practices, including customs, food, etc. They are the Africans who are likely learning how to speak Chinese fluently. They are the potential extension of China’s public diplomacy.

It is worth noting that there are areas that are more populated by Africans in Guangzhou than others, including the Tianxiu 天秀building and the general Xiaobeilu 小北路 area. These areas are reported to consistently experience visa raids. It has become common for police officers to mistreat Africans in these spaces. Such encounters negatively impact the experiences of Africans who seek to do authorised business, work and live in Guangzhou.

In June 2016, whilst I was conducting research on Africans in Guangzhou, a Nigerian businessman expressed the precarity of his position as a foreigner when he said:

“I have been living here for 17 years, I have a 14-year-old son, and this is my wife (this said as he pointed to his Chinese wife). But, I am not a resident here. Instead the Chinese give me a permit without a working VISA. How can you be a father without work? When my son was born, I wanted him to have my last name. They wouldn’t allow it. I said [to the authorities], change my surname and write it in Chinese, they refused. So I took him back with me to Nigeria. He is a Nigerian citizen now living in China. He lives as a migrant child in his own country because I have to pay for his education, the same prices as those of migrant parents.

If you look around here my sister, you will see, there are many Afro-Chinese babies without fathers because their parents cannot come back into the county. Even though they want to raise their children, they can’t-they are restricted.”

Visa restrictions were constantly mentioned as a frustration among those I interviewed. The 2012 Entry-Exit Visa was enacted with the aim of combatting unauthorised migrants and “safeguarding the sovereignty, security and social order of the People’s Republic of China, whilst promoting foreign exchanges” (Bork-Hüffer et al, 2012). According to the entry-exit law, those who are found to be staying longer than the given VISA time should be charged RMB 10,000 and then detained for 3-10 days to 15-60 days, depending on how “complicated the case is.” Whilst the detention time seems reasonable, in the past offenders have been treated far more harshly. This includes months and years of incarceration for those who are unable to pay for their deportation.

In Guangdong province, the typical experience for unauthorised African immigrants who were able to pay for their own repatriation was three months’ incarceration. This additional jail time can be interpreted as an informal method to punish those who have fallen on the wrong side of the law. Additionally, this punishment extends to those who grant help to unauthorised migrants. Individuals who are found to be producing illegal documentation or carrying fake qualifications can also be charged up to RMB 10,000. The fine for those working illegally is RMB 20,000. The local government in Guangdong has gone so far as to pay out rewards to informants who report the whereabouts of illegal immigrants to the police.

Whilst these laws are important for managing international mobility in a local area, both the Chinese and African governments should be working hand in hand to address the (1) unrealistic visa and residency restrictions (2) generally unclear paths to permanent residency and (3) the loopholes of the restrictions.

Harnessing the laws in Guangzhou and beyond to ensure the security of migrants and, in this case, Africans is urgent. In cases where human trafficking occurs, there is clearly no protection for the (African) migrant in China. In the past, traffickers have used the ignorance of African women, particularly East African women to entice them to a life in China. Arriving in China, women who have fallen victim to trafficking of this kind are faced with harsh laws, they are exposed to debt, forced prostitution and immobility. Despite the UN’s Trafficking in Persons Protocol to which the Chinese government is a signatory, the 2012 Entry-exit law does not conform to this international standard. Currently, the corners that migrants can be squeezed into without protection means that they are at great risk while living in China.

In another response, a Tanzanian interviewee responded to me saying:

“I am not the African you should be interviewing in Guangzhou. My experience is but one-sided. I came here to do a Ph.D., things are a lot easier for me. The African experience you want to research is the man or woman who only leaves their home at night in fear of a visa raid in the day. Their papers have expired because they had no money to go home. But they can’t seek refuge from the government, if they go to the police they will feel the brunt of the state. Going home means prison first. Even if they had money for bail, they must first go to prison. It is that man or woman you want to interview. The one’s who are stuck here with no way out, just waiting for the day they’ll get jailed. Their experience will tell you about the real China.”

To conclude, to effectively move forward China, more so the local government of Guangdong province should build its capacity to deal with increasing long-term or even permanent transnational migrants. The management, protection and good governance of these policies will offer greater public security and quicker operational responses for migrant entrants into China.

This is a salient matter for the Africa-China relationship as Guangzhou serves as not only an emerging bridge between Africa and China but also a site for the world to learn about how Africans and Chinese interact with each other; the Real-Africa-China story. I stand strong on the suggestion that Guangzhou should be a part of China’s Africa strategy.


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