A racist detergent ad featuring a young Chinese woman stuffing a black man into a washing machine only to be delighted at the Chinese man who emerges at the end of the wash cycle provoked outrage in China last year. It is but one indication of the rising intolerance towards Africans living in the country — and could be a driver of their subsequent exodus.
The 1997 Asian economic crisis caused some African traders to relocate their businesses from Thailand and Indonesia to the Chinese port city of Guangzhou. There, a predominantly male business community of mostly Malian, Congolese, Nigerian and Guinean expats, but also Angolans, Burkinabé, Somalis and others, settled in a 7 km stretch that swiftly became known as Little Africa. Their numbers have increased to perhaps 100,000, making it the largest African settlement in Asia.
They built a bustling market in the central square of Little Africa, but few African traders in
Guangzhou were hawkers of low end goods. Ghanaian professor Adams Bodomo, in a survey for his 2012 book Africans in China, found that 40% of migrants had tertiary education. And they were among the biggest contributors to the 2014 peak of African-Chinese trade flows, which exceeded that of US trade with the continent by US$ 120bn.
Guangzhou-based journalist Jenni Marsh, in a Wits-funded analysis of the phenomenon, interviewed Amadou Issa, who arrived in China in 2004 with only $300 to his name. By 2015, Issa had a Chinese wife and was a wealthy exporter of construction materials. He lived in an $800,000 apartment in the city’s smartest district, and drove a $64,000 car.
Other Africans invested non-business skills in China, such as Senegalese footballer Youssou Ousagna, who relocated to Sichuan in 2005 after being scouted by Chengdu Tiancheng football club. He is fluent in Mandarin, and married a Chinese woman.
Afro-Chinese marriages are on the rise in Guangzhou. In June 2014, Marsh covered Nigerian Eman Okonkwo’s wedding to Jennifer Tsang for the South China Morning Post. Marsh wrote: “In Guangzhou, weddings like this take place every day. There are no official figures on Afro-Chinese marriages but visit any trading warehouse in the city and you will see scores of mixed-race couples running wholesale shops, their coffee coloured, hair-braided children racing through the corridors.”
But there were rumblings of trouble. A sensational public race debate was sparked in 2009 over Lou Jing, a 20-year-old Afro-Chinese woman who entered the final rounds of Go Oriental Angel, an imitation of TV talent contest American Idols. A racist backlash on social media included calls for her to “go back to where she came from” — even though she was born in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and an African-American father.
A 2008 Wikileaks cable from Guangzhou to the CIA had noted that many Chinese did not want to live in Little Africa because of “differences ” that ranged from “culture to lifestyle [and] hygiene,” and warned that local police were incapable of communicating with the Africans. The cable said local authorities were “extremely concerned with the high concentration of Africans into a few Guangzhou neighbourhoods”, especially as the diaspora had no formal representatives with the exception of “Big Brothers”, Africans who had Chinese citizenship and who spoke Cantonese .
In 2015, Marsh interviewed one Big Brother, Emmanuel Ojukwu. Since his arrival in 2007, Ojukwu had established his reputation as the elected head of Nigerian expats, and was calling himself “the president of Africa in China”. Interviewing him again for CNN last September, Marsh found him despondent over the numbers of Africans who had not returned to Guangzhou after the holidays, remarking that Little Africa had lost its character and vitality.
“Over the past 18 months,” she wrote, “hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.”She said exact numbers were hard to find. “A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and an at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge.”