Just Approaches? Africa’s Migrants in China

By Lara Pham

Recent global attention has turned towards China’s growing presence throughout Africa given the country’s growing economic and political interest in the continent. China is the content’s largest financier with numerous natural resources investments and infrastructure projects. With these investments comes an influx of Chinese staff across the continent as well as promises for cooperative economic development. But the economic and social activity between China and Africa is not a one-way exchange.

As Chinese money and citizens move abroad, the country is also experiencing an inflow of immigrants from Africa. Unfortunately, China’s outdated legal structures have exacerbated tensions between ethnic Chinese and the growing African immigrant population.

As China continues its push into Africa for natural resources and strategic diplomatic relationships, many Africans are coming to China in search of job opportunities. According to Zai Liang, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany, recent Chinese investments in Africa have created more professional and social connections between the country and the continent. Even established African traders in the U.S. and Europe have relocated to China, says Daouda Cissé, a research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, because of its thriving manufacturing industry, competitive prices, and lower operating costs.

Guangzhou, one of the country’s largest cities and a major manufacturing hub, boasts China’s largest African community. Thousands of Africans, many from Nigeria and others from all over the continent including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia, are coming to work and even settle in this industrial city.

Today, the city is home to thousands of “African businessmen, mainly traders, who deal in consumer goods such as garments, shoes, bags, computers, technology devices, and household items, as well as larger goods such as construction materials,” notes Melissa Lefkowitz, a program officer at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute whose recent work focuses on China’s stance towards immigration. The exact number of African residents is often disputed (local media estimates figures to be between 20,000 and 200,000) due to the often transient and sometimes undocumented nature of their stay.

Most African immigrants engage in trade activities, taking inexpensive Chinese-made goods and selling them back for profit in their home countries. The growing presence of Africans in China has spawned a myriad of African businesses and enterprises to support the community, which include bars, restaurants, barbershops, etc.

However, African migrants documented and otherwise, have expressed concerns about the Chinese visa and immigration process as well as socio-cultural challenges. China primarily belongs to one ethnic group – Han, so it is not farfetched to see why there would be resistance to change. The anti-immigrant rhetoric is well known. Treatment of migrants, of course, varies from city to city, but African migrants are often targets of discrimination, which can include harassment from local police.

As a country that has historically sent migrants abroad as opposed to receiving them, China faces substantial difficulties in its legal process when it comes to accepting new immigrants. China restricted visa issuances in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Just last year, the Chinese government implemented immigration reform measures that increase penalties for visa overstays and unauthorized work. The reform known as the Exit-Entry Administration Law marks the first time that foreigners are subject to detention and investigation, according to Lefkowitz – even of those merely suspected of illegally working in China. This recent move does not send a hopeful message to any immigrant group.

A major problem is that the Chinese government does not have a central immigration authority, so it often relies on its security organization to enforce immigration policies. The government is “enacting piecemeal policies…[which] keep Africans and presumably other immigrants at a disadvantage,” says Adams Bodomo, who is a native of Ghana, professor of African studies at the University of Vienna, and author of Africans in China.

China also keeps its process for residency extremely stringent. Although there is an established legal pathway to acquire a permanent residency card, it is primarily geared towards the rich and elite. While African businessmen, traders, and other migrants can easily acquire a short-term visa, their enterprises require additional work and time that would naturally need visa renewals. But it is impractical and overly burdensome when the government tells African migrants “to go back to Africa to renew” at their countries’ Chinese embassy. According to Bodomo, “other migrants like westerners and other Asians can easily renew their visas either within China or leaving to Hong Kong or Macau,” which clearly indicates a particular discrimination against African immigrants.

According to some experts, it might even be a “misnomer” to consider African enterprises in China as formal businesses. Lefkowitz found that “it is actually very difficult to register a business in China, as one must have an employment/work visa to do so.” When speaking to African traders in Guangzhou, Lefkowitz saw that few have this visa and “that money is the key factor in obtaining one,” leaving a majority of traders operating on tourist visas subject renewals every 30 days. She also indicated “even Africans who have permanent residency through marriage and stay in China on a residence permit (which must be renewed every year) do not have official permission to register a business in the country.” Such limits unfairly inhibit immigrants’ business activities.

While several African governments have welcomed Chinese investment and business, the Chinese government has yet to fully reciprocate. It is hypocritical of the Chinese government to insist on heavily investing in Africa, oftentimes importing Chinese staff and overworking local labor, while refusing to make accommodations for its African immigrants.

It is important for China to update its policies to reflect the reality where immigration seems not only inevitable, but also largely beneficial. The Chinese government should recognize the significant socio-cultural and economic contributions by African immigrants. Once the Chinese government acknowledges these major developments, it can begin to truly promote cooperation as significant international actor.



Lara Pham is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a master's candidate in international affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photos courtesy of UK Guardian and Ray_from_LA]

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