By YUNZHI PAN, Beijing, China
Pan delivered a presentation on the subject at the Speaker Series during the Yale Young Global Scholars (Politics, Law and Economics) Program, 2016
In recent decades, African immigrants has been arriving in large numbers in Guangzhou, a southern port city in China. Current literature on African immigrant communities in Guangzhou present mixed assessments regarding their status in the host society. Many scholars focus on the positive impacts brought by African immigrants, such as their roles as connecting “bridges” in Sino-African trade and cultural interactions. Nevertheless, African immigrants face challenges when they seek inclusion into the mainstream Chinese society due to their often illegal status, social isolation and periods of ethnic discords with the Chinese. The study of African immigrants in Guangzhou is important in thinking about the city’s growing diversity and globalization as well as filling in the relative lack of scholarship in the field. As African immigrants’ presence in Guangzhou grows increasingly significant, the local government as well as individuals need to work together to ensure that the relationship between the local Chinese and African immigrants progress in a cooperative and positive direction.
Since the late 1990s, Guangzhou, a rising immigrant gateway city in Southern China, has been accommodating a large influx of African immigrants. The majority of them are independent merchants exporting manufactured goods from China. Over the years, the districts of Xiaobei and Sanyuanli in Guangzhou became known as “chocolate city” due to their dense African immigrant population and transnational business activities (Bodomo 698; see Fig. 1). According to a report by Guangzhou Development Research Institute, the number of Africans living in Guangzhou has increased ten-fold since 2008 to 200,000 in 2014, and this trend is likely to continue due to Guangzhou’s advantageous geographic location for trade, numerous economic opportunities and relative openness to foreigners compared to other Chinese cities (4).
African immigrants in Guangzhou have largely acted as intermediaries between African and Chinese businessmen and promoted Sino-African trade (qtd. Bodomo 705). While African traders are able to gain profit by selling Chinese goods oversea at a higher price, Guangzhou businessmen obtain greater exposure and access to overseas markets. For instance, an interviewee in Bodomo’s study who works in the export clothes industry reported to have frequent business interactions with African wholesalers and retailers (704). However, while many local Chinese welcome African immigrants as they play a critical part in the globalization, economic growth and cultural enrichment of Guangzhou, African immigrants face challenges when they seek inclusion into the mainstream Chinese society (Zhou, Shenasi, and Xu 141, 147, 150).
Current literature on African immigrant communities in Guangzhou present mixed assessments regarding their status in the host society. On the one hand, their attempt to adapt to the new environment is marred by many obstacles, including their often illegal status, social immobility, as wells as ethnic tensions with the Chinese locals and law enforcement (Zhu; Lan 3; Beech). On the other hand, researchers find promises in African immigrants’ roles as initiators and participants of mutually beneficial contacts, as potential partners of Chinese internal migrants who face similar challenges, as ambassadors presenting positive images of Africa to the Chinese locals, and as bridges across linguistic and cultural barriers (Zhou, Shenasi and Xu 144; Castillo; Bodomo 693, 706). Therefore, while the complete incorporation of African immigrants into the Chinese society may be an arduous process, the effort is worth investing in due to prospects for improving ethnic relations in Guangzhou.
The study of African immigrants in Guangzhou is important for two essential reasons. The first is the necessity of studying the implications of a growing African population for the city of Guangzhou. Over the past decade, the arrival of large waves of African immigrants has propelled the transition of Guangzhou from a provincial capital to an emerging gateway city for transnational interactions in the developing Global South, adding a unique dynamic to the story of globalization and ethnic interactions distinguishable from that which occurs in the more developed Global North (Zhou, Shenasi and Xu 141). The second is the relative shortage of research on the topic. Compared to research conducted on Chinese diaspora in Africa or immigrations to the West, African immigration to Chinese cities has received less scholarly interest. Nevertheless, the growing impact that these immigrants have on Sino-African relations in recent years cannot be neglected and therefore calls for greater attention.
For potential means to improve African-Chinese relations and better integrate African immigrant communities into their host society, the state could help raise public awareness of African immigrants’ positive contributions to the society, loosen up stringent immigration controls, and provide enhanced public services for immigrant communities. Moreover, individuals may contribute to strengthening African-Chinese relations in Guangzhou through acquiring foreign language skills that enable effective communication, increasing the frequency of direct contact and establishing cross-cultural and multiethnic civil groups with the purpose of emphasizing commonality. It is important that the relationship between the local Chinese and African immigrants progress in a cooperative and positive direction as opposed to causing more rifts between these two communities or inflicting more damage.
Challenges of Integration
While scholars present different theories about African immigrants’ homemaking process in Guangzhou, they acknowledge that these immigrants encounter a wide range of predicaments when pursuing greater inclusion into the Chinese society. This essay identifies and analyzes three major challenges: illegal status, social immobility, and ethnic tension. Rather than treating each of them as independent occurrences, it is more important to notice the interconnectedness and coherence between these obstacles of integration as they add to the complexity of the overall immigration situation in Guangzhou.
Similar to immigrant-destination cities in the developed world, one of the challenges the Guangzhou government must confront is regulating undocumented immigrants. As a newly emerged immigrant gateway city, however, the situation in Guangzhou is unique due to China’s lack of a refined immigration regulation system. A traditional single-culture state, China bases its immigration policies on the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens, a very outdated text last revised in 1985, which fails to provide an effective response to the high volume of immigrants entering Guangzhou each year (Zhu). Therefore, the most common cause of many Guangzhou African immigrants’ illegal status is the legal discrepancy with respect to immigration at regional and national levels, rather than the stringent immigration control policies that usually generate such problem in western countries.
Contrary to illegal immigrants in developed nations, most African immigrants initially arrive at Guangzhou with valid visas. Many of them learn about the business opportunities in China from their family and friends, then decide to travel to the “Promise Land” for direct trade, so that they can bypassing Chinese middlemen in Africa. From the outset until present, the central government in Beijing has been eager to attract trade to the Southeastern port city by encouraging business activities of African immigrants. While Africans applying for foreign visas usually find it easier to secure their entrance into China compared to most developed nations, their struggle with illegal status commences after they have briefly settled in the country. In order to continue their stay, immigrants must apply for a visa extension from the local Guangzhou government. Here, the discrepancy between immigration policies in Beijing and Guangzhou comes into play. While the former issues visas with comparatively lenient standards, the latter approves extensions at a much lower rate. As a result, a large proportion of the formerly legal immigrants overstay their visas and become a member of what the local government call the “sanfei”, or the triple illegals who either enter illegally, stay illegally or work illegally in Guangzhou (Zhu; Lan 8, 10).
The issue of illegal status can be considered the genesis of the other challenges that will be discussed later in this essay. Not only does illegal status severely limit many African immigrants’ social mobility and scale of interactions with the larger Chinese society, their perceived illegitimacy can even turn into sources of ethnic conflicts with the Guangzhou law enforcement as well as ordinary citizens. Therefore, in order to tackle the root problem to ethnic barriers in Guangzhou, the state needs to reform the current immigration policies and eliminate the legal discrepancies between Beijing and Guangzhou.
When African immigrants obtain illegal status either due to unauthorized entry, visa overstay or illegal trade, their scope of activities become limited to certain geographic confines in Guangzhou, since they are under constant threat of police harassment, custody and deportation. In addition to physical immobility, their business opportunities and relationship with the local Chinese will also be negatively impacted. One Nigerian trader complained about being “trapped in Guangzhou” and unable to “travel to other cities to buy cheaper goods” due to his illegal status (qtd. in Lan 13-14). Some are even tempted into engaging in criminal activities such as drug dealing due to their lack of choice (Zhu).
Furthermore, when individuals are placed under detention by the local police, they risk not only losing their personal properties but also their credit standing within the community, as Chinese business partners and suppliers view their absence as a lack of integrity rather than sympathizing with their difficulties (Lan, 14). Over time, Chinese businessmen who constantly interact with African immigrants contribute to the development of unfavorable biases toward the African community as a whole, causing them to not only lose business contracts but also the opportunity to engage in more in-depth social connections with the Chinese community.
In a 2010 survey study conducted by Zhou, Shenasi and Xu, although 64.9 percent of the respondents showed acceptance of Africans as friends and 72.9 percent accepted them as co-workers, only 12.9 percent were willing to consider marrying an African and 27.7 percent would allow their children to do so. Furthermore, 45 percent of the respondents reported feeling uncomfortable living in a community with too many Africans. These numbers demonstrate that although outright discrimination against Africans has yet to take shape in Guangzhou, there are unspoken and implicit barriers amongst the personal lives of the Chinese and Africans. While there are certainly other factors influencing Chinese citizen’s level of interaction with African immigrants, the former’s failure to understand the latter’s legal conundrum and social restraints does play a critical role in dividing the two populations.
Ethnic Tensions, Violence and Protests
As the Guangzhou government and citizens become increasingly wary of African immigrants’ growing presence and their competition for the city’s public resources, ethnic tensions and even violent confrontations between the Chinese and Africans ensue. Since 2011, the Guangzhou government has been modifying its immigration policies to implement stricter provisions against the “sanfei” population. Among their numerous anti-sanfei campaigns is a reward mechanism encouraging ordinary Chinese citizens to report on illegal immigrants, which virtually separated the two groups into hostile camps against each other and set up the tendency for racial tensions and conflicts in Guangzhou (Lan 12).
In 2009, a Nigerian in Guangzhou died while trying to escape a police raid by jumping off a second floor window. In 2012, the police arrested a Nigerian immigrant who was involved in a physical confrontation with several Chinese citizens. The Nigerian was found dead in custody the next day. Both events were followed by angry protests of more than 100 African immigrants demanding justice for their peers. The state media’s response to these protests were usually neglect or ambiguous reports that gloss over the severity of the issues (Beech).
A video footage uploaded online by France 24 English provides a glimpse into an actual fighting scene between several Nigerians and Chinese outside of a nightclub. The conflict begins with a disagreement between the two parties and the exchange of verbal assaults. Soon, a crowd of spectators gathers around the center of collision. Next, a Chinese is seen chasing the Nigerians with an iron stick, creating commotion in the crowd. Several Africans not involved in the conflict are present at the outskirt of the crowd. They explain to the videographer that they don’t want any troubles because the police would always arrest the Africans who dare to fight the Chinese. Finally, the police arrived at the scene and took the Nigerians into custody, completely ignoring the Chinese who were also a part of the fight. This video footage suggests that African immigrants are often more vulnerable to unjust treatments when ethnic conflicts arise, which can be attributed to the partiality of the local law enforcement and the immigrants’ lack of social connections.
With the Guangzhou government’s determination to crack down on illegal immigrants setting up the preconditions for ethnic tensions between the Chinese and the Africans, explicit hostility and violent encounters between the two groups begin to surface in recent years. The potential of these tensions developing into irreconcilable ethnic cleavages in Guangzhou calls for the local government to pay close attention to the situation while taking up the role as a mediator rather than inflictor of conflicts.
Prospects of Positive Interactions
Although African immigrants’ pursuit of greater social inclusion in Guangzhou are hindered by a great number of sociopolitical factors, studies suggest that there are several ways to alleviate the differences and promote integration. These include creating optimal conditions for cross-cultural contact and channeling with the experiences of China’s internal migrants, who are more likely than others to show sympathy and offer help to African immigrants; popularizing positive narrations of African immigrants; and assuming the role as cultural and linguistic “bridges” between China and Africa.
The study done by Zhou, Min and Shenasi supports Gordon Allport’s 1954 theory about intergroup contacts that they are more likely to be successful and mutually beneficial if the three conditions of equal status, cooperation, and similar goals are satisfied (144). In general, the closer the background, the more similar the aspirations and the more frequent the interactions the Chinese have with African immigrants, the more likely they are to perceive Africans as positive influences to their lives and to the city. Therefore, if African immigrants and local Chinese could identify common interests and collaborate toward shared goals, they would bring themselves closer to each other. One potential group of collaborators is China’s internal immigrants. Since they also experience police harassment and the precarious lifestyle common among African migrants, they satisfy the condition of “equal status” for successful intergroup contact (Castillo). Furthermore, their aspirations for greater rights and social acceptance coincides with those of African immigrant communities, making these groups perfect collaborators to fight for a common cause.
Another condition in Guangzhou that suggests hope for improving ethnic relations is the relatively neutral attitudes of the Chinese residents toward African immigrants. Although most Chinese hold certain negative impressions against Africans, such as the lack of physical attractiveness and unpleasant body odors, they give positive remarks on several unexpected attributes. For instance, the proportion of Zhou’s respondents who agree that Africans are lazy and innately unintelligent are 32.1 percent and 16.2 percent respectively. This contrasts the result of a 1933 study done by Katz and Braly among US colleges students, in which 75 percent the respondents agreed that African Americans were lazy and 38 percent found them ignorant (qtd. In Schneider and Angela). While the time difference between the two studies may partially account for the results, it is nevertheless clear that many traditional and institutionalized racial stereotypes in the west have yet to take root in the Chinese population in Guangzhou. Therefore, African immigrants can have a substantial amount of impact on improving Chinese attitudes toward Africans. Rather than considering African immigrant communities as ethnic enclaves carving up distinct “territories” within the city of Guangzhou, Bodomo presents the theory that these communities serve as important cultural, economic and linguistic bridges in Sino-African relation (Li, Lyons and Brown 53; 693). His studies reveal a growing open-mindedness to learning foreign languages and adopting foreign culture among both the Chinese and Africans (700 – 703). Thus, increasing the depth and frequency of cultural, linguistic and economic interactions between the Chinese and African communities could potentially strengthen ethnic relations and social adhesiveness in Guangzhou.
Conclusion and Discussions
While the presence of African immigrants has brought significant socioeconomic and cultural changes to the city of Guangzhou, they remain essentially outsiders in China’s legal, social and identity schemes. Their struggle with the ambivalent Chinese immigration laws at local and national levels and their limited social mobility often lead to aggravated ethnic tensions with the Chinese, often expressed in violent confrontations that significantly destabilizes the Guangzhou society. Therefore, it is imperative that the local government and civilians work together toward the elimination of ethnic barriers and hostility between the Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou.
First, the state needs to reform current immigration system to not only resolve the discrepancy between Beijing and Guangzhou’s visa policies but also take into consideration the emergence of a multicultural society. [P22] The local and national government should negotiate a balancing point in between the lenient policy in Beijing and stringent control in Guangzhou. In order to attract legal business partners from Africa, it is advisable that the local government loosen up its visa extension standards on independent merchants with good previous records. Furthermore, the Guangzhou government can play a critical role in the building of a positive image of African immigrant communities by acknowledging the African immigrants’ positive contributions to the Guangzhou economy, cultural diversity and globalization. Last but not least, the state can help facilitate better public services for immigrant communities. Some kind of state-sponsored immigrant advising or mentoring organization would be helpful for new immigrants to familiarize themselves with the structure and facilities of the city, allowing them to develop a greater sense of belonging with the host society.
Furthermore, Chinese citizens and African immigrants living in Guangzhou themselves can contribute to strengthening cross-cultural, linguistic and economic “bridges” (Bodomo 693). The most direct and effective way to overcome linguistic barrier is through acquisition of foreign languages that help facilitate communications. During their daily interactions, the Chinese residents can actively seek to improve their French or English skills while the African immigrants learn mandarin or Cantonese. Increasing intergroup interactions may also strengthen the bonds, but it should be noted that these interactions are only effective when built upon the basis of equal status, cooperation and shared goals. Specifically, African immigrants can work with the Chinese to establish cross-cultural and multi-ethnic civil societies that fight for a common cause. Some plausible examples may include trade unions, women’s organizations and civil rights organizations for migrants.
Despite the many frictions between African immigrants and the local residents and government, the influx of African immigrants continues to escalate due to the city’s burgeoning economy and trade opportunities. In the long term, it is unlikely that even the most stringent regulations would relent this tide of immigration. Therefore, it is crucial for the people and government of Guangzhou as well as African immigrants to collaborate on the process of increasing social inclusion for foreigners. Moreover, African immigrants have played a significant socioeconomic role in Sino-African trade as well as globalization of Guangzhou. As media attention and scholarly research dedicated to this issue increases, we are optimistic that the relationship between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou will gradually shift toward a friendlier and mutually beneficial end.
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