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Africa-Asia: Go East Young Man!

By Benno Muchler and Yiting Sun in Guangzhou, Zhuji, Shanghai
Posted on Monday, 16 February 2015 10:58

Richard Enyeobi is a pioneer. The Nigerian auto spare parts trader went to China 17 years ago, barely two decades after China’s liberalisation and opening up. Enyeobi suffered a lot from discrimination.

“The thing I’ve learned is being ready to forgive,” he says after a Sunday service at a church that caters to foreign worshippers in Guangzhou, the city with the largest African population in China.

One person placed an order for shoes at a factory using a sample of the left shoe. They made a container of left shoes

“They can go under your skin any minute.”

Enyeobi, however, seems rather unforgiving. He calls the Chinese uncivilised. They only care about money, he says.

He has so often been referred to as ‘black ghost’. People touch his skin to check if it is real. Taxis rush past him when he needs a ride.

“I should feel at home, but no,” he explains.

Nevertheless, he found what he was looking for, he says and smiles, so he stayed.

He does not disclose how much he makes, but his income allows him to go to Nigeria every other month.

There, he replenishes his stocks of palm oil and plantains. He does not touch Chinese food and barely speaks Mandarin.

China has gone from a minor trading partner in the late 1990s to Africa’s single largest trading market today.

Beijing provides loans for billion-dollar infrastructure projects, and Chinese companies are chasing deals in real estate, mining, retail and construction.

Complementing these flows, Chinese people are travelling in increasing numbers to Africa, and Africans are working and studying in China.

The Africa Report took a tour of cities hosting African immigrants to find out what obstacles they face and how Chinese and Africans are working together.

Enyeobi is an extreme example. Most people contacted byThe Africa Report said that they like the Chinese and described them as kind and hospitable people.

Following the growing relations between Africa and China, not only an estimated one million Chinese are living in Africa, but thousands of Africans are also living in China.

Their actual number is unknown because the government has not done any comprehensive survey on Africans, many of whom live a shadowy and transient existence in China.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, 524,900 Africans entered China in 2012, but it did not publish information on how many people stay or for how long.

How significant are these African immigrants for the further development of Africa?

China can be an attractive springboard for a better life outside of the continent even though most African countries have recorded two decades of economic growth.

Most Africans in China are traders or students on Chinese government scholarships.

Will they be agents of change in Africa, like the migrants who went to Europe 70 years ago and contributed to political change back on the continent?

Compared to historic migrant destinations such as the US, France or Britain, China is different in many ways.

An unfamiliar culture, tight immigration laws and discrimination make it difficult to stay. Still, there are many who do.

The lack of data makes it hard to judge how important Africans in China are in terms of remittances.

But China has undoubtedly contributed to changes in norms related to class and standing in some African countries.

“Chinese wholesale markets have played a particularly transformative role in Nigeria, in terms of many young people from non-elite backgrounds being able to generate incomes from importation and begin transnational businesses with relatively small amounts of capital,” says Vivian Lu, a researcher based at Stanford University in the US.

Friendship means business

Robert Ngunyi, a 39-year-old Kenyan who runs an African restaurant, Sky Coffee, in Guangzhou, explains: “You know, I stayed in many countries. But in China there is something that is a bit welcoming.”

Wearing red slippers, a gold necklace with an Africa-shaped pendant, and a Bluetooth mobile phone clip in his ear, he tells the story of how he arrived in China six years ago.

“Long before I came to China, I was told, like OK, when you go to China you cannot even get food,” says Ngunyi.

“So what will you eat? Is it dogs, snakes or what? But from day one, I know I got good food.”

He went to China to pursue a doctorate in tourism management and quickly discovered business opportunities.

He says that some African traders make a common mistake by believing they can just make friends with Chinese people.

“For the Chinese, the only thing that matters is business. If there is no business, they have no friendship,” says Ngunyi.

There is no way that they can get permanent residence

Another problem is language, says Ngunyi, who is fluent in Mandarin and the leader of Guangzhou’s Kenyan community.

“One person placed an order for shoes at a factory using a sample of the left shoe. They made a container of left shoes,” he recalls.

He says that he struggles with separation from his family. He goes back to Kenya three times a year to see his wife and two children.

Xiaobei is one of the two districts in Guangzhou where Africans congregate. Shops and warehouses bustle with African traders who purchase inexpensive products.

Tall women in colourful dresses wheel trolleys. The streets are filled with the sounds of Wolof, Yoruba and Swahili, Amharic and Somali.

In stores selling clothing, electronics and kitchenware, communication happens via typing a number on a calculator, agreeing by nodding and disagreeing by shaking one’s head.

A dream of living abroad

Africans can be found all over China. Clet Fuh from Cameroon lives in Zhuji, Zhejiang Province, which, with just over one million people, is relatively small for a Chinese city.

He works as an English teacher at a private school and lives on campus in a two-room apartment with his Cameroonian wife, Mella, and their newborn son, Mark.

“It has always been my dream to have some foreign experience. So even when I worked back home, it was always a temporary job. I refused doing any civil service job. I did private jobs and all I did was save my money and wait for any opportunity to get out,” Fuh explains.

He says he likes Chinese food, has some Chinese friends and learned much just from seeing China’s state of development.

“Whatever I want to do, even setting up a restaurant, even a beer parlour, anything, even a small factory, anything, I think I can do it better [now],” he says.

Adams Bodomo, professor of African studies at the University of Hong Kong, explains: “[Africans in China] are intermediaries. They are bridge-builders.”

Due to their added skills and knowledge, some of them might become very influential in Africa, Bodomo argues.

One of the challenges for Fuh and his wife is practising their Christian faith.

In China, all churches have to be registered and approved by the government. Another challenge is discrimination, which is why the Fuhs have decided to move back to Cameroon in the near future.

“To me, I can accommodate something nasty that I hear if I’m, like, walking and somebody says something. But if somebody said this to my kid, I could kick his ass. These guys are good at that,” Fuh says.

The harsh visa reality

The biggest problem African immigrants mention is China’s restrictive immigration laws.

In Guangzhou, many African traders overstay their visas. Police frequently crack down on them.

In 2009, a man jumped to his death when the police wanted to check his passport.

In 2012, police arrested a Nigerian man who argued over a taxi fare. He died in police custody, and street protests erup-ted as a result.

“There is no way that they can get permanent residence,” explains Linessa Lin, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Juma Salum’s problems are not to do with business, visas or discrimination.

On a cloudy day in Shanghai, he sits in a crowded student restaurant. Before him on the table stands a bowl of steaming soup.

“The most challenging thing for me is the cold weather. This is very terrible for East African students,” says Salum.

Every year, the Chinese government awards thousands of scholarships to African students.

According to China’s commerce ministry, there were more than 35,000 African students in China at the end of 2013.

Officially, Beijing does so to educate the talents Africa needs for its development. But it is also a way to strengthen its soft power.

Salum shows that this is working. He is pursuing a doctorate in political science at Shanghai International Studies University.

After graduating, he will go back and serve for at least two years at his former employer, Zanzibar’s information ministry.

“Chinese, they treat Africa as a brother. But Western countries, they have only their special interests,” he concludes.

Over his soup, Salum praises China’s development path. He says that he enjoys reading communist thinker Karl Marx, which is a mandatory course.

He sees the value in Beijing’s one-party system, asking: “Why is China developing and we are not?”

Some question the quality of the education they receive in China.

Two African students, who asked to remain anonymous, explain that even if they do not master Mandarin, professors would let them pass.

“The only thing they care about is, you come, you do your time and you go home. So, they don’t really care if you learn,” one of the students says.

“Where I come from you are really pushed to get good grades. You are not going to get a 90 by just showing up or just going to the exam. But here when you come, they just give you 90s. For them it’s like you want the paper, so they give you the paper and you go home.”

China’s multibillion-dollar deals with African governments are a complex and long-term business, as are the people-to-people ties that these political, trade and business ties have spawned.

The African residents of Guangzhou have already changed the city but are waiting to see if the government will be responsive to their calls to make China a more welcoming home for the thousands of immigrants taking their chances in the Asian eldorado. ●

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