Few places in the world display greater diversity than the district of Xiaobei in Guangzhou. In the local mosque, founded by a Silk Road trader who was Prophet Mohammed’s uncle, Friday prayers bring together Muslims from China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and West and North Africa. On Sundays, a dozen informal churches run by Africans promise congregants eternal salvation and this-worldly wealth. Believers and non-believers rub shoulders as they barter in Xiaobei’s busy alleys and trading malls. I have done research among African traders here for five years, and the area still fascinates me greatly.
Guangzhou is home to China’s largest population of Africans, and Xiaobei is a center for African immigration and trade. There is no reliable estimate for the African population size in Guangzhou. A report compiled by the Guangzhou Developmental Academy earlier this fall put it at 200,000 persons. The number was widely quoted in news articles, generating online debates with unambiguous xenophobic tendencies. Soon thereafter, the Developmental Academy report was classified. Based on my communication with its authors, the statistical methods employed seem questionable and the number inflated.
The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has further exacerbated anti-immigrant sentiments in the city at large. The epidemic seems to confirm a widely held view of Africa as a dangerous and disease-ridden continent.
In Xiaobei, however, business is uninterrupted. Chinese wholesalers open their showrooms and invite African travelers in. Children play in the trading malls while their parents work. The fear of Ebola is weaker than the worry about not being able to pay next month’s bills.
The response to the threat of Ebola has been swift and sound in several African communities. When Ebola started spreading in their home country, Guineans refrained from greeting newly arrived visitors with a handshake. Meals on shared plates are suspended until visitors have stayed in China longer than the Ebola incubation period.
Africans from countries without Ebola are also careful. Upon learning about the disease, the boss of an Ethiopian logistics agency with offices in Guangzhou and Hong Kong gathered his employees to communicate news procedures for interacting with Liberian, Sierra Leonean, and Guinean customers.
The first official Chinese response to Ebola in my Xiaobei neighborhood came much later. On October 30th, a middle-aged Chinese man with a clipboard went from door to door where foreigners live, including my own. His ID card simply indicated that he was some kind of administrator. Alone, hardly speaking any English, he had been assigned by the police to check in on us because of Ebola. While at it, they wanted to clamp down on the running of unofficial guest houses and warehouses from apartment buildings like our own. When entering my family’s apartment, he assured me that as Europeans, we were not really the target group for any of their campaigns. Nevertheless, he spent an hour at our place checking our papers.
Although not targeted, I was upset at the intrusion. It seemed utterly counterproductive: nothing was accomplished in terms of spreading awareness about Ebola, and the inspector certainly did not leave the impression that he had the tenants’ best interest in mind. At a time where it was crucial to build trust to prepare for a potential epidemic, he was doing the exact opposite by using it as a pretext for unrelated inspections.
Later that week, the Chinese Red Cross organized a meeting about Ebola outside a residential building popular with Africans. Afraid of low attendance, the government also required a group to drum up 20 Africans for the audience. The organization also sent out two teams to reach out to Africans from Ebola struck countries, using residence lists provided by the government. Again, the methods were suited to spread distrust rather than confidence. Moreover, the authorities sent people out to educate African groups, rather than recognizing the work these groups had already put in to prevent the spread of Ebola.
Institutions in Guangzhou try to figure out how to respond to Ebola. In the process, some random and ineffective measures, such as turning back Congolese attendants at the Canton Fair, have been introduced. My worry is that Africans in Guangzhou who encounter policies with no factual rationale have less confidence in the authorities if more sound measures need to be instituted later.
Unexpectedly, Ebola has also offered some perks to African travelers. Visitors from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the two Congos are given mobile phones upon arrival at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport. The authorities use the phones track their movements and check in on them while they are in China. Travelers keep the devices when they leave.
The phone is not the only freebie from the Chinese government. Four floors at the state-owned Canton Hotel in Xiaobei are reserved for people arriving from Ebola affected countries. The guests’ temperature is measured morning and evening, but they can go to the markets as usual. The stay at Canton Hotel is free their first three weeks in China. “The money saved on accommodation really makes a difference for a small trader like me”, a woman from Kinshasa told me.
To be quarantined is surely an unsettling experience, and one that came as a surprise for most of the residents I have spoken to at Canton Hotel. On one hand, they showed great understanding for China’s need to protect its citizens. On the other hand, they regretted the way Ebola has become yet another reason for controlling the mobility of Africans, whether or not they are potential carriers of the disease. “Ebola is a problem of documents”, Moussa, a Guinean national living in Lomé, insisted. “It’s our passports that have Ebola. There are Chinese, Americans, Europeans living in Guinea. They all come in from Africa and travel freely. Meanwhile, everyone with a Guinean passport is tainted”.
Heidi Østbø Haugen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sun Yat-sen University and University of Oslo. She has been studying African trade and migration in Guangzhou since 2009.