Dating back to the Cold War, there have been African students on scholarships to Chinese universities. Today, many report home about the luxurious conditions, excellent teaching, and the warm welcome.
There are African traders. Men far outnumber women. Most are young, generally under 40. Many are entrepreneurs, and 40% have a university education. Many traders buy cheap Chinese goods–such as knockoff brand jeans, shoes, and jerseys–and sell them back home for a profit. Others capitalize on higher-end products such as electronics, furniture, and motor vehicles.
Along with the traders, there are there are African business owners catering to them. In the city of Guangzhou, heart of the African community in China, Africans run restaurants and bars, shipping and logistics companies, hair and barbering salons and a number of factories producing clothes and other goods for export to Africa. Some African men have married Chinese women and do business together with their wives.
Uturn Asia is a website put together by Heidi Østbø Haugen and Manon Diederich, a sociologist and an anthropologist, in collaboration with Gambian migrants who came to China in 2014. The website tells of the lives of these West African migrants trying their hand at the Chinese dream. Although their stories are diverse, most of these young men were attracted by news of China’s growing economic strength and false rumors of plentiful jobs spread by “visa dealers.” They typically spent several years’ savings to pay for the visa and plane ticket. But upon arriving in Guangzhou, many found themselves living in overcrowded apartments with no jobs. With expired short-term visas, leaving the house meant possible run-ins with the police seeking to review their passports and temporary residence registrations. They soon wanted to return home or migrate to a third country. But China’s exit controls required them to turn themselves in for having overstayed their visas, pay a fine, and pay for their ticket home—money they often didn’t have. Some spent months in Chinese prisons, followed by the shame of returning home to Gambia empty-handed. Uturn Asia tells these stories skillfully with the migrants’ own videos, handwritten diaries, music, and more.
The Gambian migrants’ stories are emerging at the same time as stories of the overall decline of Guangzhou’s African community. CNN reports that many Africans have exited Guangzhou. There appear to be several reasons. For one thing, African traders in Guangzhou may be suffering the same fate as Guangzhou manufacturers, who have seen falling profits due to rising wages and a weak global economy. Also, since enactment of the Exit-Entry Administration Law in 2013, Guangzhou officials have stepped up immigration enforcement and applied harsher penalties for those who overstay visas and work illegally. In Dengfeng, the heart of Guangzhou’s African community, there is a heavy police presence, and the once vibrant streets have emptied out.
China may not be welcoming to Gambian job seekers today. China today boasts roughly five workers for every retiree. But by 2040, this highly desirable ratio will have collapsed to about 1.6 to 1. A demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicts that in another decade or two, the social and fiscal pressures created by aging in China will force what many Chinese find inconceivable for the world’s most populous nation: a mounting need to attract immigrants.
Globalization and demographic trends seem sure to leave room for more stories of Africans in China. Hopefully those stories will be told in as compelling a way as Uturn Asia.