It's business as usual in Guangzhou

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2009, 12:00am

To heal wounds caused by a protest by up to 200 Africans in July, Guangzhou police are offering a two-month amnesty and talks with leaders of their community to resolve differences. On July 15, two Nigerians were injured after they tried to evade passport checks conducted by the police.

This led to a rare protest by about 200 Africans at a city police station against what they called excessive checks.

Brenya Atta Oselwusu, head of the Ghanaian businessmen's association in Guangzhou, said: 'The police are offering an amnesty in November and December to overstayers to come forward and go home. Also, we have had regular contacts with the police since then, in which each side listens carefully to the other. We do not want the incidents in July to happen again.'

The July events brought to national attention the largest presence of Africans in Guangzhou since the Tang dynasty: about 20,000 live there long-term and tens of thousands more visit regularly to do business. It was a wake-up call to the government that, like other major countries, the mainland will have a large and growing foreign population.

Dr Li Zhigang, an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning at Sun Yat-sen University, said: 'How to manage foreigners is a very big challenge for China. 'Until now, it has been management at the border. But, as our cities internationalise, we will have more and more foreign residents.'

Legislators in Beijing are considering a new law on immigration to address this issue.

The surge in African residents is a result of the mainland's entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and the sharp increase in trade between China and Africa.

Businesspeople moved to the mainland to buy Chinese clothes, shoes, electrical appliances and other goods to export to their home countries. Some set up offices, companies and shops, while others come for short stays.

Guangzhou and Yiwu, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, have attracted the most Africans because they are centres of production of daily necessities. Some moved from Hong Kong to conduct the trade themselves and not through third parties. Since 2003, bilateral trade has increased by more than 40 per cent a year, with the mainland becoming Africa's second-biggest trading partner and largest provider of credit.

The number of African residents in Guangzhou peaked in 2007, before the police tightened controls on foreigners ahead of the Olympics. The financial crisis, the rise of the yuan and the move of mainland traders to Africa to conduct business themselves, have also slowed the flow.

They are concentrated in several areas - known as 'Chocolate City' - such as Xiaobei Lu and the Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Trade Centre, a warren of stalls close to the city's railway station. The stalls sell jeans, T-shirts, ties, shoes, sportswear, fake and real hair, and other goods tailored for African consumers.

Adverts offer shipment, by air or sea, to Lagos, Lome, Cotonou, Dakar, Libreville and other cities many locals have never heard of.

There are also services offering help with documents and visas, the biggest headache for Africans - a police notice on the wall, in English and Chinese, tells people to have their passports with them at all times, ready for inspection.

The city's residents see the Africans as a mixed blessing. Their orders have boosted the city's economy by millions of dollars, as has their personal spending on rent, food and daily necessities. But not everyone welcomes them.

'I will not take blacks as passengers,' taxi driver Huang Jin said. 'They argue over one or two yuan, get out in places where it is not allowed and sometimes get angry. In the evenings, some are drunk and fall asleep in the cab. Some deal in drugs, commit robberies and have overstayed their visa.'

Some speak little or no Chinese, and this can lead to misunderstandings and bad feeling. But there have been no further clashes between Africans and police after the July incidents.

Olivier Ano, a trader from Ivory Coast, said that in July, the police were doing their job. 'But why did things reach that stage? Learning Chinese is difficult and some people dislike foreigners, as is the case everywhere. Chinese often make racist remarks and we respond.'

The July incident exacerbated the ill feeling between Africans and the police. But, in the long term, it may turn out to be positive in improving race relations and helping Guangzhou become an international metropolis.

This is an edited version of a story by a staff reporter which was published in the Sunday Morning Post on November 29