By Jenni Marsh, CNN
Updated 6:26 AM ET, Thu March 18, 2021
(CNN)When the coronavirus pandemic ground China to a near-halt in early February last year, Youssouf Dieng jetted back to Dakar for, he thought, a brief sojourn.
In reality, it was a year before Dieng — who had worked as a goods trader in the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou in southern China for two decades — could return, on an air ticket three times the usual cost, and a complicated business visa. By then, the pandemic had driven hundreds of Africans out of Guangzhou, sparked the most severe anti-Black racial clashes in China in decades, and remade business operations, with Chinese factories connecting with African customers directly over e-commerce platforms.
“Now it is very, very quiet,” Dieng says of Little Africa, a nook of Guangzhou informally named after the swell of thriving African businessmen who once lived, ate and prayed there in huge numbers. “Not many foreigners now, and all the small shops are closed. Small business around here? No more.”
At the turn of the 21st century, Guangzhou — already a magnet for internal migrants — became an accidental experiment in multiculturalism in China, as loose immigration rules and factories churning out cheap products attracted droves of African entrepreneurs.
Business boomed, and by 2012 as many as 100,000 Sub-Saharan Africans had flocked to the city, according to Prof. Adams Bodomo’s book “Africans in China.” While that figure was never verified, it pointed to the generally accepted opinion that, between 2005 and 2012, at least, this was the largest African expatriate community in Asia.
As interracial marriages in the community flourished, Bodomo theorized that, in time, an African-Chinese minority would arise, becoming China’s 57th ethnic group and demanding full citizenship rights. Today, that looks unlikely. By April last year, just 4,550 Africans were living in Guangzhou, according to local authorities, including students and diplomats as well as businesspeople.
Ten months on, more than a dozen experts and Africans who spoke with CNN said that number has further dwindled, due to several repatriation flights to Nigeria and Kenya, and tougher coronavirus-era visa rules, with most foreigners barred from entry to China. Many who remain are rooted in China by Chinese wives and children.
“For the whole issue of African traders in Guangzhou, I suspect that era is over,” says Gordon Mathews, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I’m skeptical that (their physical presence in the city) will ever be at the scale that it has been.”
The business case
One reason for the decline of the African community over the past year is strictly business.
In 2019 alone, of the 2.95 million foreigners entering China through Guangzhou, 358,000 were from African countries, according to local officials. Many came on quick visits to buy from the region’s factories, using African residents as middlemen to connect with Chinese wholesalers.
When Covid-19 prevented foreigners from visiting China, the factory owners of the Pearl River Delta — often cited as the world’s biggest urban area — had to rethink their business model.
Many in the area, which includes the cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Foshan and Dongguan, began advertising their services on e-commerce giants such as Alibaba. This allowed them to connect with African customers directly, rather than waiting for them to come to the city in person to place orders, as had been the way for decades.
Pat Chukwuonye Chike has been in Guangzhou for nearly two decades, living on a business visa he renews each year. When Covid-19 hit, he stayed to avoid being separated from his Chinese wife and three African-Chinese children. He shuttered his clothing store, previously frequented by droves of visiting foreigners, and set up an Alibaba-type service on Facebook, which is banned in China but can be accessed via a virtual private network (VPN).
His online shop, Africa China Trade Service, connects about 20 factories he knows to his contacts in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Ghana. The advantage, he says, is his clients know they’re dealing with factories they can trust.
But it’s a competitive landscape. There are now hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants in Africa who can easily order from Chinese factories themselves, and sell to locals where they are living — cutting Africans out of the equation in their home nations.
Some say that’s what the Chinese authorities would prefer.
“China wants to be the middleman and not have Africans (in its borders),” says Mathews, author of “The World in Guangzhou.” “So it would make much more sense for the Chinese merchants to move to Africa, rather than having the Africans go to China.”
For centuries, Guangzhou has intermittently been a nerve center for migrants, whether internal or foreign. When African traders arrived in the city in the early 2000s, they formed a particularly visible enclave — partly because they tended to congregate in one or two relatively small areas, and partly because black skin had not before been widely seen in China in large numbers.
The Africans also brought with them value systems that did not easily fit in with China’s political environment.
Many were deeply religious, founding underground Christian churches, which sometimes attracted Chinese congregations — a deeply contentious practice in a country where proselytizing by foreigners is illegal. As Beijing clamped down on non-state sanctioned religion in recent years, their house churches were raided and shut down by local police.
Africans from Muslim nations also continued to practice Islam, a religion Guangzhou has a long connection with, being home to China’s oldest mosque. Guangzhou attracted communities of Hui and Uyghurs, Muslim minorities in China, who began serving halal food to the African incomers, as did a range of Middle Eastern eateries. But in recent years, as hostility to Islamic populations increased across China in the wake of the crackdown on Islam in the country’s western region of Xinjiang, Africans have reported that restaurants serving halal food began to remove Arabic writing from their menus and signage.
Africans also formed small democracies within their own communities, voting for a head of each nation within Guangzhou, to lobby on their behalf with the local authorities on matters such as visas. Permanent residency for foreigners is extremely rare in China, and most African parents live in a status of constantly renewing one-year visas.
Those who cannot secure these often simply overstayed, creating an underground population of illegal African migrants in the city. A leaked WikiLeaks cable from 2008 revealed the central government was concerned by this, and had quietly funded research into the African community’s impact on crime, underground religion and missed tax revenue.
In 2011, the provincial authorities clamped down on overstayers, offering rewards to Chinese who turned them in, and making it illegal for employers, hoteliers or educational institutes to serve them.
Then, in 2014, the government embarked on the “beautification” of Little Africa, the once-rural village consumed by the city. The campaign tore down signage in the area that celebrated foreign trade, swept up street stalls serving local cuisines, and introduced a heavy police presence.
As policing of the community increased, several Africans running logistics warehouses told CNN that police installed CCTV cameras inside their premises, as well as X-ray scanners and devices plugged into their WiFi routers, in an apparent bid to clamp down on illegal exports.
CNN reached out to officials in Guangdong, the province of which Guangzhou is the capital, for comments on these claims but did not receive a response.
Racism in China
While many Africans spoke of leaving Guangzhou in the years leading up to the pandemic, much of the community remained, often rooted by marriages, children, a lack of better opportunity in Africa or elsewhere, and ultimately a sense of home.
While there is no official data on how many Africans in Guangzhou married Chinese women, a walk through the strip malls of Little Africa in recent years made it clear: scores of shops are run by an African husband and his Chinese wife, with their children running down the corridors.
Yet that sense of belonging was rocked for many last April when Africans across the city were evicted from their homes and hotels, and forced to live on the streets. After a handful of Nigerians tested positive for Covid-19, Guangzhou authorities quarantined and tested Africans all across the city, sparking unproven fears that Africans were vectors of the virus.
Last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “The Chinese government treats all foreigners in China equally, opposes any differentiated practices targeted at specific groups of people, and has zero tolerance for discriminatory words and actions.”
Still, Vassor Dieng, a sofa seller in Senegal who imports from China, remembers that incident, which went viral on Twitter in Africa. She says she has no desire to go to Guangzhou once coronavirus restrictions lift. “I’m hesitant now to go to China from what I have heard since Covid started, and how they treat people,” she says.
Back in Guangzhou, Nigerian father-of-three Chike says the way he is treated by some Chinese residents in his home city makes him feel they suspect Africans “are the virus.” It’s something, he says, he tries not to think about. “Not everyone is comfortable in another country,” he adds.
Many Africans in Guangzhou, however, report the city’s Public Security Bureau has been lenient with visas for those with Chinese partners and children during the pandemic. Normally, a foreigner would have to leave and reenter China to activate a visa, something several Africans told CNN they had not been made to do, as it would trigger the need for a long quarantine.
Despite the challenges, many Africans want to return to their old lives in China. Congolese trader Felly Mwamba left the country during the Lunar New Year holiday in 2020 and has been living in Winnipeg since. After two decades in Guangzhou, he’d earned enough money to apply for Canadian citizenship and buy a home there, but the Winnipeg winter has been bitterly cold and he says he has few friends.
Yet he cannot get back into China. His business visa expired while he was in Canada, and to get a new one requires an invitation letter from local officials — hard for him to obtain from another continent. In the meantime, he is paying rent on his office and apartment in China.
He’s considering closing his languishing logistics business there, if he can’t return soon. “If really it is consistent going on like this, then I prefer to get out and relax,” he said. “See if I can do something in Africa.”
Whatever their future, the heyday of African trade, life and love in Guangzhou has produced a generation of African-Chinese children. While many are still adolescents, some have reached adulthood, and are navigating how their mixed identity will fit into China’s increasingly nationalist landscape.
Zhong Fei Fei, 24, says her parents met at the turn of the century in Guangzhou, where her Congolese father was a graduate student and her Chinese mother was doing business. They fell in love, and moved to Brazzaville. But after her father died when she was a toddler, she grew up in China with her grandparents: they renamed her Zhong Fei Fei — a name that roughly translates to China-Africa.
Since then, she says she has grappled with not being “Chinese enough” in China. She said a Shanghai school teacher once told her class she spoke Mandarin well for a “foreigner.” “I was so confused because how come I’m the foreigner?” she remembers thinking.
But she also has dealt with not being considered black enough in Congo.
Last year, her identity came to the fore when producers of the Chinese version of K-pop reality TV show “Produce Camp 2020” invited her to star in the series.
When Zhong emerged from the show, she was a trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, but not for the right reasons — many were attacking her for her race. “I was looking at my phone and I had like 200,000 messages or something,” she says of reconnecting to the world after exiting the show. The online attacks came at the same time authorities in Guangzhou were accused of mistreating Africans there.
Yet Zhong says she also received messages of support, and subsequently used the platform to launch a music career.
For families in Guangzhou, Afro-Chinese celebrities like Zhong could be helpful for their children. Pastor Ignatius, a Nigerian evangelical preacher who has three African-Chinese children under the age of 12, hopes that “what is happening in Japan might happen here,” referencing the Afro-Japanese community there, from which many celebrated figures have emerged, such as tennis player Naomi Osaka.
“What we see from the school, they are very accepting — though there are times of student discrimination here,” he says, of the public Chinese school his children attend in Guangzhou. They all have Chinese passports — without one, they would not be eligible for free education or healthcare. Dual nationality is forbidden.
Chike, who also has three African-Chinese children under age 13, says while there is “more discrimination” for the family to contend with in recent years, “as long as my kids know who I am, where I’m from,” they are free to live in the society they feel will be most beneficial.
Mathews, the Hong Kong-based anthropologist, previously speculated during the height of African migration to Guangzhou that the African community could provide China with its own Barack Obama figure — a non-Han leader. In an era of growing nationalism, he now believes this community of Afro-Chinese children will more likely dilute to the point where they won’t have a collective voice.
“They will probably blend in the overall landscape of Guangzhou because it has so many people from all over the place,” says Mathews. “I don’t think they’ll be noticeable … it will be a few hundred people.”