Thursday, October 7, 2010

African Immigrants in China

Interesting little article in The Guardian dealing with the plight of African immigrants in China, focussing on their experience in the city of Guangzhou. As a former resident of Guangdong's capital city, the article brought back memories of my own period wandering around Shamian Island and Tianhe, and in particular it reminded me of just how large the African and Middle Eastern communities in the city are.

When I first moved to Guangzhou, I had expected the locals to react to foreigners in a similar vein to the citizens of other Chinese cities I had lived in or visited. As any foreigner who has been to China, from two-week tourists to long-time residents, will tell you, being stared at in the street is not uncommon, even in places as cosmopolitan as Beijing. Similarly, even in Shanghai I did, on occasion, hear mutters of "laowai" (literally "old foreigner") as I walked down the street. But in Guangzhou, the local populace is basically indifferent to foreigners - at least to those from the West.

So close to Hong Kong, and with so many foreign owned factories and enterprises in Guangdong, the presence of "da bizi" ("big noses") is now very common. But what is quite unique to Guangzhou is the large number of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East- sadly, they are not greeted with the same acceptance shown to, well, white people.

Even the best educated and worldly of my Chinese colleagues could be quite spectacular in their casual racism, towards Africans in particular, and I was solemnly informed that while Europeans and Americans who visited China tended to be decent and hard-working, most Africans were not to be trusted. Inevitably, such distrust leads to reinforcing patterns of behaviour, with the locals reluctant to lease apartments to Africans, consequently resulting in these immigrants concentrating in less salubrious areas with landlords who are not too picky, effectively creating ghettoes. Similarly, the fact that immigrants from Africa find it so hard to get visas to work in China means that some, by necessity, have to turn to less legitimate forms of work - around the Garden Hotel, for example, the drug dealers catering for Western visitors were predominantly African.

True, the immigrants themselves sometimes engage in behaviour that does not endear them to the locals. As someone who, with typical Irish Catholic guilt, cannot miss mass even when living in a state with atheism as its official faith, I regulalry attended mass in the Sacred Heart Cathedral near the banks of the Pearl River. The English language service was organised and mainly attended by African immigrants, with the ushers being entirely drawn from the immigrant community. These ushers could take quite a dictatorial line when ordering people to their seats, or when kicking people out for being improperly clad (i.e. wearing shorts) or committing similarly abominable acts. But they seemed to take a particular delight in ordering Chinese massgoers about (some of whom were merely curious locals, eager to see what actually took place in the cavernous building, but many were genuine Chinese Catholics, trying to practice their faith). At times, the racial tension between African and Chinese Catholics was palbable.

What is clear, though, is that China cannot afford to treat African immigrants as a problem - the influx of migrants from the continent is a by-product of China's investment there, and a beneficial one to boot. Almost all of the immigrants are of a commercial bent, and offer economic bonuses not only to friends and family at home, but also to the local Chinese with whom they trade. As China grows to play a more dominant role in Africa, such migration, and the bonuses associated, will only increase. China needs to learn to smooth out any problems or tensions that result. Furthermore, in days to come when China's interest in Africa extends beyond the merely commercial, and develops further along diplomatic lines, the PRC's own African community will be able to serve as an invaluable intermediary.

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