GUANGZHOU — After flocking to the megalopolis by the tens of thousands, Africans seem to be going sour on Guangzhou, or "Chocolate City," as it's been nicknamed by the Chinese.
Home to the largest African community in Asia, Guangzhou, an important global trade platform located opposite Hong Kong, attracted scores of migrants starting in the mid-2000s, when China's economy was booming. The number of permanent residents from Africa is said to be between 10,000 and 15,000. But the total African population — taking into account undocumented residents and so-called "fake tourists," who go for short stays — could be as high as 50,000.
Now, though, China's economic slowdown and a strict migration policy are hitting Africans hard, and they're leaving in growing numbers. In the Xiaobei neighborhood, popularly known as "Little Africa," the change is apparent. Africans, some wearing boubous, others in modern clothing, still have a presence here. But it's not what it once was.
Authorities — off-put by the exotic music so often heard in this part of the city, and by the bloody sheep heads sometimes left in back alleys — spent the past two years "cleaning up" the area. They specifically targeted the activities of the Muslim Uighur population. Police officers also shuttered numerous illegal shops, and now keep permanent guard from sentry boxes at both ends of the main street, which they closed with barriers.
Since then, some of the Africans retreated inside a multi-story shopping mall a few hundred meters from there, home to import-export companies, restaurants and hairdressers. Some are clearly resentful. "The Chinese are everywhere in Africa, but they don't want to let us work, even when we're here legally," says Fatou, a 28-year-old Senegalese woman who works at a hairdresser's to finance her Chinese classes. "We're forced to hide when they come to control us, several times a week. And if they catch you, they humiliate you in front of everybody," she adds.
Robert Castillo, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says police actions against Africans began as early as 2010. "The police became aware of the high numbers of Africans in certain parts of the city and started bothering many of them with document or passport checks," he explains. Africans also have to deal with racism from regular citizens. Several people have confirmed that Chinese often change seats in the metro or hold their noses in the presence of Africans.
Mouhamadou Moustapha Dieng, one of the first to come to Guangzhou, has experienced both excitement and disillusion since his arrival in late 2003. A former air force engineer turned businessman, the 54-year-old became the unofficial representative of the Senegalese community, whose numbers have decreased by half in eight years, he says.
The drop-off began around 2010, as the economy slowed and authorities made it more difficult to obtain a visa. A price hike also made things more complicated. Dieng started off exporting sneakers and clothes to his country, earning a comfortable profit. He now focuses on ship transport and admits that in the past few years, his margins fell by between 30% and 40%
Young Senegalese who still want to try their luck in Guangzhou often end up in Dieng's Xiaobei-area office. He's careful not to give them any false hopes. Finding a job in China has become difficult, he tells them. "Small jobs are for Chinese only, so the only option is to go into business, but for that you need the contacts, the clients," Dieng explains. "Many only stay two or three weeks, sometimes two or three months, before going back."
If they catch you, they humiliate you in front of everybody.
Regarding his own business ventures, Dieng says he's been able to "hang on" thanks to a stable customer base. But he'd also like to spend more time in Africa, where his family returned. Another challenge for Africans is the increasingly aggressive competition with the locals. Dieng's Chinese collaborator, for example, left with his list of clients to create her own company.
"The Chinese own the factories and they go and sell their products in Africa themselves, at a lower price," says clothing exporter David Sanfo, from Ghana. "My only advantage over them is my relations with the customers." Still, Sanfo says he doesn't regret moving here.
Roberto Castillo doesn't have reliable data but believes that some communities are shrinking while others are growing more slowly than before. Things have certainly become more difficult for Africans in Guangzhou. And yet established businessmen "can still find their niche," he says. Indeed, China is still seen as a land of opportunity for some Africans. Adebayo, a 28-year-old from Nigeria, is one of them. Right now he's learning Chinese. After that, he can't wait "to do business with China."