As I arrived in the city of Guangzhou for the first time in 8 years I was taken aback by the number of Africans on the street. Dozens of young African men were going about their business in the area around my hotel. They were clearly not students, diplomats, tourists or 5-star executives—the kind of foreigners one expects to see in China. I was also intrigued by the number of restaurants with Arabic signs around town. I went back to my hotel room and consulted Google to find out what these Africans were doing in Guangzhou.
An English translation of an article from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolitan Daily provided the answers. Over the past decade thousands of African and Middle Eastern merchants have been coming to China—mainly Guangzhou—to buy blue jeans and other budget-priced merchandise to ship back to their home countries, including Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Angola, Yemen, and Lebanon. By some counts there are at least 20,000 and perhaps 100,000 Africans in Guangzhou and the number arriving in China is growing 30% per year. A few have learned the language and settled down but many come on temporary visas for a few months at a time, rent a cheap room in “Chocolate City” on the outskirts of Guangzhou, and go to wholesale markets to haggle over prices, buy enough bric-a-brac to fill a container and send it home.
Other articles in Chinese newspapers suggest that local people have a mix of emotions toward the “dark foreigners” of fear and fascination. There are many cultural clashes and accusations of cheating, but also an alignment of business interests and a common instinct for haggling. A few Africans have settled down, borne children, and even married Chinese women, but most come and go on temporary visas and seem to be insulated from Chinese culture and somewhat repelled by it, especially the lack of religious belief among Chinese.
The Africans in Guangzhou are a visible sign of China’s integration with the world. China is not only supplying U.S. Wal-marts; it is also supplying the street markets of Lagos, Bamako, and Sanaa. It is taking in Sudanese and Nigerian oil and sending back skin-tight blue jeans, off-brand TVs, cell phones and motorbikes. China is not just supplying goods to wealthy U.S. and European consumers; it is also supplying goods to the poorest of the poor. The China manufacturing juggernaut is clearly not solely driven by labor costs.