The African immigrant in China

Richard Gathigi, a Kenyan entrepreneur, has lived in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou since 2005, oiling the wheels and gears of the low end of globalisation with doses of human trust and acuity. When an African friend had a small but urgent order—450 safety vests bearing the logo of the UN mission to Somalia—Mr Gathigi knew a factory that could help, though he wishes he had asked a higher price. “The UN has a lot of money,” he explains cheerfully, stabbing at a late-night plate of fish and rice in the Xiaobei district of Guangzhou, a hub for African traders. In a world without contracts, confidence is his currency. Near-strangers in Africa trust him to inspect goods ordered online from China. He is an old-timer in Guangzhou’s cramped, fluorescent-lit trading malls. Chinese bosses are cautious about tricking him.

Still, Mr Gathigi is no pioneer of multiculturalism, China-style. He is one of thousands of Africans who work in the city, though their numbers have shrunk since 2014 when officials said 16,000 Africans were living in Guangzhou. He respects his host country. Now 44, he wants his teenage children to study at Chinese universities, after being brought up in Kenya. But in 13 years he has not learned Chinese, visited the Great Wall or eaten at a local’s home. He first saw China in his 30s, he notes. “Most of my values were formed. Apart from business, I don’t have much interest.”

Listening to Mr Gathigi, he could be an 18th-century “supercargo” or trade agent, sweltering on the riverfront to which Westerners were confined, back when the city was known as Canton. Non-Chinese then were forbidden even to learn the language. Mr Gathigi thinks that China still prefers foreigners to visit, trade with locals, then leave. America and Europe make it difficult for Africans to obtain visas, he observes, but once in the rich world migrants can easily overstay and live in the shadows, doing work that Westerners shun. “With the Chinese it’s the opposite,” he adds. “They make it easy to enter but very difficult to stay.” After all these years, he lives on a business visitor’s visa that must be reset with a run to Hong Kong or Macau every 30 days.

Many countries are questioning the benefits of globalisation. The nastiest rows occur when immigration enters the equation. Citizens chafe against the free movement of goods and capital, but most of all people. China’s leaders speak as globalisation’s champions. President Xi Jinping declared to African leaders in Beijing this month that “with open arms, we welcome African countries aboard the express train of China’s development.”

Yet if Chinese leaders like the idea of goods and capital rushing at express-train speed (ideally with Chinese drivers at the controls), they have never embraced the idea that people should move freely, let alone dream of acquiring hybrid, part-Chinese identities. Even marriage to a Chinese national brings no special residency rights. A decade ago Guangzhou’s diversity prompted articles and books by Westerners pondering whether this was multiculturalism. After watching African men marrying Chinese women, Gordon Mathews of the Chinese University of Hong Kong wondered whether the world might see a “Chinese Barack Obama” (not soon, he concluded). More recently journalists and scholars have debated whether China is displaying racism with campaigns to build a “clean, safe and orderly” Guangzhou, during which street traders have been swept away, restaurants catering to foreigners ordered to close by 10pm and districts like Xiaobei flooded with police checking passports.

Obtuse or callous views of ethnicity are dismayingly common in China. Racial assumptions run like an electric current through some official vows to clean up Guangzhou. But many Africans take a fatalistic view. Emmanuel Ojukwu, a prominent Nigerian trader, has no issue with the twitchy police. “Some people were taking the opportunity to conduct bad business, trading drugs and other criminality,” he says. Kiema Moussa, from Burkina Faso, describes strict visa rules as a business cost. Muslims attract no special scrutiny, he says, chewing on a street-stall kebab after Friday prayers at Guangzhou’s ancient Huaisheng mosque. Chinese officials know “straight away” if a country suffers terror attacks or an outbreak of disease and may refuse visas as a result. “It’s still worth coming,” he shrugs.

Building world cities, not melting-pots

Ali Mohamed, a Somali freight forwarder, is a rare African with a Chinese passport, having spent long enough in Hong Kong to earn citizenship. Jaws drop when he joins the domestic immigration line at Chinese airports. He has seen many Africans leave. Officials want a “modern” Guangzhou focused on global finance and commerce, he says. But he insists they are “not targeting Africans”. Mr Mohamed, who is 50, has moved around Asia all his life. Although proud of his new passport, he is keeping an eye on Chinese factories opening in Africa and on businesses moving to Vietnam. “We are Somali nomads. Where it rains, we go.”

Western politicians and CEOs often brag about their countries’ or companies’ long relationships with China, fondly imagining that Communist leaders have a sentimental side. Chinese officials promote schemes offering permanent residence to a few, exceptionally qualified foreigners. But at the ground level of globalisation, the Africans know that outsiders stay on sufferance.

Your columnist watched a packed evangelical Christian prayer service at a dowdy central business hotel, tolerated because only holders of foreign passports may attend. One worshipper, Velile Sibiya, a medical student from South Africa, thinks Chinese leaders have done “magically well” by persuading so many citizens to work hard, think alike and inhabit a “little cocoon of peace”. She is unsurprised that people are not encouraged to become Chinese by naturalisation. “Citizenship gives you rights, it gives you a voice. I think they are protecting this world that they have created.” Though grateful for her training in China, she is not planning to stay. Good guests know when to leave.

The Economist, Sept. 29th, 2018

 
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