Chocolate Cities and Men in Boxes

Some years ago, I met a Congolese lady from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on a flight bound to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with whom I had an eye-opening discussion. She boarded the plane from Lumumbashi, DRC’s second largest city, and was on her way, via Addis, to China.

During our lengthy exchange, I learnt that she was engaged in the small-scale trading of Chinese goods which she would source periodically from Guangzhou – one of the destinations of choice in mainland China for many African traders – and would sell them on the markets of Lumumbashi to support her family.

Despite her lack of knowledge of any of the Chinese languages, she was able to conduct her business, thanks to the extensive support system provided by other African traders who were in Guangzhou for similar purposes. I admired her entrepreneurial spirit and courage, a testimony to the formidable strength and perseverance of African women who could rise up to tackle life’s challenges whatever the circumstances.

As we discussed the growing relationship between our respective countries and China, the conversation drifted to the topic of the Chinese migration to her country.

She indicated that, over the years, the number of Chinese people living and working in Lumumbashi had increased sharply, most of them being Chinese migrant workers contracted by Chinese mining companies operating there. Personally, I had already encountered flights bound to Lumumbashi, in which the majority of passengers were migrant Chinese and/or Indian workers, almost all of them contracted for work in the mining sector.

She mentioned the fact that some of the Chinese migrants settled there and engaged in various other economic activities, including small-scale trading, effectively taking away business opportunities from the local population.

In response to my question as to how the Congolese were reacting to this influx of Chinese migrants, she shared with me a hilarious and sobering account of an incident which had occurred some years ago at the Lumumbashi International Airport. At the time of the incident, the airport failed to meet the basic requirements and facilities which would qualify it as an international airport. An X-ray machine was among the missing key equipment.

According to her narration, the incident occurred while passengers, including a large group of Chinese travelers, who had just landed at the airport, were standing at the baggage claim awaiting their luggage. As the luggage was thrown onto the incoming end of the conveyor belt and came toppling down the chute, a cardboard box unable to withstand the rough handling, tore apart.

Much to the surprise of all, out fell onto the ground a Chinese man.

The good part of the story is that the Chinese man was unscathed. But the incident was a big wake-up call to the concerned Congolese authorities, which took immediate measures of installing an X-ray machine to conduct proper luggage control. In her words, this previous lack of oversight had contributed to the unchecked rise in the number of the Chinese nationals living in DRC.

Fast forward to the year when I enrolled in a Mandarin (the official language of China) language course offered by the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China.

I was very much excited by the prospect of learning not only Mandarin but also about China, its people, its culture, its history and its current reality. As I was applying for the visa, I was told I needed to carry out a complete medical check-up, which I did and submitted the results along with my application.

I was pleasantly surprised, the medical check-up ordeal notwithstanding, with the expediency with which my Chinese visa was processed, especially when compared to the Western countries’ cumbersome visa procedures.

As soon as I reached Beijing, I learnt that the visa I had been issued by the Chinese Embassy was only temporary and that I would have to change it through the University administration. This meant a new round of medical check-ups and the submission of required residence and university-related documentation to process the final visa. Needless to say, the process was rather long and tedious!

But the most important lesson I learnt from this experience was that the tightly controlled Chinese immigration system and screening process was, without exception, applicable to all foreigners. It was also interesting to note that the monitoring began on the very first day of one’s arrival at a Chinese port of entry and continued throughout one’s stay within the country’s borders, making it very difficult for anyone to even contemplate overstaying their welcome illegally.

Still, there seems to be an exception to the rule: Guangzhou, also known as “Chocolate City”, has the highest presence of Africans in all of China (Chocolate City – Africans seek their dreams in China).

Africans started to migrate to China towards the end of the 1990s following China’s explosive economic growth. Some of the migrants settled there and set up their small businesses, aimed primarily at catering to the needs of African traders. Others came on tourist visas for business purposes and never left, making them illegal immigrants in the eyes of Chinese authorities.

Chinese sources estimate the total number of Africans living in the “Chocolate City” at 200,000 and growing at a rate of 30-40% per year, with only 20,000 of them having officially obtained permanent resident status (Go East: African immigrants in China).

The African presence in Guangzhou is met with mixed reactions by the local Chinese population. More often than not, tensions run high between the local Chinese population and members of the African community, who often are victims of racism, discrimination and stereotyping from the Chinese part.

No measure has been taken thus far to tackle this issue head-on, and it continues to affect thousands of Africans living in China, and the thousands more at home dreaming of joining them.

To put the African immigration issue in perspective, it is estimated that over 1 million (and growing!) Chinese migrants are working and living in Africa, not all of them legally (Are Chinese immigrants undermining African progress). The latest incident that made the news headlines is the case of Ghana, which deported close to 170 Chinese migrants who entered the country illegally and were engaged in illegal gold mining activities (Ghana Arrests Chinese in Gold Mines).

This staggering number has raised serious concerns among African citizens as to the real motives behind the rush of Chinese nationals to the continent’s shores, which many have come to view as China’s settlement policy in Africa in action.

But, don’t these statistics reveal a great deal about the inadequacy of African countries in controlling their porous borders and in setting up proper immigration control systems?

The lack of adequate monitoring and control of the flow, activities, and ethics of Chinese migrant workers (including those of the Chinese companies) on the part of African countries has given rise to social tensions between the various African populations and the Chinese communities living amongst them.

Some cite the language barriers and cultural differences as the causes for the frictions and misunderstandings between the two groups. However, for the discerning eye, these tensions have far-reaching implications that go beyond the social sphere, with implications at the political and diplomatic levels where the stakes are very high, thus raising fundamental questions about the true nature of the Africa-China relationship.

As an AfriZen, it is disheartening to see that, despite the deepening relationship between the African continent and China, the controversial issue of immigration has been simply brushed aside as an inconvenient truth for both the African governments and the Chinese authorities, to make way for the more important economic priorities that constitute the cornerstone of the Africa-China partnership.

This pressing issue has to be given the due attention it deserves, and a lasting solution that addresses the issue at the core. To this end, African countries, instead of focusing on ad hoc measures and scattered responses at the individual country level, should invest in devising common strategies and taking concerted actions to effectively resolve the issue.

Otherwise, what is today a relatively small concern could tomorrow reach unsustainable levels, with the potential of posing a real threat to Africa and to its relations with China.

(9 November 2013)

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  1. You should revisit this posting in the light of the human tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean as Africans die en mass trying to reach Europe, as well as the xenophobia (afrophobia??) in South Africa. In both instances I think your analysis would still be valid, except instead of Chinese men falling out of boxes, you would have Syrian children packed in suitcases… So the pull factors of migration include the cities of gold, as well as cities to which African wealth flowed to for centuries (including even Antwerp, whose french name I am reliably informed derives from the practice of Leopold of cutting of the hands of African laborers who failed to meet the rubber quotas set for them!!! So in the present context, we celebrate the globalization of financial markets, the ability to move money across the globe in seconds, while we put more and more restrictions on the movement of labour, the ability of those without the money to follow the money with the only resource they have – their ability top work???


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