“Chocolate City” is the name given to an area in Guangzhou, China, where many African nationals reside. Because many Africans in “Chocolate City” are short term residents who venture into China for trade and business, it is very difficult to establish their actual population. In 2014, Al Jazeera estimated that there are anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000.
Through this interaction, cultural mingling is inevitable. Marriages with locals, the birth of bi-racial children and looking at China as a second home are all part of the package. Reports suggest that there are around 400 African-Chinese families currently residing in Guangzhou.
These families are venturing into unchartered waters. China is a country with 56 ethnicities and 90 percent of the population is Han Chinese. This homogeneity, of course, was unaltered for many years as China remained inaccessible to outsiders. As a result of China’s rising economic power, many foreigners, including Africans, are venturing to cities like Guangzhou for a piece of the “Chinese Dream.” But the Chinese dream for an African is a little bit tricky. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports that the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau denies African husbands any more rights than a tourist (especially in terms of receiving residency). But their children can get the permit and full Chinese citizenship if they register under their Chinese mother’s name. It appears that many of these marriages constitute of an African husband with a Chinese wife.
Despite the precarious nature of their residence in China, many Africans were indeed able to attain financial success. The same SCMP article mentioned above discusses how one businessman from Niger who arrived in China in 2004 with 300 USD to his name is now the owner of a 5 million yuan apartment, and runs thriving business that ships 50 to 200 containers of construction materials to Niger per year.
Experts have also noted that the African immigrants that head to China have a very different profile from those who venture to Europe. CNN quotes Roberto Castillo, a lecturer in African Studies at Hong Kong University, who found, “Those people [going to Europe] are usually disenfranchised, with no opportunities, looking to settle…Africans in China are much more entrepreneurial. Many of them have the financial capability to move around and explore new places.”
But the allure of achieving the Chinese dream may be fading. This year, several reports that depict the large number of Africans leaving China came to light. Analysts suggest that more stringent visa controls and a changing economic landscape are playing a big part. China’s living costs are sky-rocketing, especially in big cities and forging a life here is not as easy as it was a few years ago. Although concrete numbers have yet to be determined, CNN has reported that over the last 18 months hundreds and perhaps even thousands have left Guangzhou.
Jenni Marsh, who has studied the issue of African immigrants in China, has found that the availability of fake Chinese goods, which have a vast market in the African continent, are no longer easily available or as cheap as before. This is partly because Chinese authorities are now protecting intellectual property rights of global brands and partly because of the rise of China’s workers’ wages. The Africans leaving Guangzhou have said that China might actually be losing its competitive edge and they are now looking at other manufacturing hubs such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. Marsh has also found racism to be a factor, as Chinese residents of Chocolate City have not readily accepted the African new-comers.
The complexity of the African exodus does not end there. Stricter immigration rules have also played a part. Reforms of China’s immigration laws in 2013 did not offer a path to a permanent residency path to the Africans who had resided there for years and paid taxes, and as Jenni Marsh says “fed Chinese-run factories and warehouses with businesses…” The dwindling foreign exchange reserves of African countries has also made trading very difficult for African merchants.
Now, disappointed African immigrants are warning their compatriots not to come in pursuit of the Chinese Dream. There is a website dedicated to this cause called “UTurn Asia,”set up by migration researchers from the University of Oslo and the University of Colon. On the website, the immigrants, mainly from Gambia, share their stories of disappointment and bad living conditions they encountered in China.
It seems that China’s Chocolate City, once known as Asia’s largest African community, might be changing forever. What does the future hold for the African immigrants leaving China? Some say that they will return to their respective countries to apply what they have learnt in the Asian nation. Perhaps that might have positive consequences.