African entrepreneurs have made Guangzhou a truly global city

Far from home.
Far from home.
Image: Reuters/Alex Lee
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There are certain cities in certain eras that stand out as magnets for those across the globe who have dreams. New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was such a place, with immigrants at Ellis Island awaiting their chance to pursue the American dream in a new world far from the European villages and slums into which many of them were born.

Today, one such place is Guangzhou, the urban center of the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, the Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou today is a city that for its global opportunities attracts foreigners the world over.

Guangzhou has a large population of foreigners, but how many is unclear. China as a whole had some 594,000 immigrants living in the country in 2010, according to the national census, less than 1 of every 2,000 people in the country.

Guangzhou numbers are all over the map. One recent report estimates that from January to August 2014, Guangzhou, a city of some 13– 14 million people, hosted 3.05 million inbound or outbound foreigners, with 86,000 foreigners having registered residence in the city. Another website estimates that about 500,000 foreigners are in Guangzhou at any given time. There are 34,000 permanent resident foreigners, according to one website, 47,000 according to another, and 120,000, according to a third.

Exact figures are impossible to ascertain, both because official figures are secret or unknown and also because many foreigners in Guangzhou are illegal residents of the city. It’s safe to say only that while Guangzhou has a large number of foreigners, whether legal or illegal, counted or uncounted, it still is a very tiny number within a huge Chinese population.

These foreigners are a wide range of people, from Japanese and European corporate employees to traders from all over the world exporting Chinese goods to their home countries and regions. Guangzhou is a major center for the purchase of cheap knockoff goods exported to South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and particularly the Middle East and Africa. The developing world entrepreneurs of Guangzhou, especially the Africans who make up their largest number, play an essential role in making this trade possible.

In this book, The World in Guangzhou, after looking at the range of foreigners in Guangzhou, I explore the lives and trade of African entrepreneurs in Guangzhou. In 2013– 2014, I stayed in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei area, the working center and leisure haunt of much of its African and Arab population. I considered these entrepreneurs through the lens of “low- end globalization”— not the globalization of multi-national corporations with all their lawyers and advertising budgets, but of traders sending relatively small amounts of goods under the radar of the law, bribing customs agents on different continents, and getting these goods back home to stalls and street vendors. This is globalization as experienced by the majority of the world’s people.

Guangzhou today may be the best place in the world to investigate low- end globalization because it is the metropolitan hub of Guangdong Province and the Pearl River Delta, China’s industrial heartland, and is the central metropolis in the world where the goods of low- end globalization are bought and sold.

Image for article titled African entrepreneurs have made Guangzhou a truly global city
Image: University of Chicago Press

But how can low- end globalization effectively work in Guangzhou? It doesn’t operate through contracts and laws, but rather on the basis of reputation and interpersonal trust. How can this be maintained cross- culturally, with people whom you don’t know? To paraphrase a Somali trader, how can you trust someone who doesn’t speak your language and knows only a few words of English, who doesn’t share your religion, or have any religion, and who drinks and smokes as you do not?

Beyond this, how does low- end globalization work within China today, a state moving by fits and starts from societies like Kenya and Nigeria in their laxity toward laws to societies like those of Western Europe, Japan, and the United States? What is the ultimate significance of low- end globalization as practiced in Guangzhou today?

This leads to a second set of questions. The Africans profiled in this book do not merely trade in Guangzhou; they live there as well, most for weeks or months, but some for years, and a few for a decade or more. Some Africans stay, legally or illegally, marrying Chinese and having families. What will happen to them in the future? China in the past sixty years has been largely monoethnic and monocultural; but now, in its southern city of Guangzhou, it is international and multicultural. What does this mean for the long term? Might China, in fifty or a hundred years, become a truly multiethnic, multicultural society? Might we see, generations hence, China’s own version of Barack Obama?

Impressions of Guangzhou

When one travels to central Guangzhou by subway train or taxi from the Baiyun airport, or by high- speed rail from the Lo Wu border in Hong Kong, the first impression may be of a well- developed city with towering hotels, glittering department stores, massive highway overpasses, wide tree- lined boulevards, and clean, fast, and modern railways and subways. It appears to be a quintessential prosperous urban metropolis of the developed world.

For those who have mental images of China from an earlier era, of Mao suits and massive throngs of bicyclists, the city of Guangzhou today may come as a shock. When I first traveled to Guangzhou in the early 1980s, I saw a city of dark low- rise buildings, unworking toilets, and outdoor Ping Pong tables. I was struck by the lined faces of those I saw in the city’s markets— “third- world faces,” I thought then, as opposed to the softer, rounder faces of the people on the streets in Hong Kong. I traveled to Guangzhou again in the mid- 1990s, and went, by chance, to one of the city’s first McDonald’s restaurants. I remember being told sotto voce in English by one employee and then by another that they longed to leave China and live in the U.S. or Europe— that dream is what led them to McDonald’s.

Charlotte Ikels’s book The Return of the God of Wealth gives a comprehensive picture of Guangzhou in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a city undergoing a massive shift from ubiquitous state control to the workings of the free market, a city in which the springing up of skyscrapers, commonplace today, was just beginning. The Guangzhou of today is only intermittently visible in her book, not because of any failings on her part, but because Guangzhou has changed so precipitously in the last two decades.

This first impression of Guangzhou as a glittering modern city gives way to some extent upon gazing at the city more closely. Particularly in the neighborhoods portrayed in this book, such as Xiaobei, a different picture emerges. One still sees a lively city of bright lights and neon, but also a remarkable tableau closer to the ground: beggars seeking alms to the sound of Koranic chanting emanating from their boom boxes; Hui Muslim money changers holding wads of U.S. dollars; Arabs smoking water pipes and sipping mint tea after hours in sidewalk cafés; and perambulating Africans, outnumbering the Chinese on the street, out and about and celebrating at 2 a.m. Guangzhou, at least in these areas, appears to be a world city rather than a Chinese city. As more than one Chinese have reported to us in Xiaobei, “I feel like I’m a foreigner here!”

Ikels’s 1990s portrayal of an area of Guangzhou quite close to those portrayed in this book is remarkable for another reason: no foreigners appear in her book. Guangzhou began fully opening up to foreigners only in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with Guangdong Province’s economic development and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Chinese population statistics, however incomplete they may be today, did not even include foreigners until 2010. Ikels mentioned no foreigners because their number was negligible in the early 1990s; today no book purporting to fully discuss Guangzhou could neglect them.

An African man stands near a shopping mall in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province March 27, 2009. In the past few years, tens of thousands of African and Arab traders have thronged to export hubs like Guangzhou and Yiwu to seek their fortunes, sourcing cheap China-made goods back home to massive markups in a growing, lucrative trade. Picture taken March 27, 2009. To match feature
Feeling it in Guangzhou.
Image: Reuters/James Pomfret

The feeling of a foreigner newly arrived in Guangzhou very much depends on where they are from. An Iranian told us, “Comparing Tehran to Guangzhou is like comparing a 1950s car to a new Mercedes Benz.” A Yemeni said, “Moving to Guangzhou is like moving from the past to the present, like coming out from a cave.” Another Middle Eastern trader said, “The highways, the metro— we have no metros in Bahrain, you know? . . . And the girls here— with not much clothes on! The first day, the second day, you’re surprised at short skirts, but you get used to it.”

A Kenyan gave a more analytical view, comparing China to his own country: “You… have to be impressed with Guangzhou and with China. The infrastructure, the town planning. The government can provide for a billion people, with a rail network, roads, recreational facilities, parks—things that are lacking in Africa. All the time I’ve stayed here, I’ve not experienced a single electricity blackout. Yes, I want Kenya to become like China!”

A West African trader with long- term residence in the United Kingdom had a darker view: “Africans who come to China straight from Africa see it as wonderful, and they want China to be like that. But those who have lived in Europe or the U.S. don’t like China much. For me, after the United Kingdom, China was like ‘the world turned upside down.’ The laws aren’t followed in China. Contracts are like toilet tissue.”

All of this reflects China’s place in the world as both a developing country less than six decades past starvation for tens of millions of its people, to now the world’s second largest economy, a superpower that is on many fronts competing with the United States for world supremacy. Guangzhou, as one of China’s richest and most foreign large cities, exemplifies this transition.

Excerpted from the forthcoming The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplacepublished by the University of Chicago Press.