China’s presence in West Africa is shrouded in myth, misconception, and often comical misinformation, invoking simplistic tendencies to present each region as a monolithic entity. I remember the China-Africa Beijing Summit in 2006, the largest ever conference on Africa held outside the continent, and the hysterical headlines it provoked, characterising the China-Africa equation as if there is one ‘China’ and one ‘Africa’. The narrative of ‘The Chinese are Coming’ has ominously gathered momentum and belies an underlying assumption that African politicians are not smart enough to protect their interests when negotiating deals. China has been cast as yet another exploitative neo-colonial force, stripping the African continent of its wealth and diverting resources for its own gain. Anyone who has spent time in these two parts of world, as I have, knows that this two-dimensional assumption should be treated with caution, as the realities are far more complex, nuanced and multi-layered.
I was born and raised in Guangzhou in southern China, a city with a proud tradition of overseas trading, and it is some coincidence that my home city boasts the largest population of Africans residing in China. The contemporary presence of African migrants dates back to the late 1990s when the Asian financial crisis prompted many African merchants to leave Southeast Asia in search of opportunities elsewhere. China’s economic resilience during the crisis and its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 presented it as an ideal alternative. Its attractiveness was further boosted by the launch of the tri-annual Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, an institutionalised platform for Chinese and African leaders to meet regularly and identify areas of co-operation. What followed was more than a decade of steady increase in bilateral trade.
It was against this economic backdrop that Guangzhou witnessed the increasing arrival of Africans, and before long a thriving African neighbourhood emerged, nicknamed somewhat unfortunately by the locals as ‘Qiaokeli Cheng’ – Chocolate City. Estimates put the population between 20,000 and 100,000 and at the forefront of this human movement were stories of resilience, creativity, and entrepreneurship, but also hardship, disappointments and tragedy experienced by migrants from West Africa, particularly Nigerians, Senegalese, Malians, Guineans and Ghanaians. It was likely the first time people from contemporary mainland China would have direct and quotidian interactions with Africans on such a scale.