On this blog we tend to write about the link between Chinese migration and development projects, but there is also migration from poorer countries to China: brides from North Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, entertainers and businessmen from Central Asia, and traders from Africa. This is an underresearched subject, but there are at least two ongoing research projects on the African trading community in China: by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong in Hong Kong, and by Michal Lyons and Alison Brown in England.
A few days ago, Chinese media reported that about 300 Africans clashed with police at a police station in Canton. They were protesting the restrictions police sweeps on foreigners ahead of the 1 October anniversary celebrations of the 60s anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which combined with visa restrictions introduced ahead of the Olympics (resulting in African citizens being unable to get PRC visas in Hong Kong) meant that many traders became not only illegal migrants but also subject to deportation. In particular, the demonstrators were incensed about the death of a Nigerian, described as an illegal money changer, who fell from a building while trying to escape a police raid. According to the report, authorities in Canton are concerned because the man was a Muslim, and his death came just after the clashes between Uyghurs and Hans in Urumqi (also reportedly triggered by the death of two Uyghur Muslims in a fight in Guangdong).
There are several remarkable aspects about this report. First, the fact that it was allowed to appear: this probably reflects growing government confidence that readers would side with the police against ethnic groups they see as troublemakers (Tibetans, Uyghurs, Africans).
Second, even though the tightening of checks on foreigners ahead of the celebrations seems appeared to target political dissenters (say, human rights of Falungong activists), it was in fact used for an entirely different purpose, one that was much more in line with the practices of Western states. The report alleged that although officially Canton has 20 thousand African (mostly Nigerian, Ghanaian, Cameroonian and Liberian) residents, unofficial estimates are as high as 200 thousand, the population grows by 30-40% every year, and the two trading centers where Africans concentrated have been identified by police as areas of drug dealing. Such reports associating Africans with crime and illegal immigration are very similar to the portrayal of Chinese traders in Eastern European and African media, and having to hide from police sweeps is a familiar experience for businesspeople in Eastern Europe’s Chinese markets. In other words, what first appeared to be a party-state crackdown on dissent turned out to be more a “security” measure that victimizes economically or culturally undesirable foreigners from poor countries and makes China look more, rather than less, like the West.
Third, the fear that the conflict may escalate because the victim was Muslim is again similar to paranoid reactions of Western governments, but also shows sensitivity to the possible repercussions of the incident for China in Muslim countries. Indeed, as our Jakarta correspondent Johanes Herlijanto reports, while China has gone a long way bolstering its image as a source of Islam-friendly modernization in Indonesia, demonstrations were planned in front of the Chinese embassy today to protest the government’s treatment of Uyghurs. (They were cancelled after the firebombing of the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott this morning.)
Clashes with Africans are not an entirely new phenomenon in China. In 1989, Chinese students in Nanjing demonstrated in protest against Africans students’ alleged harassment of Chinese girls in an incident that, according to some, was one of the triggers of the protests that later went down in history as the democracy movement.