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African traders used to thrive but now are threatened by immigration authorities.
GUANGZHOU, China — In the bowels of a market selling wigs, hip-hop clothing, fake designer shoes, LeBron James jerseys and much more, Chuks Nwafor counts jeans. Thousands of them.
Each month, the 29-year-old trader buys bulk clothing from the market and ships it back to his native Nigeria, where his brother sells it at a markup. For two years he’s run a successful business and created a comfortable life in this chaotic Chinese metropolis.
But recently, things have taken a turn for the worse. The rising cost of goods has eaten into Nwafor’s profits, while a visa crackdown — which traders say is often violently enforced by police — has made it difficult to do business. At this market — Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Trading Center, which opened six years ago to cater to African traders — business has plummeted.
Nwafor and others like him are considering heading home.
“It’s getting worse every day,” he said, cradling a pile of stonewashed denim in his arms. “Maybe some Chinese think Africans aren’t good. They don’t want too many Africans in their country.”
For years, African traders seeking cheap goods direct from the source have flocked to Guangdong, the manufacturing province known as the “world’s factory.” For the most part, the African community in Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital, has thrived. Markets are devoted to African buyers and whole neighborhoods cater to them. What was a community of a few hundred traders a decade ago now includes as many as 20,000.
But Guangzhou’s African community, China’s largest, is at a breaking point.
The country’s faltering economy is putting the squeeze on “Little Africa,” or “Chocolate City,” as locals call it. Numbers are down and business is suffering. All-important visas are being denied or granted only for the short term. Africans who allow their visas to expire — and many do — are often imprisoned and forced to pay a hefty fine.
In January, the Chinese government announced a crackdown on foreigners living illegally in Guangzhou, and, according to interviews with more than two dozen Africans working in the city, the community is facing increased persecution at the hands of police.
At the markets, talk of the crackdown is common.
“The knock on the door came very early in the morning and I knew straight away it was the police,” recalled Hugo, a 29-year-old trader from Aba City, Nigeria, who leans on a cane as he describes his most recent run-in with police.
“They’d been raiding homes and taking people away since August, so I knew they’d found me. I jammed the door shut and jumped out of the apartment window,” he said.
Hugo, who had been living on an expired visa, landed on the concrete below, shattering his right leg. “The police left me there for 10 hours before finally taking me to hospital.”
Despite the experience — which left him with a 30-centimeter scar on his right leg and a permanent limp — Hugo insisted he will stay in China. “It’s still easier to make a living here than in Nigeria,” he said. “But it’s a frightening place to be.”
With little in the way of official help, people like Hugo turn to religious leaders for support.
Pastor James, a Nigerian who has preached the Gospel here unofficially since 2004, is the first port of call for many. Sitting in his sparsely furnished suburban apartment, James, who withheld his family name, described his role as part pastor, part social worker.
“Everyday I receive calls for help from people in trouble,” he said, adding that some Africans bring it on themselves by “engaging in dubious things,” like selling drugs.
“It’s not easy living here of course. This is a communist country. Religion is still underground and problems intensified before the Olympics,” he said.
But most Chinese are friendly, the pastor insisted. “They just don’t want us to spoil their country.”
On a Sunday at Guangzhou’s impressive Catholic cathedral, a bespectacled Cantonese priest delivered mass in spotty English. His audience, as many as 700 African traders, listened attentively, sitting beneath the cathedral’s high ceilings, chandeliers and ever-watching CCTV cameras.
After mass, the congregation spilled out to the cathedral grounds and an adjacent hall, dimly lit and crumbling, where they sang and danced to the rhythm of guitar and African drums.
The merriment masked underlying tensions.
“This is the only place we feel completely safe,” said Austin Jack, a 27-year-old Nigerian trader sitting on a step inside the church gates. “The moment you leave the church grounds, anything can happen.”
China has made huge inroads into Africa in the last decade, with companies including oil giants and individual entrepreneurs setting up shop across the continent, generating trade worth an estimated $73 billion. Chinese traders have been warmly welcomed by governments in Africa, an irony not lost on people like Jack.
“The Chinese make money from Africa,” he said, “but they want to stop us doing the same here. To me, it doesn’t make sense.”
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