GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Sweating heavily and yelling at Chinese police officers, a group of Nigerians dragged the lifeless body of an injured compatriot up to a Guangzhou police station, blood dripping from a deep gash on his head.
Around them, a crowd of over one hundred Africans chanted, some holding sticks as others smashed potted plants and blocked traffic, demanding justice from the Chinese police after officers chased the man out of a high-rise window in a tightening security crackdown on illegal overstayers in the city this year.
“They don’t like black people to stay in China any more. They want us to go,” said Frank, one of the Nigerians at the protest on July 15 that was filmed by witnesses.
“They treat us like animals,” added Frank, an illegal overstayer, who wouldn’t give his name for fear of reprisals.
The spontaneous protest — a rare direct confrontation between foreigners and authorities in China — is a vivid reminder of the challenges faced by Beijing’s stability-obsessed Communist Party as it engages with the world and builds up trade links abroad.
In the past few years, tens of thousands of African and Arab traders have thronged to export hubs like Guangzhou and Yiwu in eastern China to seek their fortunes — sourcing cheap China-made goods back home to massive markups in a growing, lucrative trade.
But just as mass Chinese immigration abroad has fanned recent social tensions in Africa and other places, the influx of large numbers of foreigners, particularly Africans, into China is altering the social fabric of cities like Guangzhou and proving a headache to authorities.
While this rising tide of foreigners has brought vast economic gains, the edgy cosmopolitanism of melding cultures and liberal ideals has been laced with racial and social tensions, along with the problem of illegal overstayers resorting to crime.
“While most black people are engaged in valuable trading activities, others are staying illegally, working without valid permits or smuggling,” said Peng Peng, the research director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, a provincial thinktank.
“How to manage this is becoming a very big problem.”
Guangzhou’s African community began swelling in the late 1990s with a trickle of traders from Mali, but in the past five years, numbers have nearly tripled on a wave of Nigerians to around 20-30,000 according to Peng, though reports suggest there could be as many as 100,000 if overstayers are factored in.
While Africans have moved to other cosmopolitan Chinese cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing, those in Guangzhou are most conspicuous — filling the streets in a district known as “Little Africa” replete with ethnic shops, eateries, and export malls crammed with all manner of goods including fake designer jeans, wigs, bright African textiles and VCD players.
But the influx has also caused unease among local Chinese.
Some neighborhood committees bar Africans from living in residential complexes, while Internet forums such as Tianya buzz with heated, at times xenophobic, discussions of “black person” issues in the city.
“A lot of Chinese don’t like Africans, but there’s nothing we can do. They’re flooding into Guangzhou,” wrote one blogger on Tianya. Others blamed the immigrants for problems from drug peddling and petty theft, to the spread of HIV among prostitutes.
On the streets, while explicit racism is rare among conservative Chinese urbanites, fights do sometimes break out between Africans and Chinese over business disputes.
“Racial stereotypes on both sides do exist ... it’s indicative of starkly different cultures,” said Martyn Davies, a China expert at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.
“The challenge of the whole China-Africa relationship is going to be cultural acceptance ... It’s not about capital or management skill or whatever, it’s about culture and essentially to break down stereotypes they have of one another.”
In perhaps the most stark indication of official discomfort with mass African immigration, Guangzhou authorities have refused to allow more open and transparent immigration policies, particularly for visa-extensions.
In numerous interviews with African traders and illegal overstayers in the city, frustrations at restrictive and inconsistent visa policies have risen, exacerbating the plight of Africans opting to stay on expired visas to keep their businesses flowing, and thereby avoid costly flights home and back again.
“It’s very rough,” said Emeka Ven Chukwu, a 30-year-old Nigerian based in Guangzhou. “It’s been happening for a long time. Even before the Olympics, it has been very difficult to extend (visas).”
Resentment toward the police has also grown amid the recent spate of overnight raids and perceptions of corruption.
“They just want to arrest you, collect money, then arrest you again,” said Paul Omoshola, a Nigerian businessman in Guangzhou.
Visa extensions, seen as critical for traders and fixers to stay beyond the usual 30-day visa period — while difficult to obtain through official channels — can be arranged relatively easily through Chinese agents for large fees of $2,000 upwards.
Guangzhou’s Public Security Bureau would not comment on its visa and security policies when contacted by Reuters.
“One thing that has been very apparent is the arbitrariness of visa issuance in China,” said Gordon Mathews, an academic at Hong Kong’s Chinese University who has studied the issue.
With the recent ethnic unrest in Xinjiang having unnerved Beijing, some experts say there could be a further tightening of visas going forward, particularly with sensitive anniversaries and events coming up.
“During the Asian Games (in 2010) there will definitely be some level of control, this is normal. After the Games, we can loosen things a little,” said Peng, the thinktank director.
Ademola Oladele, a spokesman at the Nigerian Embassy in Beijing, noted the need for authorities to crack down on illegal overstayers. But he also expressed concern at the recent police raid that sparked such anger among hundreds of Nigerians.
“If there is any clamping down on illegal immigrants it’s fine. That’s their law. But it should not be done in an inhumane way or a way that could affect a life,” said Oladele.
Sino-Africa trade exceeded the $100 billion mark last year, a jump of 45 percent on the year before, fueled at one end by China’s demand for Africa’s energy and natural resources, and Africa’s love of cheap Chinese goods at the other.
The recent problems in Guangzhou however, underscore the risks of such rapid changes exacerbating cultural and religious differences that might otherwise be avoided through more sensitive policy-making.
Despite all the problems facing Africans hoping to lay deeper roots in Guangzhou, securing short-term visas for events like the Canton Fair, Asia’s top trade fair, is comparatively easy.
“It’s a piece of cake,” said Nampewo Sylivia, a young single businesswoman from Uganda happily browsing clumps of wigs made from real and fake hair at the Canaan Wholesale Trading Center.
“It’s still far easier to get a China visa than an American one,” she added.
While African traders say business has fallen sharply this year given a slump in African demand during the downturn and sliding exchange rates, many remain drawn to China’s potential.
“China produces nearly everything that you need in the world, said Omoshola, the Nigerian trader who was also at the protest.
“We are still here doing business,” he added.
Editing by Sugita Katyal