China’s African Immigrants: Trapped by Status

In 2009, a Nigerian immigrant in Guangzhou, China, died during a police immigration raid. The man jumped out of a second-floor shop window in order to escape the passport check, because he had overstayed his visa. His death resulted in a protest that involved around 100 African immigrants calling for justice in front of a police station in Guangzhou. While this incident highlighted the tensions between the African immigrants in Guangzhou and the local police, it also drew attention to the poor living conditions and tenuous status of China's undocumented African immigrants.

Guangzhou now has the largest African community in Asia, with at least 100,000 African immigrants. The exact population figures vary depending on the source, due in part to the difficulty of gathering accurate information on a population who live on the margins of the larger Chinese community. A large number of African businessmen and traders, mostly from West Africa, moved to the city in the late 1990s. Most of these immigrants were involved with international trade, buying cheap products in China and selling them back to their home countries at higher prices. Since then, increasing numbers of African businessmen from other parts of the continent have migrated to Guangzhou due to its status as an international trading center, as well as one of China's biggest manufacturing hubs,  with nearby textile and electronics factories.

Some of the African immigrants have valid visas or local residence permits; many face difficulties getting their visa extensions approved and are forced to overstay their visas, remaining in China illegally. African immigrants usually enter China with short-term business visas that last four to six weeks, while three-to-six month or one-year visas are reserved for regular travelers who have been in Guangzhou for over a decade.  Despite having valid visas, some immigrants find themselves overwhelmed by the adjustment to life in a foreign metropolis, and fail to take advantage of the mobility provided by a valid visa.  [1] As the renewal deadline approaches, many find it difficult to extend their visas. Between the choice of returning home and staying clandestinely in China, many immigrants choose the latter because they simply cannot afford to go back to their home countries. Additionally, there is pressure from family members and friends back home who harbor expectations that immigrants will naturally accumulate wealth abroad.  [2] Or as one Nigerian expatriate put it, When you go back to Nigeria, you are expected to ride a car, buy a house, set up a business. If you don't do that quickly, you are recognized as a loser.  [3]

In their home countries, immigrants apply for their visas through the local Chinese embassy under the auspices of the central government in Beijing. Yet once in Guangzhou, they have to apply for a visa extension through the local government, which does not have the same directives or procedures as the central authority in Beijing. This difference in standards for granting visas causes difficulties for immigrants who need visa extensions. You apply for your visa extension with the local government who decide not to extend it,  said one Nigerian immigrant, who noted Guangzhou extends very few Nigerian visas, ¦then you face a problem when you overstay and become illegal. 

A recent change in migration policy has made the problem even worse, and the lives of these immigrants even harsher. Previously, immigrants would travel to other cities, which have lower standards of visa extension, to extend them before they expire, and then move back to Guangzhou. But the Chinese government closed that loophole by requiring that applicants live in the province where they received their visa extension.  Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province; if immigrants want to stay in Guangdong province, they have to apply for visa extensions through registries in Guangzhou. Legitimate traders who want to stay and do business are often turned down by these registries, which approve visa extensions at very low rates.

Losing legal status causes many problems for both African immigrants and the local community. African immigrants with expired visas cannot relocate or travel and lose the ability to obtain legal accommodations and jobs. Many immigrants only go out early in the morning or late at night in order to avoid local police, who frequently check their passports. Without valid paperwork, these immigrants cannot travel to other cities through common transportation systems, which require valid passports and visas, and cannot participate in legitimate businesses with local people. Their lapsed visa status, coupled with the fact that some cannot afford to go back to their home countries, lead many African immigrants to resort to illegal activities, such as drug trafficking in underground markets, to survive. Yet this severely undermines the security and social order of the local community, as well as the reputation of African immigrants generally; ultimately this process leads to increased restrictions on visa extensions. The limits on visa renewals, combined with poor living conditions and other factors in Guangdong, results in a hostile environment for African entrepreneurs, with some choosing the international markets in Vietnam, Thailand or Turkey instead. The decreasing number of traders entering China has also led to the decline of local Chinese economies; African traders are the main clients for many local businesses. From 2006 to about 2010, this warehouse used to be completely full all the time ¦  but inventory has dropped by 75 percent, said one Chinese shipping agent.

Many African businesspeople in China are trying to make a living through legitimate business practices. But some of them are forced to live underground  in squalid conditions and resort to illegal activities because they do not have valid documents required for the legal operation of a business and must therefore avoid local police. I would stop tomorrow if immigration gave me a visa. I go to church, I love my family, I am a good man, but when they make you illegal you can only do illegal things,  one Nigerian immigrant surmised, explaining the reasons why some Africans immigrants resort to drug trafficking. Many undocumented immigrants live in small suburban bedrooms that often house seven or eight other people, because they either cannot afford better housing, or cannot rent better apartments without valid visas. Their abilities to pursue legitimate activities and participate fully in society are largely limited by the difficulty to get a visa extension.

The undocumented immigrants who want to return to their home countries are discouraged from coming forward and seeking help from local governments because, if caught, they face prison time and a fine of more than RMB 5,000 (US$750), and are required to pay the costs of repatriation. [4] Most of them cannot afford the cost of traveling back home, so they are forced to contact family members to send money to pay for their detentions or deportations. Those with insufficient funds to be released may stay imprisoned for months or even years. [5] The harsh treatment and high costs of prison are infamous among African immigrants. BBC has reported 30 Nigerian deaths in Chinese prisons; at that time only 700 Nigerians were imprisoned in China. It costs around $300 a month ”twice as much as on the outside ”to buy extra food for adequate nutrition in prison, due largely to inflated prices for food. [6] Without the money to leave China, and facing potential imprisonment by staying, African immigrants must remain in the shadows of the larger population.

There are some government services beginning to cater to China's African immigrants. For example, government offices in the areas in which most immigrants live are now providing services in Chinese, English, French, and Arabic. China has long been a single-culture state “ its laws were not designed for a multicultural population. The backbone of Chinese immigration legislation is the Law of the People's Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens,  which was adopted in 1985. However, the law, and the institutions that are implementing it, was not designed for the current situation of high immigration volumes, such as the case of African immigrants in Guangzhou. [7] The Chinese People's Consultative Conference generated a report on the situation in 2008, and the government now has plans to reform the regulatory system. The report points to many problems regarding the immigration pressure including unreliable statistics, weak enforcement of tenancy registration, lack of control over the housing market for foreigners, insufficient cooperation between government bodies and shortage of resources for law enforcement ¦  [8] While the report addresses the problems caused by large numbers of undocumented immigrants, it does not address the fundamental problem of a system that makes them illegal  in the first place.

It is reasonable for the government to set visa restrictions for immigrants because immigrants might affect local employment or increase the cost of housing and education. However, the disparity of standards can only lead to immigrants being trapped in the city. In order to solve the fundamental problem, the alignment of the standards of the central and local migration registries is very important. The central migration registry in Beijing should consider raising its visa-granting standards by taking the local effects of the immigrants into account, while the local authority in Guangzhou should lower the standards of granting visa extensions to qualified, legitimate traders. The government should do thorough background research of the applicants before granting them visas. Once the applicants qualify for visas granted by the central migration registry, the local government should not set high standards of visa extensions when they re-apply. The government should issue long-stay visas to some regular and legal immigrants in accordance with the duration of their work contract or business purpose.  [9] If they are doing legitimate business in Guangzhou, the government should not close the door on them, especially if doing so hurts the local economy in the process.

[1] Haugen, H. Ø., Nigerians in China: A Second State of Immobility.  International Migration 50 (2012): 65 “80. Wiley. Web.20 Apr. 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cisse, Daouda. South-South migration and trade: African traders in China.  Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University (2013): n. pag. Policy Briefing. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.


This article was originally published in UCSD’s Prospect Journal, and can be found here.

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Siru (Rose) Zhu

is a staff writer of UCSD's Prospect Journal and an undergraduate Political Science student at UC San Diego. She likes to bring awareness to the stories and facts that are under-reported by the mainstream media. Growing up in China combined with extensive travel has endowed Rose with a well-rounded perspective, making her believe that listening to different opinions helps people have more open and unbiased views. For her, life is all about loving, exploring, and improving oneself.

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