How are African Americans seen in China

Africans in China: China's new racism problem


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When you leave the Xiaobei subway station in the heart of China's third largest city, you think you're in Lagos, Yaoundé or Accra. Colorfully dressed African women rummage through the goods of the street vendors, the air smells of baked sweet potatoes and the exhaust fumes of the mopeds that jostle their way through the narrow streets. Only the characters on the billboards and the conspicuously present Chinese police reveal that you are in China, more precisely in Guangzhou: the workbench of the world.

Just one stop from the main train station, the largest African community in Asia has emerged here since the late 1990s. Depending on the counting method, between 20,000 and 250,000 Africans live in the Xiaobei district. Most have come to trade: with textiles and electronics, kitchen appliances and furniture. Everything imaginable is manufactured in Guangzhou and exported all over the world - in the local wholesale halls the products cost only a fraction of the price one would pay in Africa or Europe.

The growing presence of African traders in the city reflects the development of African-Chinese relations. In the early 1980s, the volume of trade between Africa and China was only about a billion dollars. In 2005 it was already around 40 billion and in 2011 already 166.3 billion dollars. This makes China Africa's second most important trading partner after the USA. Over 100 export companies are registered in Xiaobei alone, each with an average annual turnover of 50 million yuan (5.8 million euros).

Racial Superiority

"Some come with two empty suitcases, buy clothes here and fly back after a few days," says Benoît, a young man from Benin who has been working as a cook in Xiaobei for two years. They then sell the textiles in Africa and prepare for the next shopping trip. Others - like Benoît - stay longer. He can have his tourist visa reissued within a few days in Hong Kong, around 100 kilometers away.

However, they all suffer from the widespread prejudice against black people in China. "There are clear social hierarchies based on racial superiority," writes sociologist M. Dujon Johnson. The scientist, who lives in Cologne, is the first African-American to do his doctorate at a Taiwanese university.

Barry Sautman, Professor of Sociology at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has been researching Chinese racism for years. "Racism has a long history in China, and racial typologies are deeply ingrained in traditional Chinese thought," he says. He sees the main reason for this in the idea of ​​ethnic unity that is characteristic of Chinese society.

Extensive ethnic homogeneity

For centuries, China was a closed, almost self-sufficient country. It wasn't until 1979, under Mao Zedong's successor, Deng Xiaoping, that the country began to gradually open up. To this day, however, China is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. About 92 percent of the population are Han Chinese, only 0.04 percent of the Chinese were born abroad.

Even today, a large part of the population has no contact with people of other ethnic groups. This even applies to cities like Guangzhou, where many Africans live, says Sautman. For many Chinese, the liberalization of the country is going too fast, and there is great fear of losing traditional "Chinese values".

Everyday racism is accordingly widespread: "Getting a taxi is much harder for Africans than it is for the Chinese. They think I am dangerous or would not pay," says James Obinna, a Kenyan exchange student at the Beijing Film School. The African student Zahra Baitie observed something similar. "A taxi driver in Beijing asked me why Africans eat each other," she said.

Black devils

The prejudices are also reflected in the language: The Chinese often refer to people with black skin as "heigui" - "black devil" or "black demon". The Chinese word for Africa is "feizhou", "fei" means something like "missing", "not-" or "incorrect".

"Even in Guangzhou, the Chinese don't want to live with Africans - neither spatially nor emotionally," says Elle Wang, a doctoral student at Columbia University who is researching the subject. "There is a lot of distrust." Xiaobei, the neighborhood where the majority of Africans live, is commonly referred to pejoratively as the "Chocolate City".

In addition to Africans, the narrow streets and shabby apartment buildings in Xiaobei are also home to people from remote provinces of the country, mostly ethnic minorities, often Muslims. In no other place in China is there such an ethnic diversity as in the few square kilometers in the center of Guangzhou.

Do not prostitute yourself

Most days in Xiaobei there is a hustle and bustle from the late afternoon onwards. In the underpass between Huanshi main street and the manageable square, which turns into a huge market at night, almost everyone walks with their mobile phones to their ears. Words in French, Arabic, Portuguese, English and Yoruba mingle in the echo of the tunnel walls.

Very few Chinese speak a foreign language here, the same goes for the traders from Africa. If you act here, you still understand each other.

But the police have also set up posts and barriers on the square - there are often raids and searches. The only sign in English is on the edge of the square. The rules that foreigners have to adhere to are looming on it, including some very specific ones: "Do not take or sell drugs and do not prostitute yourself, otherwise you will be arrested or you will have to pay a fine." They are rules that make it clear what the Chinese think of Africans.