Thanks to China's confused visa system, many African traders, in particular Nigerians, are turning from successful businesspeople to illegal immigrants overnight, writes Sam Piranty in an article first published in Think Africa Press
Over a cup of rather terrible coffee in a tiny McDonald's above a marketplace in Guangzhou, George*, a young smartly dressed Nigerian with extremely shiny shoes and perfectly-shaped facial hair, explains how he went from being a successful businessman to an overstayer.
Speaking quietly to avoid drawing attention, George recalls how he arrived in Guangzhou full of hope in 2007 when the flow of trade between the city and Africa was at its peak. He came on a 6-month visa, which he extended by a further 3 months when it expired, allowing him to continue purchasing and selling all manner of goods, from bath tubs to boxing gloves.
Business was booming, but then midway through his extension, George hit hard times. Labour and living costs began to rise across China, the Chinese currency devalued, and George watched as his profit margins dwindled. To maintain the income he needed to survive, the young businessman decided to invest all his savings into purchasing more goods.
However, sourcing products from a factory near Shenzen and then transporting those goods from China to Nigeria can take months. And having already made such an outlay, George didn't have the money needed for a flight home. He applied for another visa extension, but this time his request was denied. He gathered together the last of his savings and hired a visa agent to help him out. The agent made promises, but the day after George's visa expired, a middleman simply handed him back his passport with a note from the agent saying he couldn't help.
George was stuck with neither a valid visa nor money for a flight home, and his goods were still in transit. If he went to immigration, he knew the authorities would arrest him, fine him and force him to pay for his flights or stay in detention. And so, amidst pressure from his family in Nigeria to continue sending money home, George made a decision. He remained in Guangzhou, but he had now become an overstayer and the nature of his stay changed dramatically.
“Now there are so many things I cannot do," he says. "Factories won't let me buy their goods anymore. They always ask if they can see my visa. Yesterday I went to an internet cafe and even they asked to see my visa. An internet café! Who is this guy to ask me that? He just works in an internet café! He is an ordinary citizen. The Chinese don’t trust anyone. What does he think I am going to do without a visa? Burn down his shop? I have a university degree, I bet he doesn’t.”
As he talks, George appears almost embarrassed as he avoids eye contact, his brow creased with anger. George’s pride has been seriously dented and he repeatedly tells me about how prior to coming to China, he was a wealthy and respectable businessman. Now, he says, "It's like I am in prison but outside. I am trapped forever here."
“It's not just places I cannot go to," he continues, "there are certain times as well. I mainly go out in the evenings because the immigration police might catch me, and if they do, you have to run. Sometimes if they catch you and you take too long to find your passport, they even beat you. They do not treat you like human beings."
Many people like George have been detained in Chinese prisons and with no help from official Nigerian state authorities, the only hope of release lies with the community organisations in the city. Most African states are represented by a community organisation, who if informed of a compatriot's detention, will collect money from members and contact family members back home in order to pay for the return flight back to Lagos, Accra or Luanda. Most Africans who touch down in Guangzhou immediately contact these community organisations in order to open up trade networks and announce their presence in the city in case something goes wrong. They offer advice, protection and networking opportunities in a complex, competitive and often overwhelming environment.
At sunrise one late summer morning, beneath the thick smog that engulfs Guangzhou, over one thousand police dressed in light blue and grey uniforms raided the Dragon Hotel in Sanyuanli in a clear demonstration of power. For months, police had been observing the movements of many they believed to be at the centre of the drug trafficking trade. Reports emanating from the local authorities in Guangzhou suggested that the operation was highly successful, discovering significant quantities of methamphetamine, heroin, cash and weapons. Two hours after the raid began, I arrived to watch the police escort over a hundred men out of the building − they were all handcuffed, all exhausted and all African. Before I arrived, the police had arrested a number of Chinese suspects, but every arrest I witnessed was of someone from the African continent.
"When they make you illegal you can only do illegal things"
Throughout my time in Guangzhou, I spoke to hundreds of Chinese citizens about the various African diasporas living here; most tend to agree that they are essential for the local Chinese trading community and that many are friendly and considerate. Most overstayers living in Guangzhou tend to get by trading things like shoes, t-shirts and trousers, working hard and respecting their fellow citizens. However, there is also a general perception that a growing number of the African community − normally then specified as Nigerians, who in fact make up the largest group within the African diaspora − are causing problems and are involved in drug-related crime.
"Africans are causing more and more problems here," says a shopkeeper, speaking through a translator. "They bring drugs, and whenever [the police] arrest someone because of drugs they are always blacks, always Africans."
A local security guard similarly suggests, "if you walk down the street and are offered drugs here, no Chinese will offer you, but it's always blacks and they come from Nigeria. Nigerians are the noisiest and also cause the most trouble. They always play loud music late at night, always shout very loud. They do not respect China. This is China, not Nigeria."
In a rather plush office tucked away in a busy industrial estate in Guangzhou, Ojukwu Emma, chairman of both the Nigerian and African community in Guangzhou, rejects these claims and insists that Nigerians' bad reputation is unfounded. "If people tell you that Nigerians are causing drugs or crime problems, then it is a lie," he proclaims. "All Nigerians come to China to do legitimate business. They come with money to feed the Chinese economy because China gives them a visa when they apply in Lagos."
If there are any problems, continues Emma, they occur when visa extensions are refused. "Things become difficult because of visa. It is easy to get firstly, but when you still have business to do, you cannot extend and then they are stuck”. He continues, "[Nigerians] are not coming here to commit crime, but if you do not allow them to do legitimate business, that will make them idle and what I know about Nigerians is that they don’t like to stay idle and so have to earn a living somehow.”
Samuel*, 21, is one of those who found himself on the wrong side of the law after his application for a visa extension was rejected. Samuel had arrived from Lagos last year, sent by his father to bring in more income, but after his three month stay was up, he had still not made a penny. Immigration refused to extend his visa, but under pressure from his father, he stayed. Without valid papers, however, factories and ports now refused to do business with him and his options narrowed significantly.
“I had no other choice," he says "I cannot do legal kinds of work because no-one will let me. So I had to get money somehow so I can pay my father back home.” A tear rolls down his cheek as he continues, “I’m a baby. Someone asked me to take a box from the post office to a hotel. I didn’t know it was drugs. But now I know and it's the only way I can make enough money to keep living and send money back home. I get good money, I make more money in one week than people who work here legally in a month. But you know, 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."
Because of these effects of rejecting visa extensions, Emma argues that the system doesn't only harm African migrants who become illegal, but also causes problems for the local Chinese community. “This is affecting the Chinese security system," he says. "If you were to give Nigerians visa extensions, you would know all about what they are doing. It’s to help your security system. If you don’t give them a visa then it will damage your security."
Indeed, for all the 'successful' raids like on the Dragon Hotel, there are many more incidences of migrants outfoxing the police. And for this, mobile phones are essential. Many traders own at least three, and text and ringtones are the rhythm of many African markets in Guangzhou. At around 3pm on one busy afternoon in a market famous for its African trading community, a sudden orchestra of text tones could be heard, bleeping, buzzing and ringing. Many, after checking their phones, quickly concluded their business, rushing from one side of the market to the other, and within two minutes, the number of people in the market had halved. After the rush, I walked outside and saw two dozen police exiting their vehicles and heading towards the market entrance. They began to check the passport of every man in the area who happened to be black, but the text network had beaten the raid.
"Who will save China?"
At the heart of Guangzhou's visa problems, there seems to be a contradiction. The city sees many of its African migrants, in particular Nigerians, as problematic, and yet traders from the continent continue to touch down in the city in large numbers − and with relative ease.
According to Professor Zhigang Li at Sun-Yat-Sen University, the problem lies in the Chinese state architecture. “There is a mismatch between the visa-giving and the visa-extending system," he explains. "You get your visa initially through the foreign ministry system in Africa, like in Nigeria, which goes through the central government in Beijing and has relatively no connection with Guangzhou.
"After you come to China, you apply for your visa extension with the local government who decide not to extend it. In Guangzhou, the case is that they are not extending many Nigerian visas. Then you face a problem when you overstay and become illegal.”
Previously, many Nigerians would move to other provinces in order to get their visas extended before moving back to Guangzhou, but the Chinese closed that loophole by requiring that applicants live in the province where they received their visa extension.
Amidst these legal problems − as well as rising prices, currency fluctuations and poor living conditions in Guangzhou − many African traders are increasingly looking elsewhere in Asia to make a living. Many of the Nigerian diaspora I spoke to said that they were looking to move to Thailand, Turkey or Vietnam where production is cheaper and there are not the same visa restrictions.
If the thousands of Nigerian traders that work in the city uprooted to elsewhere, the local economy would notice their absence. Li is a Chinese shipping agent whose main clients are all from West Africa. His office is a small warehouse tucked away at the back of a shopping mall. Boxes and bags containing clothes, building supplies and garden furniture fill only around one quarter of the room.
“From 2006 to about 2010, this warehouse used to be completely full all the time," he says. "Look at it now. Look at all that space, soon I will have to do something else. This is not financially stable any more. Many of my clients I cannot deal with as they don’t have papers and many don’t even come here anymore because they cannot stay for long enough.
"You know, they say China helps Africa," he continues. "Here, it is Africa that keeps China moving and without them so much of our local economy will go out of business. It is cheaper and easier for them to move abroad now. Vietnam is the place to go.”
Most Chinese traders I spoke to echoed Li's concerns. Rising labour and living costs in the city have meant that profit margins are decreasing, and with fewer clients in the city, things are going from bad to worse. “The Africans pay little money anyway so now we can only sell to them if they buy in large quantities”, says a clothes factory owner. “Unlike Europeans or the Arabs, Africans always pay the lowest price. China was always the cheapest place to come. Now it is not and because China is now growing up, we have to pay our workers more, they need better facilities and with these facilities come extra costs. The economy of China is getting worse. We should be giving out more visa extensions to get more trade, not less."
Unsurprisingly, this is a sentiment with which Emma agrees. As I am about to leave his office, he turns and says, “You know, we have a saying in Africa. If you are a businessman and you go to a new place and there are no Nigerians, turn around because there is no business. Now in China, there are becoming fewer Nigerians so many are turning around and going to Vietnam instead. In 2008 I said Africa will save China and it did in Guangzhou and business was booming. But now, with less Africans, who will save China?”
Outwardly, China continues to present itself as Nigeria and Africa’s partner, as a visa-giving friend. Yet, internally, in Guangzhou, local authorities continue to refuse visa extensions and hassle members of the Nigerian diaspora on a daily basis. Beijing needs to understand the consequences of the granting of visas in Guangzhou and the subsequent treatment of those who overstay. On some level, Beijing’s visa approvals need to also be endorsed by the local authorities in Guangzhou or the valuable trade brought by the African trading community may dwindle further. Under the current system, China is slowly turning from friend to foe for many, its reputation on the African continent being dented one visa extension rejection at a time.
*names have been changed to protect interviewees' identities.
This article was made possible by a grant from the ChinaAfrica Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.