Covid-19 drove hundreds of Africans out of Guangzhou. A generation of mixed-race children is their legacy

Updated 6:26 AM ET, Thu March 18, 2021

(CNN)When the coronavirus pandemic ground China to a near-halt in early February last year, Youssouf Dieng jetted back to Dakar for, he thought, a brief sojourn.

In reality, it was a year before Dieng -- who had worked as a goods trader in the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou in southern China for two decades -- could return, on an air ticket three times the usual cost, and a complicated business visa. By then, the pandemic had driven hundreds of Africans out of Guangzhou, sparked the most severe anti-Black racial clashes in China in decades, and remade business operations, with Chinese factories connecting with African customers directly over e-commerce platforms.
"Now it is very, very quiet," Dieng says of Little Africa, a nook of Guangzhou informally named after the swell of thriving African businessmen who once lived, ate and prayed there in huge numbers. "Not many foreigners now, and all the small shops are closed. Small business around here? No more."
A shop in Little Africa in Guangzhou in 2019. Many small stores in this area are now shuttered.
At the turn of the 21st century, Guangzhou -- already a magnet for internal migrants -- became an accidental experiment in multiculturalism in China, as loose immigration rules and factories churning out cheap products attracted droves of African entrepreneurs.
Business boomed, and by 2012 as many as 100,000 Sub-Saharan Africans had flocked to the city, according to Prof. Adams Bodomo's book "Africans in China." While that figure was never verified, it pointed to the generally accepted opinion that, between 2005 and 2012, at least, this was the largest African expatriate community in Asia.
As interracial marriages in the community flourished, Bodomo theorized that, in time, an African-Chinese minority would arise, becoming China's 57th ethnic group and demanding full citizenship rights. Today, that looks unlikely. By April last year, just 4,550 Africans were living in Guangzhou, according to local authorities, including students and diplomats as well as businesspeople.
Ten months on, more than a dozen experts and Africans who spoke with CNN said that number has further dwindled, due to several repatriation flights to Nigeria and Kenya, and tougher coronavirus-era visa rules, with most foreigners barred from entry to China. Many who remain are rooted in China by Chinese wives and children.
"For the whole issue of African traders in Guangzhou, I suspect that era is over," says Gordon Mathews, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "I'm skeptical that (their physical presence in the city) will ever be at the scale that it has been."

The business case

One reason for the decline of the African community over the past year is strictly business.
In 2019 alone, of the 2.95 million foreigners entering China through Guangzhou, 358,000 were from African countries, according to local officials. Many came on quick visits to buy from the region's factories, using African residents as middlemen to connect with Chinese wholesalers.
When Covid-19 prevented foreigners from visiting China, the factory owners of the Pearl River Delta -- often cited as the world's biggest urban area -- had to rethink their business model.
Many in the area, which includes the cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Foshan and Dongguan, began advertising their services on e-commerce giants such as Alibaba. This allowed them to connect with African customers directly, rather than waiting for them to come to the city in person to place orders, as had been the way for decades.
Pat Chukwuonye Chike has been in Guangzhou for nearly two decades, living on a business visa he renews each year. When Covid-19 hit, he stayed to avoid being separated from his Chinese wife and three African-Chinese children. He shuttered his clothing store, previously frequented by droves of visiting foreigners, and set up an Alibaba-type service on Facebook, which is banned in China but can be accessed via a virtual private netwoprk (VPN).
Pak Chukwuonye Chike doing business with Chinese counterparts in Guangzhou during the pandemic.
His online shop, Africa China Trade Service, connects about 20 factories he knows to his contacts in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Ghana. The advantage, he says, is his clients know they're dealing with factories they can trust.
But it's a competitive landscape. There are now hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants in Africa who can easily order from Chinese factories themselves, and sell to locals where they are living -- cutting Africans out of the equation in their home nations.
Some say that's what the Chinese authorities would prefer.
"China wants to be the middleman and not have Africans (in its borders)," says Mathews, author of "The World in Guangzhou." "So it would make much more sense for the Chinese merchants to move to Africa, rather than having the Africans go to China."

Racial tensions

For centuries, Guangzhou has intermittently been a nerve center for migrants, whether internal or foreign. When African traders arrived in the city in the early 2000s, they formed a particularly visible enclave -- partly because they tended to congregate in one or two relatively small areas, and partly because black skin had not before been widely seen in China in large numbers.
The Africans also brought with them value systems that did not easily fit in with China's political environment.
Many were deeply religious, founding underground Christian churches, which sometimes attracted Chinese congregations -- a deeply contentious practice in a country where proselytizing by foreigners is illegal. As Beijing clamped down on non-state sanctioned religion in recent years, their house churches were raided and shut down by local police.
The Denfeng area of Guangzhou, in which Little Africa is located, has seen an increased police presence in recent years.
Africans from Muslim nations also continued to practice Islam, a religion Guangzhou has a long connection with, being home to China's oldest mosque. Guangzhou attracted communities of Hui and Uyghurs, Muslim minorities in China, who began serving halal food to the African incomers, as did a range of Middle Eastern eateries. But in recent years, as hostility to Islamic populations increased across China in the wake of the crackdown on Islam in the country's western region of Xinjiang, Africans have reported that restaurants serving halal food began to remove Arabic writing from their menus and signage.
Africans also formed small democracies within their own communities, voting for a head of each nation within Guangzhou, to lobby on their behalf with the local authorities on matters such as visas. Permanent residency for foreigners is extremely rare in China, and most African parents live in a status of constantly renewing one-year visas.
A Chinese woman in Guangzhou with her baby in 2016.
Those who cannot secure these often simply overstayed, creating an underground population of illegal African migrants in the city. A leaked WikiLeaks cable from 2008 revealed the central government was concerned by this, and had quietly funded research into the African community's impact on crime, underground religion and missed tax revenue.
In 2011, the provincial authorities clamped down on overstayers, offering rewards to Chinese who turned them in, and making it illegal for employers, hoteliers or educational institutes to serve them.