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“That is my sacrifice,” says the married father-of-two. “My wife cannot cook. My mother-in-law helps look after the children, and she is poisoning them against Africa. She’s an old woman, she knows the game she’s playing. There is crisis everywhere–terrorists were in Guangzhou last week–it is a sin to make my children scared of Nigeria.”|
Africans in Guangzhou fall into two groups: those with valid documentation and those whose visas have expired. For those who have overstayed, a Chinese wife is more than a business partner; she is key to survival.
Last August, a major police bust on an African-led drug ring turned life into a daily fight against deportation for overstayers. From dusk till dawn, police checked passports in Guangyuan Xi Lu, the Nigerian annex of Little Africa, where most of the city’s overstayers can be found.
“When Nigerians land at Baiyun Airport many throw away their passports,” Lin says. “They only get seven- to 30-day visas [less than most other Africans]–it’s not enough time to make their fortunes.”
Overstayers face a 12,000 yuan fine and must pay for their 6,000-yuan air ticket out of the country. Those with Chinese wives went underground while their spouses manned their businesses.
“During this period, Nigerians with Chinese wives survived better,” says Lin.
While the crackdown proved a Chinese wife’s worth, the loyalty displayed points to genuine devotion in Afro-Chinese romances.
Pastor I.G., of the Royal Victory Church, has a Chinese wife, and children. One Sunday I ask him, “Is it love or business?”
The Nigerian sighs. He feels “slighted” by repeated assumptions his eight-year marriage is economically motivated. He met Winnie, a native of Guangdong province, at church and the pair are united in their evangelic mission (“God knows it’s China’s time,” he says). Winnie, 34, is a pastor at the church’s 100-worshipper-strong Chinese arm while he leads the larger African congregation. Their tactile body language speaks volumes about their union.
Michelle Zhang Nan, 35, doesn’t fit the profile of a trader’s wife, either. When we meet at McDonald’s, she is dressed in an expensive A-line dress and kitten heels. Her three-year-old son, Calvin, trails behind as she carries a tray of Big Macs and milkshakes.
A university graduate whose parents are government officials, Zhang lives in Guangzhou but has a prized Beijing hukou and owns a phone-battery retail business.
“I liked the way he did business,” she says, of falling in love with her South African husband. “If I was married to a Chinese man, I could not be a strong woman like I am today. My husband is 11 years older and he teaches me.”
She notes that a Chinese man would benefit equally from taking an African wife, but that is unheard of in Guangzhou. As one bootylicious Liberian hairdresser, who works on the third floor of a tower block, says, “Chinese men aren’t manly, they aren’t sexual to us.” (East African prostitutes working in Little Africa, however, report that 50 per cent of their clients are Chinese men who “want to try it”, according to Matthews.)
But a Chinese wife cannot solve an African migrant’s biggest problem: his visa. Happy families can be swiftly torn apart if the PSB denies a continuation on an African husband’s temporary documents. The central government pointedly lacks an immigration department, meaning there is no framework for the assimilation of newlyweds such as Okonkwo.
Policy differs from province to province and, compared with those in other Chinese cities, the Guangdong authorities are notorious for their hostile and inconsistent attitude to African migrants.
Throughout the two months I conducted interviews, African husbands reported getting a variety of visas. Nigerian businessman Tony Ekkai–who has two Afro-Chinese children–has a “representative office” of his Hong Kong-registered business in Guangzhou, and therefore is entitled to a coveted one-year, multiple-entry business visa. His Nigerian friend Tony Michael, also married to a Chinese woman, with a two-month-old son, is despondently stuck on three-month visas. Six-month, single-entry visas are all Zhang’s husband has seen.
Many, like Ousagna, return to their wives’ provinces to renew their visas, to evade the capricious Guangzhou authorities. Others–such as Guinean trader Cellou, who has a one-year residence pass–say their country’s good political relationship with Beijing helps their visa applications. Guinea was the first sub-Saharan country to forge diplomatic ties with China, and Cellou, who studied business at the International Islamic University Malaysia, spots the glaring double standard: “If my [Chinese] wife stays in Guinea she can get a Guinea passport.”
African states–home to millions of Chinese, also often undocumented–are watching closely to see how their citizens are treated on mainland soil. After a 2012 crackdown in Beijing on African migrants, Nigerian immigration authorities immediately retaliated, arresting 45 Chinese traders in the northern city of Kano.
With so much at stake for Sino-African relations, Beijing is playing a cautious game.
Lan Shanshan, a research assistant professor at Baptist University, claims there is a media edict on the mainland to report favourably on Africans in China, hence the state-owned newspaper Guangming Daily’s three-part special titled “Friends From Africa, How are You Doing in Guangzhou?”, in 2012.
But a WikiLeaks cable from 2008 revealed that the central government is troubled by the phenomenon, and quietly funded covert research into Africans in Guangzhou, specifically their impact on crime, underground religion and missed tax revenue. The American diplomat who wrote the cable to Washington was not privy to the findings.
In 2011, the government dropped its poker face with the ground-breaking Guangdong Act, which offered rewards to Chinese who snitched on overstayers; made it illegal for employers, hoteliers or educational institutes to serve illegal migrants, and insisted they report all cases to the PSB or face a 10,000 yuan fine; and expanded police powers so that any officer, not just members of the foreign affairs department, could stop foreigners to verify passports.
Even those with valid visas were rattled. A Ugandan told Lan, “A visa is not a 100 per cent guarantee here. When police stop you, if you do not look like a pleasant person to them, they may draw the line on your visa and cancel it. They say, ‘China gives, China takes.’”
IN 2010, BODOMO PREDICTED that in 100 years’ time “an African-Chinese ethnic minority group could be demanding self-identity and full citizenship rights in the heart of Guangzhou”.
But that’s already happening.
Ojukwu Emmanuel, 42, is the man spearheading this campaign. A political heavyweight in Guangzhou, he is the elected head of the Nigerian community (each African nation has an informal community representative) and also goes by the ostentatious title of President of Africa in China.
Emmanuel came to Guangzhou in 1997. He has a Chinese wife, a four-year-old son and, in 2012, he formed the Nigerian-Chinese Family Forum, comprised of 200 mixed-race couples and their offspring. His team put together a dossier outlining the contributions to society made by Nigerians and presented it to the PSB, demanding longer and more lenient visas for those with families.
“A lot of people are having children now and we need to know their future,” he says.
Emmy Marc-Anthony, Emmanuel’s assistant and a former TV actor in Nigeria, says, “We are contributing to the economy, we are bringing money from our home countries and investing here, spending money, and give great jobs to local Chinese.”
The PSB listened to the appeal; perhaps it was fearful of unrest. In 2009, 200 Africans rioted after a Nigerian jumped to his death from a building to escape a passport check. That was the first time in many decades that foreigners had protested en masse in the mainland.
Marc-Anthony now has a three-year resident visa.
“Very soon I hope they will give us ID cards,” he says.
But for those not associated with the Nigerian-Chinese Family Forum–which is the vast majority of Africans in Guangzhou–things aren’t getting easier. Last year, the central government passed the draconian Exit-Entry Administration Law.
Africans who were hoping this highly anticipated law would open up China in terms of immigration and give husbands access to permanent resident status were sorely disappointed.
“In reality, rather than changing the rules of the game, the law marked a nationwide change in attitude,” says Robert Castillo, a PhD student in cultural studies at Lingnan University. “The Ministry of Public Security, it seems, is serious about controlling the presence of foreigners in the country.”
Before, Africans could renew their visas by crossing the border into Hong Kong or Macau; now they must return to their home nations to reapply.
“With such instability, Africans are forced to be living and renting in China but having savings and investments–i.e. housing–in Africa,” says Castillo. “The future of families with one foreign parent is precarious.”
Pastor Daniel Michael-Mbawike, who founded the Royal Victory Church after leaving Nigeria in 1994, was banned from the mainland for proselytising to the Chinese. Now heading the church from Hong Kong, he has seen families torn apart by the new law.
“The authorities are refusing or cancelling visas for no reason,” he says, “Brother Abu’s visa was suddenly cancelled. He has a wife and two kids but had to go back to Nigeria. Another two girls got engaged to Africans but the men are stuck in Nigeria and trying to get back for their wedding.”
Given such inhospitable conditions, 95 per cent of the Africans I interview say they want to leave, though no one has a time frame for their departure.
To add insult to injury, while Africans are denied Chinese citizenship, they are still subject to the one-child policy.
I.G. and Winnie have three children, Peace, aged eight, Joshua, six, and 1½-year-old Jeremia.
“After the second child they asked us to pay 30,000 yuan even though I’m a foreigner,” he says, with a what-can-you-do shrug.
At the time, the couple fought bitterly over whether or not to oblige.
The two eldest children are registered under their mother’s name and so have Chinese passports and hukou; Jeremia is tagged onto his father’s one-year visa. Unless the family can find another 30,000 yuan or the situation changes, he will not be able to freely attend local schools, will have less access to medical services and, come his 18th birthday, will enter the same visa quagmire his father has waded through for years.
But I.G. looks on the bright side.
“Maybe one day he will become a Chinese Obama,” he laughs.
Zhang also dreams big for Calvin.
“After middle school he will go to Beijing, where my hukou is, because it will be better for his college application,” she says. “I hope he studies hard and gets a very good job in Beijing.”
As Calvin rampages through McDonald’s, pulling trays off tables and trying to urinate into a plant pot, I hope he can live up to his mother’s expectations.
AT THE HUILING Integrated Kindergarten in Baiyun, Amina Magasaga arrives for lessons. The five-year-old, who has a Chinese mother and Malian father, loves Hello Kitty, speaks perfect Putonghua and is fluent in English.
Amina is not unusual at Huiling: her class of 30 includes Uygur Muslims, Chinese, children of African migrants and two other Afro-Chinese students.
Her teacher, Miss Ariel, herself a migrant from Harbin, says there have never been any Lou Jing-esque racist incidents at the kindergarten; these children have a new, multi-ethnic concept of being Chinese. But while integration at kindergarten level seems successful, the challenges facing Amina’s parents means this little girl’s future may not be in China.
As labour costs in China rise–making goods more expensive to export–and hostility to foreigners intensifies, dinnertime debates over whether to relocate to Africa are on the rise. It’s a decision that many couples have already taken. Ariel reports that in 2009, there were 27 African children in the kindergarten–more than a third of the total student population. Today that proportion has shrunk to about a sixth.
“Sadly, I’ve heard African men saying if the economy slows down, and business goes bad, they will have to leave, even if their families do not follow them,” says Castillo. “People without [options in China] are worried about the prospects of being forced to abandon their families.”
Undeniably, most African fathers, once they become rich, want to return home. But intractable problems in their birth nations–the terror wrought by Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Kenya, recurring droughts in Burkina Faso–mean that, for many, Africa will still have to wait. What their wives do when that time comes is another matter.
Guangzhou’s Afro-Chinese children–a living legacy of an economic dream–are still maturing: few are more than 10 years old. But when Amina’s generation reaches adulthood, they, too, will have to decide, just like their fathers before them, where their land of opportunity lies.