A South China Morning Post article, Jenni Marsh's "Afro-Chinese marriages boom in Guangzhou: but will it be 'til death do us part'?", published last year caught my attention. This article on the substantial African immigrant community in Guangzhou described how this community, and its descendants, were becoming embedded in the city. Ultimately stemming from the human connections made by China with West African countries during China's Maoist era of internationalism, economic migration has created a large and growing community.
"Chocolate City" OR "Little Africa", as it has been dubbed by the Chinese press, is a district of Guangzhou that is home to between 20,000 and 200,000, mostly male, African migrants (calculations vary wildly due to the itinerant nature of many traders and the thousands who overstay their visas).
Africans began pouring into China after the collapse of the Asian Tigers in 1997 prompted them to abandon outposts in Thailand and Indonesia. By exporting cheap Chinese goods back home, traders made a killing, and word spread fast. Guangzhou became a promised land.
It is easy to believe that every African nation is represented here, with the Nigerian, Malian and Guinean communities the most populous. But Little Africa is a misnomer; in the bustling 7km stretch from Sanyuanli to Baiyun, in northern Guangzhou, myriad ethnicities co-exist.
Uygurs serve freshly baked Xinjiang bread to Angolan women balancing shopping on their heads while Somalis in flowing Muslim robes haggle over mobile phones before exchanging currency with Malians in leather jackets, who buy lunch from Turks sizzling tilapia on street grills, and then order beer from the Korean waitress in the Africa Bar. Tucked away above a shop-lined trading corridor, the bar serves food that reminds Africans of home - egusi soup, jollof rice, fried chicken.
Whereas Chungking Mansions conceals Hong Kong's low-end trading community, in dilapidated Dengfeng village - Little Africa's central thoroughfare - the merchants, supplied by Chinese wholesalers, are highly visible. And it's in this melee of trade where most Afro-Chinese romances blossom.
I would also recommend this Al Jazeera photo essay.
I've blogged here before about immigration into China. In August 2010 I touched upon Russian immigration into China, as people migrated from the Russian Far East to a relatively more prosperous and dynamic Chinese northeast. In a 2011 post on Taiwan, I mentioned in passing the settlement of large numbers of Taiwanese in the Shanghai area. (I recommend one 2009 paper by Yen-Fen Tseng and another by Ping Lin looking at the phenomenon of Taiwanese migration to the Chinese mainland.) In passing while writing on Korea, I've mentioned here and here that many desperate North Korean female refugees have married Chinese farmers. Southeast Asian women seem to be following suit in southwestern China.
China has the potential to become a major destination for immigrants. China has become a global economic power, with interests and relationships worldwide, connections that can be capitalized upon by migrants if there are niches. With a China that is become increasingly rich, especially compared to much of the Third World, with an increasingly low birth rate and a soon-to-shrink working-age population, there are niches. These niches might well attract large numbers of migrants from relatively poorer countries, but they might also attract migrants from relatively richer countries. I mentioned Russia and Taiwan above, while South Koreans are also noteworthy. Looking to the experiences to date from Taiwan and Hong Kong with international migration, I would suggest that Southeast Asia might well become a source of migrants. Will the Philippines become a major source country? What of Thailand and Vietnam? What about an African continent that China is building more ties with? Et cetera.
What will the overall impact be on China's population dynamics? I honestly can't say. With on the order of 1.4 billion people living in China, it would take huge numbers of migrants--tens, if not hundreds of millions, of people--to create change on a large scale. Then again, change on smaller scale, on the level of a province or a metropolis, is also possible. It's arguably already starting to happen. Will this impact the international migration choices of Southeast Asians, if a migrant-accepting China is next door? Is China at all ready for this prospect?
How will the Chinese people and state react to these changes? Any number of outcomes is possible. It will be a privilege to see what will happen in the coming decades.