Why Is COVID-19 Intensifying The Exodus Of Africans From China?

By Amodani Gariba

Credit: https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

Following the earliest outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, most foreign nationals wanted an exit out of China for fear of the virus. Governments around the world arranged emergency flights to evacuate their citizens from Chinese cities. Despite popular African outcry for the evacuation of African nationals from China, African governments were hesitant in response. African governments feared that through evacuation, the virus could find its way into African countries. This fear was justified especially with Africa’s weak health infrastructure. These governments preferred Chinese handling of the situation to evacuation.

However, with no help from African governments, some of the African immigrants made their way out of China. This has been the case with many African migrants living in the Guangzhou district in the Guangdong province of China. It was reported that 70% of the African migrants living in Guangzhou, China’s ‘little Africa,’ have left their business behind. Before COVID-19, however, Guangzhou was already losing its African population. This article discusses how coronavirus may be intensifying the exodus of Africans in China.  

What attracts Africans immigrants to China?

We can broadly put African migrants in China into four groups: students, professionals, businesspersons, and low-skilled workers. The majority are students and low-skilled workers, often in the country illegally.

The ease of landing a scholarship to study in Chinese Universities makes the country a major destination for many African students dreaming of studying abroad. This reflects in the numbers. China gives out more scholarships to African Students than all western governments put together. According to the latest Global Education Monitoring Report, produced by UNESCO, China is ready to offer 12,000 scholarships to African students in the coming academic year, largely to study at Chinese universities. Some say this is part of Beijing’s BRI. Others say by giving this mammoth scholarship to African students, China is engaging in an image rectification scheme, designed to change the bad narrative about China in Africa, one student at a time.  

Businesspeople and low-skilled workers are there to capitalize on China’s economic boom. At the start of the century, China was rising as a manufacturing powerhouse. African business people and low-skilled workers flocked to China in search of new trade and work opportunities. Because China did not abide by copyright convention, the trade in fake goods was a money-spinner. Africans who dealt in these fake goods reported huge margins of profits since many on the continent did not know how to differentiate fake goods from original goods. According to Professor Adams Bodomo’s book ‘African in China’, by 2012, Guangzhou had an African population of more than 100,000. However, this changed with time and later began the slow exodus of Africans from China. With the coronavirus pandemic, this exodus has exacerbated. 

For African professionals seeking to work abroad, China is not much of a fancied destination. This group of Africans prefers working in Europe or North America to China.

Coronavirus is exacerbating the exodus of Africans from China

China’s eagerness to go global forced it to shed prevalent practices, such as reverse engineering and disregard for intellectual property rights of global brands, like Adidas, Levi’s etc., enforcing stiffer punishment for Chinese manufacturers. As a result, the production of counterfeit goods plummeted. African consumers also found out about the Chinese counterfeit goods in their markets, hence patronizing them for less than what they previously paid. Some Chinese producers undercut their African intermediaries by opening distribution outlets in African markets, often selling the goods for lesser prices than their African counterparts do. Stronger Chinese economy meant a stronger Yuan and rising workers’ wages. Prices of factory goods shot up. These shifts heralded the end of the African economic pilgrimages to China. From 100,000 Africans in 2012, the population of African migrants in Guangzhou has plummeted by about 90% to about 10,000 in 2019.  

As coronavirus leaves its marks on the once bubbling city of Guangzhou, its African population has further depleted. From about 10,000 in the period immediately preceding COVID-19, the African population in the city has seen a further drop by about 70%. Amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus infection, following a spike in imported COVID-19 cases, Guangzhou local authorities introduced new measures to contain the spread. These new measures were however condemned widely as discriminatory against Africans living in the city.  This controversial issue has heightened the perception of Chinese racism against Africans. This will inform the attitude of Africans on the continent towards Chinese migrants as well as discourage some African students from seeking scholarship in China.   

This might be the end for illegal African migrants dreaming of returning

Chinese government’s heavy reliance on digital technology in its response to the virus spells doom for illegal African migrants in the country.  The new normal would make life excruciatingly difficult for African ‘overstayers’ who before played hide and seek with Chinese authorities to prolong their stay in the country. They did so by hiding their passports, which made them untraceable when caught. Now, due to heavy surveillance, without a passport, a foreigner cannot acquire a legal abode, without which one cannot apply for Alipay health code. This system assigns colour codes to users, indicating their health status. One’s health status determines their access to public spaces like malls, restaurants, subways, and airports.

It is far-fetched to assume that this system of surveillance would still be in place post COVID-19. Once this happens, China may not be an attractive destination for illegal migrants who before made up a sizable number of the African community in Guangdong’s capital – Guangzhou.

Due to falling economic opportunities, African migrants were already exiting the country to come home or to seek greener pastures elsewhere. However, the pandemic, with its surrounding social issues is serving as a catalyst for this egress.

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