China has been the biggest trade partner of Africa and the trade volume exceeded $110 billion in 2010[i]. Besides the purchase of oil and minerals done by Chinese government, a lot of Chinese goods also flew into local markets in Africa. We often see western media blaming on the negative economic impact of these low quality Chinese goods on the local markets in Africa. 

But pay attention to the assumption of this argument: because the goods are made in China, the goods must be brought to Africa by Chinese merchants or Chinese government.

Is this assumption true?

Guangzhou's African Community

One of the biggest cities in China, Guangzhou locates at the southern coast of China, near Hong Kong and Macau. People here are crazy about eating. They like to go for "morning tea", which looks like a brunch. Everyone orders a pot of tea and countless delicious steamed food. Old people usually sit here for a whole morning, chatting with each other while refilling their teapot endlessly.

Not known by many outsiders, also in this city, more than 100,000 Africans work and live here[ii]. Many are undocumented immigrants. Most of them come and purchase Chinese goods in large quantity from the manufacturers all over China, and ultimately ship the goods back to their motherland. Within a whole week, I spent my days and nights with these Africans, trying to figure out what is happening since the wind of globalization blew into this part of China.

Guangzhou people gave the African community a distinctive name--"Chocolate City", directly referring to the skin color of these residents. This community is around the Xiaobei Station area, an extremely crowded trade center of many Chinese commodities--wigs, electronic products, apparels, shoes and many others. More than a dozen of specialized market buildings are here. Each is several stories tall and as wide as a U.S. high school building. Africans can be found everywhere, walking on the street, trading with others inside the buildings or chatting in Chinese and Middle-East restaurants.

This is my first impression of the Chocolate City.

Inside a Market Building

Every specialized market building looks messy. In an apparel market, the ground was covered with trash and wrapping tapes. Loud music was played--sometimes African highlife music, sometimes African American raps, and sometimes Chinese love songs. Shops and shops are so close to each other, making it hard to walk through the corridor. Jeans, shirts, suits, ties, bags, shoes, perfumes and flags were hung on the wall outside of each shop. Buyers come from all over the world, mainly from Africa, Middle East and other regions in China. There were, however, not many buyers in the market today. Shop owners were chatting to each other, no matter what nation the other comes from.

Nigerian shop owners on the ground floor

Most of the Africans here were nice to me. They grabbed my hand and asked me to sit. They praised that I appeared to be nicer than many Chinese they encountered. To them, a lot of Chinese merchants were wicked and wanted to cheat them. They also complained to me that business was uneasy. The immigration regulation was tough, dollar is getting weak, and sometimes police will disturb them. Also, all the African shop owners do not really own their shops because foreigners are not allowed to do so. They actually rented the shops from Chinese.

What is more, not every African is approachable. Some looked at me cautiously. I know many Africans in Guangzhou are illegal immigrants (I will explain this point in my later entries). They probably thought I was a Chinese police because Guangzhou police often raided the market without their uniform in order to make their inspection effective.

 African kid, Chinese kid, Chinese business owner, Chinese safeguard

Besides Africans, I also talked to more than ten Chinese shop owners. All of them said they like Africans. Increasing number of African merchants means more business opportunities. Plus, many of these Chinese business people are not from Guangzhou, but instead from central Chinese provinces like Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei. They are immigrants themselves, and thus they are more sympathetic to the foreign immigrants.

In this market I found Chinese shop owners made friends with many Africans within the region. A couple of them told me they had visited or planned to go to Africa as a result of the invitation from their African clients. More than that, I met at least five cases of interracial marriage, with one from China and the other from Africa. Usually the husband comes from Africa and the wife comes from a city other than Guangzhou. But there were exceptions. I also saw mix-blood babies walking around and playing with their African "uncles".

 A mix-blood child with her Chinese mom in the market

In all, Chinese-African Relationship within the Market looks good. I ended my day by eating African food at an African restaurant on the first floor of this apparel market. The owner is from Africa, and most of the customers are also Africans.

More Photos:

Exchange! Then Understand...

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From Google Maps: click to see the enlarged picture

What role does the academia in China play under the framework of China-Africa relationship?

The documentary team sent me to Zhejiang Normal University (ZNU) to find out what role academia plays in the relationship between China and Africa.

There are not many African Studies programs at Chinese universities, despite the long historical relationship between China and most African countries. After all, social science is not big in China, as the nation's main focus is economic development and innovation. There are only a handful of universities doing research in order to provide a theoretical base for China-Africa relationships. Among them, ZNU's Institute of African Studies is one of the more renowned.[i]

ZNU has always been playing an important role in China's African Policies. Its research and publications provide theoretical foundations to the policy makers. It was the first university that educated next-generation scholars in China-Africa studies. In addition, it was selected by the Ministry of Education as one of the institutions for "20+20 Cooperation Plan of Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Learning"[ii]. This plan was proposed at the 2009 FOCAC[iii] and established one-on-one cooperation of Twenty Chinese and twenty African universities. In 2010, the institute helped establish the Confucius Institute at the University of Yaoundé II in Yaoude, Cameroon. Teachers and volunteers are sent to Cameroon annually, to teach Chinese and facilitate cultural exchange [iv](For more information of China's global Confucius Institute, check this website[v]).

My Visit at the University

The university is located in a small town called Jinhua, four hours driving from Shanghai. The railway station is not very clean, and the roads are quite narrow. Since I had an email conversation with staff from institute, my visit was scheduled and ran quite smoothly. [vi]

I was fortunate to meet with Professor Liu Hongwu, the Director of the program, and a famous Chinese scholar in the field. He told me many surprising facts that is rarely caught by the Western media. For example, for over ten years, the university has trained over 400 African educators under the auspice of government funds. These African trainees ended up benefitting the educational system of their mother countries. In addition, the university welcomed many speakers, visitors and governmental officials coming from China, Africa and the West. Professor Liu's next ambition is to unite scholars from other universities in Zhejiang Province to do research in different fields under the single context of China-Africa Relations. Some examples include agriculture and the environment and so on. This ambition is very admirable, in my opinion.

In the afternoon, Prof. Zhou Haijin took me around the building. I visited the Institute's African Museum. It is currently the only university-based museum in China that is dedicated to showcasing African artifacts that reflect its rich culture and history.

Dr. Barry Sautman Was Also Visiting!

Photo from ZNU's website

During my visit, it was coincident that Dr. Barry Sautman[vii] and Dr. Yan Hairong[viii] came and presented at a seminar organized by the institute.[ix] These two scholars are famous in the field of China-Africa Relationship Studies. In fact, I cited their research on Chinese immigration into Ghana in my own Honors Thesis.

I was invited to be a part of the seminar as well. They talked about how Western Media has distorted the real facts regarding China's involvement in Africa. I found it very persuasive. I was also lucky enough to have a personal conversation with Dr. Sautman after the presentation. Dr. Sautman said I was the first Chinese student he has ever met, who has studied China-Africa relationship at a university in America.

Conversation with the Students

The university also arranged a meeting for me have conversation with one Chinese and two African students (one from Mozambique and the other from Ivory Coast), who are currently studying at the institute. Based on my interview record, I was able to get the answers to several questions, as follows:

Question 1: What made the African students come to China?

Answer: Opportunities. Chinese Embassies in various African countries provides scholarships to bring a number of African students to China for exchange. Chinese has become an increasingly important language, so the one who speaks Chinese can help build bridge for the government and the companies in their countries.

Question 2: What do they study?

Answer: China-Africa relationship, African culture and history, economic relationship, Hausa language and so on. Because the program is new, a few more courses will be offered next year.

Question 3: How was studying the subject like?

Answer: There is more need for theoretical studies on China-Africa relationship. But there is not enough data to develop theories at this time. Concrete examples are lacked, and data come from the Bureau of Commerce. They read papers from both western scholars and Chinese scholars. They realized the importance to compare the viewpoints from both sides.

Question 4: How do African students feel about the current China-Africa relationship?

Answer: Very good. Opportunities to deal with China are increasing. Many Africans are buying small commodities and making a lot of money in Guangzhou. But China's visa policy needs to be more friendly to Africans.

Question 5: Do Chinese students and African students get along with each other?

Answer: Pretty well. Cultural difference is large. They have little knowledge about each other at the beginning. But at least they play soccer together and chat about some common topics about life. African students also need to deal with other Africans from different cultural backgrounds.

What to Take Away From the Visit?

First, academia in China is becoming increasingly influential in Chinese governmental policy making process. For example, Professor Liu has suggested that China takes cultural cooperation into consideration when it makes agreement with African nations. His suggestion was adopted at the recent FOCAC meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Second, although China has made a great effort on the facilitation of educational exchange between Chinese and African universities and think tanks, Chinese universities are facing challenges yet to be solved. The government should provide more funds to support Chinese scholars to travel in Africa and do research.

Third, after all, cultural and educational exchange still seems to be unimportant compared to economic cooperation, because one can calculate the money but cannot calculate how much Chinese and Africans understand each other. However, exchange of scholars between Chinese and African universities is so important if both parties want to have better understanding of each other.

My footprint in Beijing

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From Google Maps: click to see the enlarged picture

Beijing is the second stop of this trip. As it is a capital city, many important agencies and scholars in the field of China-Africa relationship are here. In Beijing, our project's main purpose is to get connected with individuals and organizations that will provide help or network for our African trips.

Within this week, we visited the China-Africa Friendship Association. The association agreed to connect us with some of the award winners of "Ten Chinese Who Deeply Moved the African People"[i][ii].

I also managed to meet with a famous China-Africa issue scholar, Li Anshan, at Peking University.

The Confucius Institute headquartered in Beijing has agreed to connect us with their subsidiaries in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria.

The movie maker and I also met with an African restaurant owner in Beijing. He has been doing business in China for 22 years. The restaurant he operates is to provide a place for Africans in Beijing to social. I don't know how many Africans there are in Beijing.

During our stay, Barack Obama's half-brother--one of the Africans who made fortune and success in China--came to Beijing to promote his new book Nairobi to Shenzhen. Unfortunately, we didn't find where he was[iii][iv].

  The African's restaurant in Beijing--this is the first time I had Ghanaian fufu in another country!

It was during the 90th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party. Red is the theme color.

 The Forbidden City

International Yiwu

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From Google Maps: click to see the enlarged picture

The train left Shanghai, my hometown. The first stop of my trip is Yiwu--one of the most internationalized cities in China. Not many Chinese know about Yiwu, but if one asks people in the Middle East and Africa to name three Chinese cities, Yiwu is definitely one among them. A small county-level city under the jurisdiction of Jinhua, Zhejiang, Yiwu has become world's biggest wholesale market for international trading. [i]Countless of "make-in-China" goods were brought from their factories to the market, waiting to be shipped all over the world.


Exotic Street

Africans are visible in many markets and main streets in Yiwu. The first night I went to the city center. There is a famous place called "Exotic Street". In a single block, there are more than ten Arabic restaurants, many of which are operated by people from the Middle-East. Every night, a lot of Arabs and Africans gathered and sat outside of these restaurants, drinking Arabic coffee, smoke hookah and chatting about businesses. I can hardly feel I am in China, except seeing some Chinese-run shops around, which also provide services to Muslims.


 I ordered a Middle Eastern course at the Exotic Street. Most of the guests were not Chinese.

 I attempted to talk to some African people. Most of them didn't even speak English. They are from French or Arabic speaking African countries, such as Sudan, Niger and Congo. I didn't get to know anyone on the first night. On the second night, I finally sat down with agroup of Sudanese outside of an Arabic restaurant. They treated me with Arabic tea, and told me that they feel happy about the China-Africa relationship, which provided them with a lot of business opportunities. They also appreciated that China is building in Sudan. I asked if they feel unwelcomed in Yiwu, they said at in Yiwu, Chinese are respectful to foreigners.

Yiwu's city planners are wise. To maintain Yiwu's golden title as the biggest small commodities market in the world, they know how to make the foreign merchants happy.

Yiwu International Trade Center

Overlook of Yiwu International Trade Center

How can I describe how big the newly-built Yiwu International Trade Center is? It contains more than70, 000 shops and around 10 million products, and attracts around 150,000 visitors from all over the world into this hall each day. This grand exhibition dwarfed any other kinds I have ever encountered.[ii] provides a very good brief about this building, so I will not spend more time on commenting its size.

Adams Bodomo pointed out that Arab Africans and some Sub-Saharan Africans frequent the Yiwu International Trade Center[iii]. But at the center, I did not see a lot of Africans. Occasionally I could find several Africans stopped at one shop and negotiated price using a calculator. And no one was willing to talk to me. I walked around and around but my hit was still zero.

I thought there may be three reasons of my unluckiness:

(1)   Africans are the buyers of the commodities--they come and go, and thus are hard to locate;

(2)   Most of them are busy doing business, and there is no time for many of them to chat with a student about their life

(3)   Many of the Africans come and go within one week. They don't have much to talk about dealing with Chinese, but they are merely buyers who use calculators and body language to acquire cheap commodities from Chinese counterparts.

 It's the National AAAA Tourist Shopping Scenic Area! What a title!

A very small part of the center

Trade Companies?

On the third day, I became a little more creative. I know there are Ghanaians and Nigerians in resident. So besides going to the market, they are likely to have their import & export companies. I started to look around the office buildings near the small commodities city.

I pulled out a seemingly updated foreign company list from Yiwu Municipal Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau. Finally, I found there are Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian companies and their addresses! They all located in different places, or were even hidden in resident neighborhoods.

It took me a whole day to visit these companies from one another according to my list. Again, no fortune! None of these companies were still there! I couldn't believe all these African companies moved to other locations within one year. But no matter what, my attempt was pretty futile.

Money? Money!

Hereby, I concluded my trip, with barren result. I want to end my article with two stories.

At the International Trade City, I asked a Chinese wholesaler whether I could talk to him about the Africans here. He gave me a tiring look, and said he didn't want to talk to "strangers". "But you deal with strangers every day," I was confused. He said without giving me a glance, "They are customers; you are stranger. I don't talk to strangers". And then he turned away his head and refused to respond.

Here is another example: while I was searching for companies run by Africans at an office building, I went to the management office, hoping to find out if there are African companies here. "What are you doing here?" The administrative guy yelled at me, thinking I am a solicitor. I told him what I am doing. "We don't give the list of companies out," he raised his voice with an unhappy tone, "even if we have, we won't give leave!" Then he basically told another younger staff to send me out of the office.

In this city full of business opportunities, people follow the call of prosperity. To most of them, including the Africans, dealing with academic studies is merely a waste of time. Dealing with buyers and sellers every day, people are also so cautious of strangers as well. At least, I feel a little disappointed about how fruitless my research is. But I also learned something new, which is--instead of telling people that I am doing research, I should tell them I am going to Africa to do business and want to consult with Africans who are doing business here. And later on I found this was quite useful!


Photo from:


The establishment of Africa-China Young Leaders Forum in Windhoek, Namibia is a result of China's top legislative leader, Wu Bangguo's tour in three African countries in May, 2011. It reflects the will and the expectation of continuing the heating cooperation between China and various African nations in the new millennium. But have the young leaders of both sides realized many true stories occurred beyond billions of dollars of bilateral deals, and been ready to handle them?

In recent years, Chinese high-level leaders frequently visited Africa in order to deepen the strategic partnership between China and various African nations. On May 24, 2011, Wu Bangguo, second in command of China's Communist Party and China's top legislator, started his two-week visit in four African and Asian countries--Namibia, Angola, South Africa, and Maldives.

In Namibia, the first Africa-China Young Leaders Forum was hosted in Windhoek. During the two-day forum, 180 young delegates (60 from China and 120 from various African countries) discussed on a broad range of topics regarding China-Africa relationship, such as its historical roots, its context, the trade and investment relations, and the role of media in shaping the relations. The forum was concluded by reaching the Windhoek Declaration, calling on young leaders in Africa and China to take their responsibilities in national development and China-Africa cooperation.[i]

It was not surprising that the youth forum was merely reproduction of governmental talks, as it feeds into the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Established in 2000, FOCAC focuses only on China-Africa trade and economic cooperation, without much emphasis on people-to-people exchange.[ii] I did a quick web search in Chinese on, which is the biggest Chinese searching engine in the world. I did not find any online application for the participation in the forum. Very likely, the 60 Chinese young leaders were appointed by the Chinese government to properly represent China's position on Africa.

Then the question is: to what extent do these young delegates and leaders represent the actual China-Africa "interaction"? A recent article from Xiao Yuhua argues that "contemporary Sino-African relationship lacks adequate civil society role." Media likes to highlight decorated government-to-government interaction between China and African nations and overlooks the importance of the involvement of NGOs, Chinese SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) and other civil society players.[iii]

In addition, the majority of Chinese people living and working in Africa have nothing to do with Chinese governmental regulation of bilateral trade policy. Many past studies (including my field work in Ghana) have revealed that the majority of the small and medium enterprises run businesses on their own, with very little connection to the Chinese government and Chinese embassies at the host countries. However, the activities of these Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs have caused tremendous impact on the local communities, such as employment conflicts, influence on the local markets and producers, and on corrupted African governmental officials dealing with cultural conflicts. These influences have been perceived by African people as what "China" has done, not what "individual Chinese" have done. And currently what the Chinese government can do is only to call on the Chinese corporations to abide by local laws and be responsible to the local civil society.[iv]

If the government-led Africa-China Young Leaders Forum only continues the conversation of trade and economics, problems associated with Chinese immigrants might not be discussed. The discontent of African merchants over Chinese goods and Chinese merchants might not be discussed. Illegal entry of Chinese people into African nations might not be discussed. It is then hardly for the forum to generate meaningful solutions for the issues common Chinese and Africans encounter in daily interactions.

Then how this forum may make reality of the hope that "Africa-China relationship is a win-win forever"?[v]

A Conversation on China in Cameroon

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Recently I chatted with a Cameroonian visiting scholar at Penn State. His research field does not do with China in Africa. But his perspective on Chinese involvement in Cameroon represents the view of the intellectual class.

He mentions that both he and his colleagues in a university at Cameroon held a very negative position on the Chinese people in their country. According to him, Chinese reputation in Cameroon is considered as bad. In 1995 several Chinese scholars came to University of Yaounde with low quality research equipment that expired in short period of time. Some Cameroonian merchants also imported Chinese laptops. These laptops were in low quality and quickly lost their market in Cameroon. Also, Chinese people are unwilling to participate in activities in the local community, which was seen as impolite and mysterious by the locals. The accumulative effects of these incidents have increased mistrust of Chinese in the Cameroonian society.

The professor thinks Chinese are no different from Europeans because they bring their own labor to the construction camps. The professor believed Chinese didn't hire any Cameroonian to work for the new Olympic stadium and thus no knowledge was transferred to Africans. At the same time, Chinese used these projects in exchange of resources. He also mentioned China purchased a lot of land from the Cameroonian government to grow rice and export back to China. People criticized that the Africans living around these farms benefit nothing from the rice Chinese grow, and have to import rice from Thailand. Many of them are starving.  

When I asked how Cameroon has benefited from China's help with infrastructure building, he disagreed China really helped Africa with development. Rather, China won many bids because of low price, and they were merely business deals. Besides responding to the cheap price Chinese firms have offered, the government was in favor of China to show their discontent towards the Europeans. "The current way China deals with Cameroon will make China lose support by the government in 50 years," he pointed out, and also mentioned the Indians will bring more hope to the continent because they welcome diversity in their projects and workforce.

Though it seems the civil society in Cameroon does not prefer China's appearance in Africa, the Chinese government and the Cameroonian counterpart apparently enjoy their collaborations. In January, 2011, the Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu visited Cameroon and talked with the Cameroon Prime Minister Philemon Yang. Both leaders promised to progress further in terms of improving bilateral ties[i]. In April, 2011, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said China would like to promote military relations with Cameroon at all levels and in a wider range[ii]. Just recently, in May, 2011, the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of China has provided a loan of $542 million loan to fund for the construction of the Memve'ele Hydro electricity Dam (201 MW) over River Ntem in the South Region of Cameroon[iii]. 

Yet the meaning and the value of these bilateral talks were never passed to the civil society. The Cameroon government doesn't tell its people why dealing with Chinese will lead the country to better off. However, everyone in Africa has seen or experienced the wounds and scars caused by the Chinese.  I believe Chinese in Cameroon are definitely not as evil as the Cameroonian professor described, but certainly no Cameroon civilian has realized the good thing Chinese has done, even if China tirelessly emphasized their relationship with any African country was based on mutual respect. It is likely that there is a huge knowledge gap regarding the Chinese people between the civil society and the government in Cameroon.  




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