This is Guangzhou. A sprawling megacity of 13 million people in Guangdong Province, southeast China. It's near neighbor to the south, Shenzhen City has another 13 million. 18 miles from there is Hong Kong with 7 million more. This region is predicted to eventually form a virtually unbroken urban corridor that would absorb a total of 11 existing cities. If it were organized as a single municipality, the "Pearl River Delta Megacity" could have a population as high as 80 million people. A city this size seems unfathomable but the 21st century globalized economy has facilitated an unprecedented mass migration from all parts of the world to the planet's major urban areas.
Guangzhou, at the heart of the delta, perhaps offers a glimpse of what life might be like in the planet's future urban mega regions.
The level of industrialization and urbanization in the Pearl River Delta is already striking. Taking a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and simply looking out the window reveals very little remains of the natural world. This was the first part of the People's Republic of China (PRC) to reopen to the outside world after the isolationist decades of the Mao era. In 1978 an experiment in market capitalism began here in the Pearl River Delta. It was a huge success and the same economic reforms were eventually extended to the rest of the country. With this shift in policy from ideological to pragmatic, in 30 short years the perpetually struggling socialist state transformed into the world's second largest economy and a rising global superpower.
The land area that now constitutes the PRC is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world and Guangzhou has a long and rich mercantile history within it. It is today the third largest city here and a key international trading center. Much of the flow of manufactured goods from all over the country begin the journey to the far corners of the earth here in Guangzhou's wholesale markets. In the west, the city has historically been known as "Canton", a name extended to the entire region to distinguish Cantonese language and culture from the rest of the mainland. During the era of European expansion into Asia, Canton was the only Chinese city granted the imperial right to trade with the west. It consequently became China's key point of contact with the outside world and one the most important international trading centers of the day. It also became the flash point for several conflicts with foreign powers, the outcome of which shaped China's path through the 19th and 20th centuries. Present day Guangzhou continues this legacy but in a 21st century globalized context; an increasingly international and cosmopolitan city struggling to adapt long standing cultural and political norms to the new reality.
With the industrial success of the region, Guangzhou now one of the richest cities in China; alive with the activity of commerce and an entrepreneurial spirit thats unique on the mainland. It's the land of opportunity where anything is possible, not just for those well connected to the political elite but also for poor people arriving with nothing. This has made it a major destination for migrants in search of a better life; people not just from China's poor rural interior but from distant places with no historical or cultural connection to China.
Unexpected places like the countries of West and Central Africa.
During China's economic boom of the 1990's, buyers from all over the world in search of low cost goods began pouring into Guangzhou. The post-colonial, developing countries of Africa proved an ideal market for China's cheap, mass produced wares and since the 80's bilateral trade has increased 700%, making the China-Africa economic partnership one of the biggest in the world. As African traders spent more and more time in the city, many found better opportunities for them than in their home countries. Some built successful businesses and became wealthy, some opened restaurants, some married Chinese women and had kids. Despite the difficulty of emigrating to an authoritarian country with neither the need nor the desire for foreign migrants, some decided to call it home.
There are "officially" 16,000 people of African origin living in the city of Guangzhou. The umbrella term "African" is used but it includes citizens from many different countries including but not limited to Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola. This number is problematic as it comes from a Chinese government census done in reaction to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and to dispel public rumors there were several hundred thousand Africans residing in the city. This government has no history of transparency and no real reason to be honest so any information it provides should be treated skeptically. Most independent news outlets that have reported on this have reported a similar number, more or less 20,000 though some much higher, but because of the nearly half a million African business people flowing in and out of the city annually, the true number of long term residents within this transient population is nearly impossible to track. Some of these traders are on short trips, some will overstay their 30-day visa, some may end up staying for good but very few will obtain the legal residence permit. The population statistics are inconclusive but are also largely beside the point. What's most interesting is that for the first time ever there's a large, undocumented foreign community living on mainland China.
In this country's long history, it's never been a destination for foreign migrants. Quite the opposite, its people have long been leaving in successive waves and establishing Chinese communities literally all over the world. Guangzhou's "Africa Town" is the first and only community of its kind in the PRC and also the largest African community in all of Asia. Unauthorized, unintended, and unwanted; a consequence of China's expanded trade relationship with Africa. It's been a strange novelty both for the Chinese citizenry, historically unaccustomed to the presence of foreigners as well as for government authorities who've been at times laissez faire but also acted with xenophobia and discrimination. It's a brave new world for everyone in this story.
The city is thoroughly modern by international standards with a world class airport, extensive rapid transit system, and an impressive Central Business District that's a monument to the wealth flowing through here. Despite being founded in 200 BCE, it is essentially a new city as the construction boom didn't begin until the 90's. Because of the Pearl River Delta's massive industrial footprint, Guangzhou isn't just the region's business hub but also one of the most polluted places in China. The omnipresent dead gray haze in the air obscures the countless construction cranes littering the horizon. It's just an aspect of life here, and as I discovered, not unlike many other Chinese cities. Given the vast majority of people in this country have never left, they know nothing better. Many don't even realize how poisoned the air and water really is. This country is developing at unprecedented speed and the environmental price has been massive, the true long term consequences yet to be realized.
The 1.4 billion citizens of the PRC make it the most populous country in the world. Public spaces such as this pedestrian shopping street in Guangzhou as well as train stations, airports, and food courts offer a taste of the reality of life in an overpopulated country; the endless and overwhelming flow of people pushing past each other, going about their business in a million different directions; the dizzying cacophony that accompanies it. Asia's megacities are an experience unlike any other.
Guangzhou and other cities of its size require an efficient means of moving around millions of people and its ever expanding Metro is now as extensive as New York City's. This is an impressive fact considering construction didn't begin until 1995; another example of China accomplishing large, complicated infrastructure projects in a fraction of the time it would take in western countries.
China's growing middle class has taken to western style consumerism with great fervor. A good number of these people have the memory of the chaos, poverty, and hunger of the 60's and 70's so disposable income is a relatively new concept. Those looking to flaunt new found wealth have made China one of the biggest markets for luxury goods in the world. Rich cities like Guangzhou feature many outlandish shopping malls selling boutique brands at prices higher than in the west. Expensive consumer goods are a status symbol the world over but in China this seems especially true. Here, the Asian Culture of Face is perhaps strongest and one's social standing is of paramount importance. Luxury clothes and cars are a popular way to show everyone else that you're doing well in the New China.
Since 1978 the PRC has contradicted its founding ideology and evolved its own version of market socialism. These economic reforms are credited with lifting hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty. Despite this, the wealth disparity here today is one of the most striking in the world. In the densely populated cities, luxury skyscrapers ring decaying, poverty stricken slums. The contrast is extreme but by no means unique to China. Evidence of the growing gulf between those at the top and those at the bottom is an all too common feature across the developing world and arguably the developed world as well.
It's said that if China is the world's factory then Guangzhou is the showroom. The city pulses with the activity of people from all over the world buying and selling everything from pre-paid phone cards to exotic endangered animals. Even sidewalks become impromptu markets and restaurants where traders haggle and make deals over a bowl of noodles. It gives the city a fun and lively atmosphere that's a far cry from the menacing seriousness of Beijing and the weird sterility of Shanghai.
Refurbishing and reselling used cell phones is a key businesses in Guangzhou. When a phone is stolen or even returned to a US or European carrier for an upgrade, it will perhaps eventually end up at the Shengxian Dashatou Secondhand Market, one of the biggest sources for wholesale refurbished electronics in the world. As much of Africa lacks the infrastructure for landlines as well as the money for new devices, it's the biggest market for secondhand cellphones in the world. Many of the Africans now residing in the city first came on purchasing runs, packing as many used phones as can fit in two suitcases to resell back home. This business is a big part of the Africa-China connection but change the word "cell phone" to "T shirts", "textiles", or "auto parts" and this is the story of Guangzhou's foreign traders. Not just from Africa but from the Middle East and other places in the developing world; there's a great deal of money changing hands here and men are drawn far from their homes hoping to get a piece of it.
Traders in the city on both short trips and longer stays typically live in the Yuexiu District near Xiaobei Road. Before the arrival of the Africans, this part of Guangzhou was home to muslim migrants, Hui and Uyghur peoples, from China's western provinces. As the neighborhood already had a decidedly ethnic vibe and plenty of halal restaurants, it was a natural place for the newcomers to settle. Today it's the most ethnically and culturally diverse part of the city, if not all of mainland China.
Guangzhou is a tangled maze of elevated roads and transportation infrastructure. Near the Xiaobei Metro stop is Baohan Straight Street, the heart of "Africa Town". The pedestrian bridges leading into the neighborhood are their own microcosm of commercial activity and a telling cross section of the city's increasing diversity.
While China's immigration policies have made it difficult for Africans to acquire the residence permit, some well established business men have successfully brought their families over and there's now a sizable number of young people growing up here and studying in Guangzhou's schools. In addition are children from mixed marriages born here with full Chinese citizenship, creating a completely new paradigm for the PRC's categorically rigid system of ethnic classification.
A cohort of single men coming and going on business doesn't make for a solid and lasting community. However the addition of spouses and families, establishing businesses, houses of worship, and community organizations indicate a group with no intention of leaving. A real community like this grows organically over time and despite the lack of approval by the Chinese authorities, it has happened in Guangzhou.
Government propaganda is easily identified by a bold, red typeface on a bright blue background. These socialist slogans are found all over the country, reminding citizens of the virtues of the state and their civic duties. This sign near Baohan Straight Street espouses the "ethnic harmony" of the PRC, depicting the country's 55 recognized ethnic groups standing together. The "Harmonious Society" is an ancient Confucian ideal still held deeply here and one continuously exploited by the ruling Communist Party. However to accept this notion, one must first completely disregard the separatist movements in the western provinces, suicide bombings in Xinjiang, and buddhist monks self immolating in Tibet. This government has been extremely effective at controlling the flow of information and ensuring that their version is what's widely regarded as the truth. While the Han Chinese make up the overwhelming majority, non-Han people together number over 200 million; a sizable population but in the context of China, just a drop in the bucket.
"Africa Town" is Baohan Straight Street and it's a place unlike anything I've seen in China or anywhere really. It's like a giant scoop was dragged across the entire third world and dumped out here. It's poor, it's raw, and it's real. People not just from Africa but from all over China and all over the world pack the streets buying, selling, haggling, cooking, and eating. Because of the rather precarious existence of this place within the PRC, there's a palpable feeling of distrust in the air. A sense that many of those milling around don't wish to be seen or discovered.
Hui people, Mandarin speaking muslims who trace their ancestry back to Silk Road traders, were on Baohan Street first and today run many of its restaurants and businesses. China's ethnic minorities have a complicated status that varies wildly from group to group. Most are "free" to live by their own culture and use their own language though this essentially excludes them from mainstream Chinese society. Religion is discouraged in the officially atheist PRC but it can be practiced in heavily monitored, state sanctioned houses of worship; religious festivals and observances must be approved in advance. Some minority groups are not subject to the unpopular One-child Policy so are allowed large families that only the wealthiest and most politically connected Han people can have. This has led to a somewhat factionalized society with groups largely sticking to their own regions and their own communities. Anything outside the mainstream makes the Communist Party of China very nervous; particularly religious and ethnic identities. Cultural and political norms such as these have made the African's situation here all the more difficult. This is not a country where outsiders can seamlessly integrate.
Muslim Uyghurs from China's far western Xinjiang Province have also made a home in the district. Xinjiang, or East Turkestan to the indigenous Uyghurs, is one of the county's most troubled regions. Ethnically Turkic, they have more cultural and historical connection to their Central Asian neighbors than to their Chinese countrymen. This has created a strong nationalist sentiment in which many refuse to participate in any aspect of Chinese society; using only their own language and pushing back against efforts to suppress their religion and cultural identity, sometimes with violence. It remains a remote and isolated island within the PRC and the Xinjiang Conflict has "officially" claimed 2500 lives since the 1980's.
On Baohan Straight Street, Uyghur men teach their boys how to butcher a sheep in the middle of a city of 13 million.
Some of Guangzhou's African residents find cheap housing in the "Urban Villages" scattered throughout the Yuexiu District like Sanyuanli seen here. These impossibly dense neighborhoods are a unique result of China's out of control, unplanned development. As the economy began booming in the 90's, urban areas blindly expanded in every direction and once isolated rural villages gradually found themselves completely surrounded by city. Never properly integrated, these clusters of low slung huts were transformed into senseless mazes of precarious multi-story structures built so densely that remaining accessways are sometimes only a few feet wide.
The sun can barely reach the ground in some places making Sanyuanli damp and dark year round. Beyond the lack of fresh air and sunlight, some of these Urban Villages have the other problems typical of high density housing like inadequate infrastructure and sanitation, drugs, crime, and prostitution. Despite this seemingly low quality of life, they provide vitally needed affordable housing for China's estimated 140 million transients, migrants from the rural interior who float from city to city in search of work.
Many men of Guangzhou's African community are on expired visas so the fear of deportation is very real. Some stay off the streets during the day, coming out at night when a run in with the authorities is less likely. Because of their unpredictable situation, there's a great deal of distrust in this community towards outsiders. I had a very hard time getting anyone to speak candidly with me and for good reason. Eventually after eating in the same restaurant every day I was able to meet a people willing to talk but only under the condition of anonymity. Had I been able to stay longer, in time they may have opened up the fullness of their world here; the underground churches, bars, and social clubs.
This unique community's long term future in the People's Republic of China is uncertain. The country's draconian immigration policies are more concerned with managing its own population of 140 million internal migrants than foreigners seeking the right to live and work in the country. With economic success comes internationalization and there are now "officially" 600,000 foreigners residing legally. This is the smallest percentage of foreign residents for any country in the world. Preference is given to the business class so it's difficult for those without professional credentials to obtain it. This is evident in the expat communities of Beijing and Shanghai; comprised mostly of people who will stay in the country for a few years on business, diplomacy, or education and are not likely to stay for good. As most are lacking educational degrees or a professional track record, those in Guangzhou's African community wishing to reside long term usually do so illegally.
Because of their legal status, the community has been subject to discrimination, random passport checks, deportations, and occasional clashes with the police. In 2012 a Nigerian man died in police custody after being detained over a taxi fare dispute. This resulted in hundreds of Africans assembling in confrontation at the public security office. In a country that does not tolerate public protest or dissent, incidents like this have resulted in significant racial tension here. It's not an easy life but for many, there are better economic opportunities in China than in their home countries. There's little incentive to leave.
In African business hubs like the Shengxian Cell Phone Market, the reality of their life here is evident in reminders that they have no rights and can be detained at any time, for any reason.
"Aliens can't work in China without residence permit", "Aliens over the age of 16 are subject to passport check", etc.
At the same time Africans are living in China without rights, there are now supposedly one million Chinese nationals living and working on the African continent. The extraction of Africa's rich natural resources has been awarded to Chinese state companies in exchange for the construction of badly needed infrastructure. The irony is that just like during Africa's European colonial era, infrastructure wasn't built for the benefit of the native people but to move resources out of the country. Even the work constructing these large projects hasn't been done using the large and available pool of local labor but instead with hundreds of thousands of workers imported from China. Country to country, the African people appear to be benefiting very little from these imbalanced agreements.
Are China's activities in Africa the goodwill of a rising superpower looking to strengthen its ties abroad or is it economic neocolonialism where an overpopulated and environmentally devastated country is building its future home? This is a very controversial topic with compelling arguments for both points of view.
As a research aid, I'm indebted to the amazing blog, Africans in China, written by Roberto Castillo, a cultural studies scholar who spent many years in Guangzhou researching this topic. I was hoping to link up with him while I was there but we just missed each other. Of all the fascinating things I encountered in Asia, this really piqued my interest. After learning of its existence, I backtracked hundreds of miles to Guangzhou in order to research and photograph China's "Africa Town". There's so much more to this than what I've been able to present here, the other side being the situation of the Chinese living in Africa. This is a remarkable story waiting to be told properly. A near perfect case study on globalization and the unexpected consequences of disparate societies colliding and becoming intertwined.