Dreams are fading in China for African traders like Mouhamadou Moustapha Dieng, who in 2003 was among the first wave of Africans to set up homes and companies in this port city and forge trading links between China and the African continent.
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Young African traders who want to follow in the footsteps of Dieng’s generation complain of difficulties getting visas, police crackdowns and prejudice, which come amid rising nationalism and slowing economic growth. Guangzhou is believed to have the largest African population in Asia, but many are leaving as long-time traders struggle against a slowdown in the Chinese economy and increased competition from Chinese traders and the internet.
“Now the trade is almost finished,” said Dieng, 54 and from Senegal. His profits are down 40 per cent from a decade ago. In the absence of a Senegalese consulate in the city, newly arrived 20-somethings on tourist visas head directly to his office for advice on how to do business in China. “They come with their bags, they sit down, they don’t
have anywhere to sleep, they don’t have money,” said the father-of-four. “Most of them, after 10, 15 days they go back.”
Over recent decades, Chinese companies and entrepreneurs have spread out across Africa building stadiums, roads and other large projects, cultivating land, running hotels and opening restaurants. Less well-known are the thousands of Africans who live in or regularly visit the southern trading port of Guangzhou, which neighbours Hong Kong.
Estimates of this population of residents and floating traders vary, and the police’s entry-exit administration declined to comment or offer data. The city’s vice mayor said in 2014 that there were approximately 16,000 Africans in Guangzhou, of which 4,000 were residents. Guangzhou’s population is 13.5 million.
The first African traders started arriving in Guangzhou in the late 1990s, attracted by its annual international trade fair, China’s economic boom and the ease of doing commerce in the city thanks to its wholesale markets, factories and low prices.
Guangzhou had benefited from being one of the first Chinese cities allowed to open up to business in the 1980s, giving it a head start in attracting exporters. Now that rosy picture has faded. Traders have to compete with online companies like Alibaba that allow customers to order from their offices rather than going to markets.
They also have more competition from Chinese, like Dieng’s former employee who started her own business targeting his clients after picking up the Senegalese language Wolof.