Postcards from the HNC: Guangzhou Edition

By Audrey Fritz

December 19, 2019

Tianhe District, Guangzhou
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig 

NANJING, China — Over the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) Fall Break, international and Chinese students in Professor Thomas Simon’s course ‘Injustices, Discrimination, and Identity’ travelled to Guangzhou to conduct field research on discrimination towards Africans living in Guangzhou. As a unique city that has attracted the largest African population in China, there is ample opportunity to explore the limitations of Chinese embracement of multiculturalism. In search of an answer to whether or not Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis (under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact can reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members) could be applied in Guangzhou between the Chinese and African populations, students set off for southern China to conduct research.

View of the Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig

While in Guangzhou, students conducted interviews based on their research topics, which covered discrimination, religion, business, gender and marriage. Students primarily focused their research in Xiaobei and Sanyuanli, neighborhoods located within the Yuexiu and Baiyun districts, respectively. Xiaobei became known as “Little Africa” in the 2000s after African business people began streaming into Guangzhou following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. The influx of African business people was so great that by 2009, the local media stated that the city’s African population was as high as 100,000. Students, however, quickly discovered through interviews that the city’s African population has been in rapid decline.

Guangdong Museum, Guangzhou 
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig

What is the instigator causing this decline of the African population in Guangzhou? Students discovered that while there are many factors causing this decrease, the primary reason is due to discrimination that Africans face living in Guangzhou, whether perpetuated through central government policies or through Chinese societal prejudices. One example of such prejudice is that Xiaobei and Sanyuanli, areas dominated by the African population in Guangzhou, are both perceived as dirty and dangerous. Didi (a Chinese version of Uber) drivers would explain that Guangzhou is a very safe city, with the exception of Xiaobei, where they recommended women not go alone and where they said  has an increased police presence. 

Additionally, there is a commonly held perception that most Africans in Guangzhou live illegally on overextended visas. This stereotype can likely be attributed to the “anti-sanfei” campaigns that took place in Guangzhou following the new exit-entry laws implemented in 2013. Sanfei can be translated as “triple illegal,” referring to foreigners who enter, stay and work in China illegally. These anti-sanfei campaigns became racially targeted, however, as pressure from high-level officials to ‘produce results’ at the local level primarily targeted streets in Xiaobei. 

Through conversations with African business people and local Chinese in Guangzhou, students observed the apparent prejudice and realized the stark divide between Africans and Chinese in Guangzhou — despite the relatively large population of Africans in Guangzhou, there is barely any integration between the two communities. 

One of the Chinese students at the HNC, Sha Yingmo, reflected upon her time spent researching in Guangzhou, saying that “sometimes I do feel that I am so far away from people in Guangzhou, compared to people in many other Chinese cities who are very hospitable and easy to get along with.”  

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Guangzhou
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig

Experiencing this coexistence, or lack thereof, demonstrated that although there has been an emphasis on the relationship between China and Africa from the central-government level, it has failed to trickle down to the local level. While the central government emphasizes China-Africa relations on a global level, the Chinese government’s domestic policies, such as the crackdown and harshened visa regulations in Guangzhou, have contributed to the growing divide and discrimination towards Africans. Despite these stricter government regulations, one of the international students at the HNC, Brandy Darling, who researched perceptions of interracial children in Guangzhou, believes that “interracial children are the future of increased positive relations between Chinese and African communities.”