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A trade hub, and a cultural bridge as well

Updated: 2013-01-25 11:57
By Adams Bodomo ( China Daily)

A trade hub, and a cultural bridge as well

The city of Yiwu is doing its bit in drawing China and Africa together

As China and Africa have drawn more closely to one another over the past 12 years, an increasing number of Chinese have visited and settled in the continent. At the same time, more and more Africans have visited and settled in China. I reckon that there are now about 2 million Chinese in Africa and 500,000 Africans in China.

Yiwu in Zhejiang province is the city with one of the largest concentrations of Africans in China, indeed the second-largest after Guangzhou. I estimate that about 30,000 Africans are either settled in Yiwu or spend three months there at any one time. These are mainly traders who take advantage of the availability of supplies in China's largest commodities market, located in the city. Some of these traders have graduated to become shipping bosses and factory owners.

Who are these Africans, why did they choose Yiwu, how are they received by the locals, and how do they contribute to the promotion of Africa-China relations?

Africans in Yiwu come from most of the 54 countries in Africa, but there is a preponderance of people from the Maghreb (that is North African countries such as Egypt, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco) than from the rest of Africa. The vast majority of Maghrebans are Muslims.

Yiwu is a particularly convenient location for Muslims because of the presence of an important Islamic Chinese community and infrastructure. For instance, there is a large Chinese Muslim community made up mostly of people from Xinjiang.

Indeed, the largest mosque in China is located in Yiwu. But Yiwu is chosen not only for religious reasons but for business reasons as well. Not only is the commodities market the largest in China, but indeed in the world. So it is easy to buy goods made in most parts of China there.

How are Africans received in Yiwu? In a world in which migration becomes ever more prevalent, leading to the formation of important diasporas, migrant-indigene relations are often a topic of media reports and discussions, especially when these relations are seen to be anything but cordial. Such is the case with Africans in China. There are cases of conflicts between Africans and Chinese institutions, especially the police and other security authorities. This is particularly the case with Africans in Guangzhou, who have often been at loggerheads with authorities, mainly over alleged irregularities with visas and residence permits.

However, the situation in Yiwu is markedly different from that in Guangzhou. There is, on the whole, a more harmonious relationship between Africans there and their Chinese hosts than in most parts of China. African communities in Yiwu, on the whole, enjoy cordial relations with the local authorities, and they are often consulted about how to improve their conditions and how they can, in turn, help run Yiwu as an international business city. For example, Yiwu was a pioneer among Chinese cities in inviting Africans and other foreigners living in the city to a political consultative meeting.

More specifically, in February 2011, a prominent Ghanaian businessman and factory owner in the city and eight other foreigners living there were invited to the 5th Session of the 13th Yiwu Municipal People's Congress.

What roles do Africans in Yiwu play in promoting Africa-China relations? As I argue in Africans in China (Cambria Press, 2012), a book on the emerging African diaspora in China, Africans in Yiwu and other parts of China act as a bridge that connects Africa to China politically, economically and culturally.

Africans in Yiwu use their experience in the city to inform the Chinese authorities about how to run the municipality, and the Africans are a valuable source of information for Yiwu authorities in understanding the socio-political priorities of African governments.

Economically, Africans in Yiwu constitute a key mediation platform between newly arrived African business people and Chinese suppliers in the markets and factories of Yiwu. Chinese business people can obtain valuable information from Africans in the city on the types of goods to export to Africa.

Africans in Yiwu are also a cultural bridge that mediates Africa-China cross-cultural relations. Chinese in Yiwu have the opportunity of experiencing African culture first hand, such as eating African food in the African and West Asian restaurants dotted throughout the city, and Africans arriving in Yiwu get to understand Chinese language and culture (in particular, guanxi - the Chinese business culture of using personal, friendly connections to promote good business deals) through their compatriots already living in Yiwu.

Africa-China government-to-government relations have grown rapidly in recent years. But for relations to reach new and more meaningful heights, people-to-people relations need to blossom between ordinary Africans and ordinary Chinese. Africans in Yiwu are playing an important role in helping that happen.

The author, a Ghanaian, is director of African studies at the University of Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 01/25/2013 page7)

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