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To the West, China’s charge into Africa resembles a juggernaut driven by rapacious greed. Less noticed, however, is the flow of African entrepreneurs to China. Guangzhou, a city known to British colonisers as Canton, is already home to about 10,000 Africans, according to researchers in Hong Kong. And in 2006 more than 20,000 Chinese visas were issued to Nigerians alone, triple the number given annually before 2003, according to a recent report. Some visitors may stay only a few months, long enough to fill a container of Chinese-made goods to ship to Africa, but others find work in Chinese-run export firms, or start their own trading businesses.

The 30-storey Tianxiu Building is the logistical hub of Guangzhou’s thriving African trade. It glows a sickly pink in the hazy morning sunshine but already among the crowds you see a handful of tall African businessmen in freshly laundered shirts heading towards Tianxiu’s ground-floor cafés. By midday, their numbers have swollen and the district heaves to the rhythms of bargaining, inspecting, cajoling. On Fridays, the city’s Huaisheng mosque – one of the oldest in China – throngs with hundreds of African and Arabic worshippers.

Come night and the dealmakers are still glued to their mobile phones, taking orders from Dakar and Abidjan. Shipping offices, beauty salons and travel agents stay open till 23.00, and cafés are still open at 02.00. This is a corner of the Middle Kingdom that runs on African time. “You step inside here, and you’re in Africa. The people are dressed like Africans, everyone is acting like they’re in Africa. Then you step outside and you’re in China,” says Isidore Nkenzo, 23, a sales agent from Brazzaville.

In the 1970s and 1980s, African businessmen opened offices in trading hubs such as Dubai, Bangkok and Hong Kong. In the 1990s, they began to shift to China, particularly after the country joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. “They realised they could cut out the middleman and go directly to the source. They started making trips to Guangzhou and other areas of China,” says Barry Sautman, a politics professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who is studying migration flows between Africa and China.

Educated, footloose Africans have long viewed Europe and the US as lands of opportunity and enrichment. Now there’s a new destination to try your luck. Call it the Chinese dream, a pugnacious, pragmatic cousin to the starry-eyed idealism of the American dream – and one that avoids the headaches of migrating to the West.

Guillaume Akochaye, 35, left his native Benin in 1995 to study at a university in Beijing on a Chinese government scholarship. Then, after completing a masters degree in agricultural science in Guangzhou, he went in to the export business. His company, Richland Trade, leases a warehouse where African traders can store and inspect their goods before passing them on to local shipping agents that Akochaye knows to be trustworthy. After seven years of double-digit growth, he’s a success story: a property owner newly married to a Chinese woman and with a four-month-old son. On his two mobile phones, Akochaye converses easily in French, English and Mandarin.

For Akochaye, China is a land of opportunity and sweat, where slackers fall by the wayside. “When you come to China, you come to work. If you don’t want to work – allez! Go back!” he growls. His goal is to open factories in Africa, reinvesting some of his Chinese capital. He plans to open a plastics recycling plant in Benin – estimated price-tag €40,000 – using Chinese machinery. “We have an opportunity now, and it’s China. Here we can find everything cheap,” he says.

Much has been made of China’s thirst for African mineral resources. But Africa seems equally eager for “made-in-China” goods. China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao forecast in December 2007 that trade between China and Africa would reach $100bn before 2010. Behind that trade are African importers who flock to cities such as Guangzhou to source manufactured goods to sell in family-owned shops. That often puts them in competition with Chinese migrants to Africa, who have been accused of undercutting African merchants.

While some African importers in Guangzhou also complain about cutthroat pricing at home by Chinese ­migrants, others argue that Africans have an edge in sourcing the right products for their markets. Sautman and his research partner Yan Hairong say that Africans are more than holding their own, particularly in the trade of electronics and machinery. “It’s often portrayed as a Chinese commercial invasion of Africa, whereas actually there are a lot more Africans participating [in trade] than we initially expected,” he says.

Other Chinese cities have growing African communities, including Beijing, where African students and diplomatic staff are prevalent. Traders also travel to Shanghai and Yiwu, a wholesale market city in eastern Zhejiang province. But it’s hard to match the commercial might of Guangzhou, the hub of the Pearl River Delta, where China’s capitalist experiment began in 1980. Roughly one-third of China’s total exports originate here. Nearby Dongguan, a sooty industrial town, employs a million workers in hundreds of shoe factories, making it the world’s footwear capital. Toys, TVs, tractors – all are manufactured within a day’s drive of Guangzhou.

If you’re a buying manager for Wal-Mart or Carrefour, chances are you’ve never set foot inside Tianxiu Building. But if you’re a trader from Africa, this is where your business trip begins. Every store in Tianxiu’s four-floor arcade is tweaked to African and Middle Eastern tastes: colourful wraps, beaded handbags, tailored suits, fake branded sneakers and streetwear, rugged motorbikes, hair ­extensions and consumer electronics.

All items are offered at wholesale prices – cotton shirts start at $4, before discount – and vendors accept special orders, such as your own brand label on a product line, or extra-large sizes. Some try to market their labels to African buyers. A large poster outside a jeans store shows a grinning African model ­sitting on a stool and reading a book, a Chinese girl in a mini-skirt perched on his lap. “Anywhere have black man… have Mrs Li Jeans,” runs the strap line.

Most of the wholesale outlets in the main building are Chinese-owned. More showrooms are located in Tianxiu’s three apartment blocks, as well as offices, boutiques and restaurants, and around 70 per cent of the 600 units here are rented to African and Middle Eastern traders. The resident community is dominated by French-speaking West Africans. In a survey of 114 businessmen, Adams Bodomo, a linguist from Ghana who teaches at Hong Kong University, found that over half were from three countries: Senegal, Mali and Guinea. One reason is that China cultivated ties during the Cold War with these then-socialist countries. Bodomo also found that the majority of the Africans surveyed were men in their twenties, and 32 per cent had been in China for one to three years. Bodomo says 90 per cent of African migrants are traders who either bring Chinese products home to sell or ship them to relatives and business partners. The others work as agents for Chinese manufacturers, run wholesale factory outlets in Guangzhou or provide logistics services to exporters.

While China may have become the world’s workshop, attitudes towards foreigners are tinged with prejudice and even outright racism. Some Chinese avoid sitting next to Africans on buses and trains, and fathers warn their daughters not to date them. Africans living in rented apartments in Guangzhou have been evicted by police after residents complained about disruptive “black devils”. Several arrests of African drug mules at the airport have added to these tensions, which cut both ways: many Africans rail against mercantile Chinese who prize wealth above all. “In China, you have money. But you don’t have love. Love is important. Love is number one,” says Faith Atihoun, 24, an entrepreneur and rapper from Togo.

China officially welcomes Africans, and visas are easy to obtain at Chinese embassies in Africa. But Africans struggle to extend their stay, and some pay thousands of dollars for visa renewals or face the risk of arrest and deportation.

Inside the third-floor apartment where Theophile Whouinsou lives, it smells like Africa. Whouinsou, a lanky, 37-year-old Ivorian is steaming cassava in a Chinese rice cooker, the last of a batch he brought over a month ago. It’s his first trip to China, and a chance to start over in a country full of promise. “I don’t want to live in poverty. I want to make some money before I get married,” he says.

On the television, tuned to state broadcaster CCTV, is a glimpse of Africa: an old movie, dubbed in Chinese, that switches between scenes of bare-bummed tribesmen and gun-toting soldiers. Whouinsou laughs at the on-screen clichés, and returns to his theme. “I think that one day Africa will develop… but we are lazy, I tell you. I can’t understand it. We have to get moving. The world is going faster,” he says.

His mobile phone rings and Whouinsou’s eyes light up. An African businessman needs an assistant for his cargo firm, starting today. The rice cooker is unplugged, TV switched off, and we race down the dank stairwell and into a taxi that takes us to a warehouse on the edge ­of town. Whouinsou is put to work ­immediately, inspecting a cargo of 100 LCD monitors from Shenzhen ordered by a businesswoman from Benin.

Half an hour later, the boss shows up and begins a rapid exchange in Chinese with the suppliers and his bare-chested warehouse workers. Whouinsou goes back to work and doesn’t stop until 04.00. The starting salary is modest - €112 a month – but it’s a first rung on the ladder in a new country.

For all its frenetic energy, though, the Chinese dream is a chimera. In China foreign creeds and civil rights are repressed. Africans in Tianxiu must crouch on prayer mats jammed between desks and motorbikes to pray to Mecca, or file into hotel backrooms for secret Sunday church services, all the time watching out for spies. No community centres or social clubs are allowed. That’s why for most Africans, Guangzhou is a city to make money and watch your back, says Bodomo. Anything else – a family, a life outside work – is a bonus. Unlike in Europe, a coveted passport will never be yours. “There is no path to citizenship. You can never consider yourself as Chinese. Home is in Africa,” he says.

Guangzhou trader

Behind Patrick Yung’s desk (see picture 07), a familiar face looks down: Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also on display in the showroom of National Sonic, the front end of a Guangzhou export business, are campaign posters for Mali and an Angolan political party flag. Yung is an old hand in the African trade. He lived in South Africa in the 1990s and travelled widely as a sales agent. After a crooked deal in Mali wiped out his savings, he returned to China and started again, working his African connections. Today he has customers across the continent. “We can help Africa by doing business there. These are poor countries, they don’t have money, but they have resources,” he says.

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