Features | Society | East Asia

The Evolution of Afro-Chinese Identity

Interracial relationships between Africans and Chinese are changing how Chinese identity is defined for their children.

Layne Vandenberg
The Evolution of Afro-Chinese Identity

In this Oct. 26, 2006 file photo, Chinese women stand in front of a billboard promoting an upcoming China-Africa summit meeting, outside a hotel in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Greg Baker, File

The growing Chinese diaspora has resulted in mixed ethnicity Chinese growing up and living abroad across the world. China’s global reach, however, has not only led to Chinese moving abroad, but foreigners moving to China. Chinese immigration and investment in Africa is one such example, resulting in both a growing Chinese diaspora in Africa and a greater presence of Africans in mainland China. Like other effects of African immigration, the reality of a growing mixed ethnicity Afro-Chinese population in China is still largely undercovered. 

There is a particularly large community of Afro-Chinese families living in Guangzhou, southern China’s largest city and a historic point of international exchange. Guangzhou has become the epicenter of a large African diaspora and the Afro-Chinese community for a number of reasons. From the historical perspective, “Guangzhou has long been the main point of entry for foreigners seeking to conduct trade with China,” Jake Hamel, a Yenching Scholar at Peking University with a specific interest in international migration, explained to The Diplomat. “During the Qing Dynasty, it was the only port authorized to trade with Europeans, and was exposed to the supply and demand of global labor markets long before any other Chinese city.” 

What made Guangzhou a particularly popular destination for specifically African traders in China boils down to a combination of economic, geographical, and administrative reasons. “Long before moving to Guangzhou en masse, a large number of African traders were in the Asian market as a result of market liberalization and industrialization in the region,” says Abdou Rahim Lema, another Yenching Scholar focused on the African diaspora in China. “Guangzhou, given its proximity to Hong Kong — where many traders from a number of African countries could enter visa free — became a center of attraction with its manufacturing industries in and around the city.” As a result, African traders first began arriving in Guangzhou in the 1990s to ship cheap goods manufactured in factories around the Pearl River Delta. Following the further development of business networks and micro communities for migrants, African traders began to settle in Guangzhou en masse and mix with the local Chinese population.

Although Guangzhou used to be a hub for African migrants, in recent years, many African traders are relocating to nearby cities due to oversaturation of the market and “the rising tensions between with the locals [Chinese] as well as a result of the increasing police brutality and administrative hurdles,” Lema says. These incidents further compound the reputation that Chinese are prejudiced against people of color, famously spread internationally through a 2016 advertisement for clothing detergent.

Despite the reality of racism against people with African origins in China and elsewhere, Hamel asserts, “prejudices against Africans is often less pronounced in work settings in which Chinese and African business owners and employees can interact.” The workplace is often where many interracial romantic relationships begin as it provides a relatively safe space for the shared experience of being an outsider. An African man who migrated to China and a Chinese woman who migrated to the city from a rural region in China may share a similar, strong experience of feeling like they don’t truly belong. 

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As with relationships everywhere, interracial relationships and marriages between people from the African continent and local Chinese are complex; however, Lema notes that these relations can “serve as a survival strategy.” For African entrepreneurs with visa restrictions and difficulties operating in the local language, “a Chinese partner would bring linguistic and cultural skills to help run the business and stay abreast of changes to immigration policy,” says Hamel. “This is especially important as in recent years China has tightened restrictions on visa renewals for Africans, resulting in more Africans overstaying their visas and living in China out of status.” 

For aging Chinese women from rural backgrounds with low levels of education, the most realistic job opportunities include factories or sweatshops. These career prospects further compound with the concept of “leftover women,” discrimination against aging female migrants from rural areas. As Hamel explains, “marrying into an ownership position offers a unique fast track to career advancement and better working conditions.” Co-managing the business thus “ensures that it keeps running regardless of the administrative status (legal or otherwise) of the partner from African countries,” Lema adds.

Considering China does not recognize dual citizenship, interracial couples with two different nationalities must make hard decisions when it comes to family planning. Chinese law mandates that “any person born in China whose parents are both Chinese nationals or one of whose parents is a Chinese national shall have Chinese nationality.” Chinese citizenship is particularly advantageous for those living in China as it provides better and cheaper access to schooling and healthcare. 

Chinese policies around family size, however, also influence which nationality a parent chooses to give their child. Before the recent revisions to the one child policy, Afro-Chinese families who wanted larger families might choose to register their children as foreign citizens to avoid hefty fines. Ultimately, as Hamel describes, “This sort of decision is tense in every family. It isn’t uncommon for both the African father to raise his child under his native identity, while at the same time the Chinese mother’s extended family wants to raise the child with a Chinese identity. In such cases, there can be conflict within the family over how the child identifies.”

Many Afro-Chinese children living in Guangzhou are raised in China with little or no contact with the African continent. As a result, many parents choose to register their children as Chinese. But even though there are many half-Chinese, half-foreign children in Chinese society, Lema points out that “Afro-Chinese kids are more quickly to be noticed than probably any other interracial kids in China, given their visibility and perceptible exoticism. Nonetheless, this might expose them more to the question of how ‘Chinese’ they are or whether they are ‘Chinese’ at all.” For Afro-Chinese children who do have more experience with the African continent, it does not necessarily lead to easier integration in either China or Africa. “That is often the real challenge,” explains Lema. “The reality is usually not quite easy for these kids as they often find themselves belonging to or being accepted by neither side.”

Although the ongoing flow of Chinese business into the African continent is often depicted as a one-sided story of contemporary Sino-African relations, these international relationships will increasingly impact the Chinese mainland on an interpersonal level. The Afro-Chinese population living in China serves as a reminder of the impact of China’s role in the global economy and its manifestations at home. The question of “how Chinese” any individual is will continue to shift as diasporic communities evolve from immigrants to citizens, both in China and abroad. As unofficial ambassadors of both sides, Afro-Chinese children will undoubtedly shape and define what it means to be both African and Chinese, ultimately challenging the existing notion of a “pure” national and personal identity. 

Readers can contact Jake Hamel and Abdou Rahim Lema via their respective profiles to learn more about international migration and the African diaspora in China.