This thought-provoking documentary, produced and aired by Dutch public broadcaster VRPO, traces the lives of African migrants in the Chinese port of Guangzhou, a city that boasts a burgeoning African population and even a ‘Nigeria Town’, a remarkable inversion of the ‘China Towns’ seen in Africa. The makers of the documentary follow the stories of four African entrepreneurs, three Nigerian men and one Mozambican woman, as they seek their fortunes in China.
Starting from the premise that Europe and the West are increasingly transforming themselves into impenetrable fortresses in an attempt to keep migrants out, this programme focuses on the benefits that migrants can bring to an economy. The documentary is peppered with insights from South African economist Ian Golding (former Director of Development Policy at the World Bank and now Director at the Oxford Martin School) who asserts that migrants have historically been net contributors to national wealth, and that increased migratory controls are, contrary to popular understandings, harmful to dynamic growth, particularly in economies with ageing populations. Goldin’s view that Europe is making the wrong choices regarding stemming migratory flows is complemented in this documentary by criticisms from Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe, who is vehemently critical of Europe’s complacent attitude towards its place in the new world order, its future, and the dynamism emerging in the BRICS economies, of which China is the indisputable frontrunner.
This documentary was clearly intended to challenge the perceptions held by many Europeans regarding migration from poorer countries to wealthier ones. Taking the example that mass youth unemployment in Spain has not resulted in mass migration from Spain to the wealthier countries of northern Europe, despite the absence of movement restrictions between these countries, Golding argues that Europe has little to fear from African migration. Rather, he asserts that by 2030, European countries will desperately be seeking “more Africans” to provide care and services for their ageing populations.
Meanwhile, China is described by one Nigerian resident of Guangzhou, married to a Chinese wife, as a “promised land”. Non-Dutch speakers may miss the startling assertion that the daily remittances from Nigerians in Guangzhou to their home country are more than three times the total annual development aid given by the Netherlands to all the countries in Africa combined. While it is difficult to ascertain the source of this claim or the veracity of this comparison, or even the currency used to arrive at these figures, the point is made that Guangzhou’s Africans are in China to make money. The successes of their entrepreneurship constitute one of the most dynamic and under-reported aspects of China’s engagement with Africa.
Using slick editing between interviews, the documentary contrasts the difficulties experienced by African migrants seeking to enter Europe, with the ease with which they are able to enter, and do business in, China. Briefly setting aside the polemic tone of this piece – which does become wearing after some time – the documentary also exposes some of the problems faced by African migrants in China, including racial prejudice and difficulties learning the Chinese language.
In summary, this is an important and insightful piece of film-making, which highlights the choices that many migrants are forced to make in the face of increasingly draconian restrictions on entry into the wealthy countries of the West. While Golding and Mbebe’s warnings to Europe will be of interest for some viewers. for me the most interesting feature of this documentary was its insights into the lives of African pioneers in China. As China re-orients itself towards becoming a country of net immigration, stories such as these will become an increasingly important theme in Sino-African relations.
Despite being narrated in Dutch, this documentary is recommended viewing for English speakers, since all the interviews are conducted in English and the narration is minimal. You can watch the documentary in its entirety here.
– Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –