This photograph is taken in Guangzhou (the city once known as Canton) at a wholesale clothing market. Most of the people in the market are not from Guangzhou. The market traders are a mix of people from China and from a number of different nations in Africa. The customers are primarily Africans. It is an international place, drawing all toward a common goal: to escape poverty through the international circulation of cell phones and clothing.
Most of those Africans in Guangzhou are working in businesses that facilitate the export of goods back to Africa. Gordon Matthews in his book Ghetto at the centre of the world tells us that Africans go through stages of engagement in the process of becoming a trader with China. The easiest point of access is via Hong Kong and in particular through a single building: Chung King Mansions. The traders come to Hong Kong with money that they have scraped together from friends and family seeking out those with experience. In Hong Kong, they will either buy from local wholesalers, which is a more expensive but potentially less risky option, and ship the good back or taken home as part of their luggage. Those who are more connected or willing to take bigger risks may find a guide who will take them to Shenzhen or, even better, Guangzhou to buy from wholesalers directly. Goods will then be shipped as in the photograph above or again carried home as luggage. Those who successfully manage the first trip, and are able to get their goods home, then survive economically to return again. Many do not.
Success within the system relies on developing trust and local knowledge. A particularly difficult task as it is set in a context of racism, mistrust, and cultural difference. This process has, however, become a greater opportunity for some as language competence and and tacit knowledge are worth more than the goods being shipped. Those Africans who develop these skills turn them into a businesses opportunity in Guangzhou. These businesses facilitate, and ease, but also increase the cost, of shipping goods from China to Africa by Africans. Those who make it in business in Guangzhou are considered the lucky ones; the ones who have success.
China Smack, a web site that translates trending Chinese news for non-Chinese readers, reports that in 2011 there were approximately 200,000 Africans living and working in Guangzhou, representing the largest African Community in Asia (The Global Mail puts this estimate at 150,000). Those, mainly men, who come are allowed to stay legally for 6 months, though many stay longer. In 2009 riots broke out after a man fell from building seeking to evade the police because of an expired visa (see the Guardian piece here). More recently, in 2012, a Nigerian man died in police custody after being arrested over a fight that broke out concerning a fare. Again riots broke out in the city (the Guardian article is here and one in the WSJ here). Despite the perceptions of success, this is not an easy life, but it pursued in the hopes of escape from poverty at home.
The Global Mail, an independent news source, points out that the unlike Europe and US, which tend to construct African development in terms of aid, China has focused on Africa as a partner in commerce. This commercial circulation, is characterised not by large multi-national firms, but thousands of individual, very small scale operators, which when put together represented in 2012 over US$166 billion (see Global Mail). It is a relationship characterised by a distinctly Chinese understanding of Neoliberalism.
Despite this apparent success, and in addition to the personal precariousness of the endeavour, there are also wider reaching down sides. Increasing Chinese prosperity has not been matched by increasing African prosperity. As the Renminbi (Yuan) increases in value it becomes more difficult for those coming from Africa to buy goods for resale at home. In the mean time, the African textiles industry has collapsed. Part of this collapse is due to the ability of Africans to come to China and buy wholesale clothing items more cheaply than at home, but still to their specification. Along side this trade in new clothing is the trade in charity donated clothing from North America and Europe (see Followthethings.com for more on this). The result is an individualisation of success and a generalised increased precariousness for many African communities for which there is little escape.
The full reference for Matthew’s book is: Matthews, G. (2011) Ghetto at the centre of the world. University of Chicago Press. Here is the Amazon link to Ghetto at the Center of the World.
There is an interesting book chapter by Paul Stoller concerning African fabric trade in New York City, that also traces out the global circulation of culture and the demise of African textiles manufacturing. Stoller, P 2004. African/Asian/Uptown/Downtown in Amin, A and N J Thrift (eds) The Blackwell Cultural Economy Reader. Blackwell, Oxford. (Kindle Edition). Here is the Amazon Link to The Blackwell Cultural Economy Reader.
This post is part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Escape. You can find the Challenge here.
How to reference this post in non-web publications. If you would like to cite this post I suggest the following format:
Blake, M (2013) Escaping Poverty through low end globalisation? Geofoodie.org http://geofoodie.org/2013/05/18/escaping-poverty/ . 18 May 2013 (Accessed: XX/XX/20XX)
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- Where Billionaires Cluster (blogs.wsj.com)
- Guangzhou, China (adventuresof2ds.com)
- Entering Shenzhen (geofoodie.org)
- Globalisation: Globalisation Makes Poor More Vulnerable (ionglobaltrends.com)