Escaping poverty through low end globalisation?

Guangzhou logistics

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 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? . ‎18 May 2013 (Accessed: XX/XX/20XX)

28 thoughts on “Escaping poverty through low end globalisation?

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  8. Interesting take on the low end globalisation. I was struck by the more positive take on the global back channel of Africans in China in Neuwirth’s Stealth of Nations, though he points to currency appreciation as an issue. But yes so individualizing. On the second hand textiles I though the jury was still out on impact. Yes countries like India have always banned importing whole garments, insisting on shredding, to protect domestic weavers, and in other places ‘public health’ measures perform a protectionist function. But then the latter part of Rivoli’s travels of T-Shirt are a fascinating take on what he calls ‘globalisation for the little guy.’

    • Dear Mike.
      This is my second attempt at replying, first became disrupted because of a technical failure.

      I was worried that the tone of this post was a bit overly critical (in a negative way) of the China-Africa relationship as it plays out through Guangzhou. But, one finds quite a bit in the news, literature, and everyday chatter that points to the relationship China has cultivated with Africa as being better than that of the Europe or the US, and indeed is the answer to the “African Problem” (mostly of course written and spoken by westerners). In some ways, I agree that it is, particularly as here Africa does not seem to be framed as a “problem”. But, I am also not convinced that the form of the relationship China is developing it is entirely better. I do think that exports of clothing back to Africa are part of the story alongside the second-hand trade. I wonder at the potential for economic Imperialism. I am concerned about the negative aspects of neo-liberalism that create excessively divided societies, individual risk, and networks of dependency. I am disappointed by the willingness to overlook corruption and the welcoming of despots (something the west is also guilty of, so not trying to suggest this is just a China problem). Indeed, and interesting and important story worthy of further investigation.

      I also think there is more to be written about life around this export trade in Guangzhou. Gordon Matthews, spends a lot of time there and has first hand knowledge of the communities are developing that are located in Guangzhou and which are not just transnational and commercial. There are secondary industries that are about enriching daily life in Guangzhou that are being established. People celebrate weddings, have children, eat and laugh together. At the same time, I am told that it is difficult for newcomers from Africa to access the economically useful information that circulates within these communities as, just as they add a layer of security, they are also quite national in their inclusion.

      I am continuously amazed at the ways that people make do and develop tactics of resistance to discourses and policies that seek to limit access to wealth and wellbeing. There is certainly more to say on what is going on in Guangzhou, not just with regard to the Africans. Many of the Chinese who work as wholesalers and manufacturers in Guangzhou are similarly classed as immigrant because of the Hukou system and penalised because of it. As such they are also an interesting story in need of further telling. This system is part of what is behind the Foxconn saga and other similar saga’s.

      In the mean time I will have a closer look at the two texts you mention. Thanks for the referral.

      Come again, leave more comments. You are always welcome here.

      • I think the web site was doing a reset while I posted to create some confusion on comments (i had to resend).
        My impression, and it is only that, is that the global back channel is almost the antithesis of formal ‘China in Africa’ strategies. I am wondering about neo-liberalism.. yes in many ways but how does that approach the doings of creating these global flows, often in the interstices (at best) of formal regulated markets.

      • It used to be that it was more difficult to go to China, so many of the African’s would come to HK to buy goods to take back to resell. China has opened it’s borders somewhat more to Africa as part of their own economic policy. In many ways China is one of the most economically neoliberal places I know. It is certainly not communist in the ways I had come to understand the term.

  9. Interesting information on current shifts. I had been looking through the Systeme D account of China and the ‘global back channel’ in Neuwirth’s Stealth of Nations, that is perhaps more positive. Also on the second hand textiles, I thought the jury was out on impact on local weaving economies – though in India of course imports are meant to be shredded for that reason, and many protectionist measures lurk under ‘public health’ policies elsewhere. Certainly in India my impression was second hand reweaving (the shoddy) trade was itself under pressure from Chinese imports. It’s old but I like the back end of Rivoli’s Travels of T-Shirt on that second hand textile economy as what he calls ‘globalisation for the little guy’.

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  18. Hi Megan! Thank you for this thought-provoking piece! And I thought this post would be about food, lol. Indeed there are many stories to tell about how people strive to escape from the clutches of poverty. We have a lot of these stories here in the Philippines too.

    • Hi Jun.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind comments. *Most* of my blog posts are about food, but I am far to undisciplined to keep it so focused. The Philippines, I am sure, is a fascinating place and I would love to explore it through the lens of GeoFoodie.

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