Stringent European migration legislation has shifted traditional African migration circuits towards China. The process of obtaining a European visa is long and tiresome. It can take up to two years without any guarantee of actually acquiring the visa, a Chinese visa takes a day. This led to the formation of African communities in China, such as the Congolese community in the Xiaobei district in the city of Guangzhou.

One of the great paradoxes of this globalized world is the controversy surrounding migration. While the mobility of capital, goods and information has been liberalized to unprecedented levels, the actual bodily movement of people is more curtailed than ever before. Sovereignty is determined by who has the right to move, who cannot move and who has the right to move only under certain stringent circumstances. Migration in Europe is starting to dominate the political agenda; governments celebrate national identity and the sovereign state, playing to the underbelly of their electorate. They deny an economic reality that depends on transnational cooperation and trading. It is in the vacuum created by political promise and economic reality that political populism flourishes.

Photographer Pieter van der Houwen observed the lives of the Congolese community in the Xiaobei district of Guangzhou, China. Xiaobei is the Francophone African neighbourhood of Guangzhou dominated by the Congolese. It attracts Africans predominantly from West Africa; at any given time Guangzhou is home to 100.000 Africans, some on a permanent basis, others as traders or frequent visitors. Together they spend between $30 and $40 million a day.

Lately, China’s economic involvement in Africa has caught the world’s attention. The media coverage is often polemically describing China’s public presence in Africa as “ neo colonialist” or fueled by short term “ resource grabbing”. What the West fails to recognize is China’s ability to forge a common history with Africa. The West’s humiliating treatment of Africa at the hands of former colonizers is reminiscent of the unequal treaties imposed on China by the West in the 19th century. China’s foreign policy with Africa utilizes their common historic experience with the West. This policy is slowly pushing the West towards the economic periphery. China’s interest in Africa has generated a reversed interest resulting in an increasing flow of African traders heading towards China.

Team members

Pieter van der Houwen

Pieter van der Houwen is a Dutch photographer and journalist.

A working grant of € 6,000 allocated on 13/09/2012.

'De tastbare energie van Congo Town' (NL) - MO*, February 2013

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