Low-End Globalization: African Traders in Guangzhou

Hans Schenk

Globalization, Gordan Mathews argues,[i] is generally associated with multi-national corporations, lawyers and ‘planet-wise advertising campaigns’ (p. 81), but a better term expressing such conditions would be ‘high-end globalization’, to allow for a distinction with its counterpart: ‘low-end globalization’. Mathews characterizes the latter by the small amount of capital of economic transactions which are often of an informal character: ‘this is globalization as experienced by most of the world’s people, practiced by traders with a few friends or family members buying a relatively small quantity of goods that are often sold by street vendors …’ (pp. 81–2). 

 He adds, however, that these types of globalization are ideal ones as many business transactions have characteristics of both types. Mathews, Linessa Dan Lin and Yang Yang have chosen to study the working of low-end globalization in Guangzhou, the huge metropolis in South China, and together with some almost-as-huge nearby cities such as Shenzhen, the workshop as well as the major export hub of the Chinese People’s Republic. In Guangzhou they have concentrated on foreigners involved in the low-end side of export trade, buying textiles and small electronic goods such as mobile phones, etc. This trade has started in the 1980s and has got momentum since the beginning of the 21st century. Foreign traders come from all over the world, as Mathews accentuates in the beginning of his book, but he subsequently focuses on African, and especially Nigerian traders. He estimates that between ten- and twenty thousand African traders stay in Guangzhou, some for a few weeks, some during several months. Around thirty percent of these traders are female. Since they tend to stay for a short period only, he confesses that female traders are underrepresented in his book as they are: ’harder to come to know’ (p.57).

Within this framework in terms of location and in terms of actors, Mathews describes in detail the many aspects of the relations between foreign (African) traders and their Chinese counterparts. He stayed for this purpose together with his two research associates Lin and Yang, during the academic year 2013–14 in a few areas in Guangzhou where Africans tend to concentrate, and they spoke to countless foreigners, in shops, on the streets and in local café’s, seemingly at random. Mathews describes their activities as: ‘hanging out with people and interview them on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis’ (p. 224, note 4). They discussed a wide number of aspects which can be traced in seven chapters. Thus, being a foreigner in Guangzhou, African–Chinese relations, the nature of low-end globalization, the several dimensions of legality and illegality of the positions of the foreign traders, the functioning of several types of middlemen, being a Muslim or a Christian in China, and finally African–Chinese romantic relationships, have been given attention. Those who have read Mathews’s earlier book on a residential-cum-commercial building complex in Kowloon, Hong Kong (Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, University of Chicago Press, 2011) will recognise the similarities in approach, and in types of locations and actors.

Towards a low-end anthropology

Mathews has chosen to present the research topics of the three anthropologists in the words of their spokesmen and –women as much as possible. In addition, to a few dozen page-length profiles of some of these spokespersons, his chapters are laced with rather lengthy quoted statements – say six to ten or more lines –  which are subsequently summarized and if necessary analysed by the author. The results are often ‘do-it-yourself’ narratives: the spokespersons have (partly) replaced the professional narrator! This may sound a bit sceptically, but the results read as a clear and involved discussion of the several topics that are raised in Mathews’s chapters: those involved in the low-end trade in Guangzhou, including all its positive and negative dimensions, are given an extensive voice themselves. Mathews contributes in this manner to his aim to make the anthropological writings more accessible to a general audience. This is important for him. He complains that though in the past authors such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead wrote for a wide audience: ‘today almost all anthropologists … write for one another in a specialised, scholarly form’ (p. 4), and unreadable except for a small group of professional anthropologists. He aims therefore to ‘democratize anthropology, and make it comprehensible and interesting to anyone who may want to read it’ (p. 4). Perhaps a ‘low-end anthropology’ is in the making.

The uneasy worlds of African traders in Guangzhou

But what do we read after all? What is the emerging picture of low-end global trade and its African traders in Guangzhou? Ample attention has been given to the problems of overstayers, i.e. those foreigners whose visas have expired, and who are hence illegally in China and cannot easily leave the country. And it seems that there are many of them, though numbers are obviously not available. Overstayers live in fear for the police and must adapt their business practices to adjust to permanent threats. The stories and accounts pertaining to all African traders are larded with cultural misunderstandings, tension, conflicts and quarrels between the foreign traders and the Chinese manufacturers and businessmen and -women. The African views of Chinese are given, and the other way around, though the Chinese opinions and practices of the low-end global traders are not a subject in this book and are only discussed in a small paragraph. Much room is given to cheating: by the customs, by the manufacturers, by all sorts of intermediaries, and by the foreigners themselves. The list is long, and the many stories give a grim picture of the hardships of almost any party involved in this trade. However, Mathews reassures the reader. The stories of cheating are so often told: ‘because they are so memorable … to African buyers, not because they are so frequent’, and it is rather ‘remarkable how little African traders are cheated … and most of their dealings … seem to be honest’ (p. 65). This statement gives an uneasy feeling of imbalance about what we read throughout the book. Why has so much attention been given to almost everything that can go wrong, if – after all – it is not so bad? Is it, as Mathew concludes in the end of his book, that all parties accept cheating since they know they need each other, and self-interest prevails (p. 215)? Or are all the stories of cheating, etc. just rumours or gossip, fake-news perhaps?

God and gold

The two final chapters are a bit different. They deal with religion and with inter-cultural love and marriage. A bit different only: Mathews introduces the Christian African traders by linking trust with belief in God with the following quote: ‘How can I trust anyone who doesn’t believe in God? I don’t cheat people because God is looking over me. But a Chinese has no one looking over him, so he might cheat people’ (p. 166). And indeed, this chapter describes the felt links among African traders between business success and belief in God, and they complain to Mathews that ‘the Chinese believe not in God but in gold’ (p. 214). Notably some Protestant (born-again) African Christian communities go beyond business, and they openly dream of a Christian China and have started to make this dream come true. Obviously, the local authorities are not happy with this interpretation of Christianity and hence Protestant churches work underground and are subject of police raids. Africans and others practising Islam or Catholicism are not hindered by local authorities. In view of this is it surprising that marriages between Africans (and other foreigners) and locals do occur!  Mathews notes cross-cultural problems, reluctant in-laws, while authorities are not inclined to legalize overstayers after marriage. Not surprisingly, he is sceptical about a future multicultural Guangzhou in the near future. To the contrary and returning to the main topic of the African and other foreign traders in Guangzhou, he rather expects the Africans to leave the city as ‘Chinese in Africa seek to take this business from Africans in China’ (p. 217). For the time being, Mathews has, however, presented in a challenging way a fascinating portrait of the daily functioning of low-end globalization during the early decades of this century, as researched by Lin, Yang, and him in Guangzhou; despite all odds.

[i] Mathews states explicitly that though research for this study was undertaken collectively by Linessa Dan Lin, Yang Yang and him, he has done the writing individually (p. 24). I have therefore used in this review the singular form when discussing the text of the book, and the plural when referring to the underlying fieldwork, etc.