The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has promoted China’s economic outreach to the developing countries around the Eurasian continent and the Indian Ocean through infrastructure development.
As a region suffering from civil wars and economic devastation, sub-Saharan African countries have utilized the BRI to improve their economic situation by promoting a close relationship with Beijing and inducing Chinese firms’ infrastructure investments. The total trade volume between China and Africa now reaches $200 billion per year, and over 10,000 Chinese firms are operating across the African continent. These Sino-Africa ties have pushed rapid urbanization and economic growth in this continent. The IMF has nnounced Africa as the second-fastest-growing region in the world.
The close ties between China and sub-Saharan Africa have also contributed to China’s outreach to the African continent. Even before the BRI, China had pursued a close relationship with Africa, as part of the Third World bloc during the Mao era. China is now using the BRI as a pivot to increase its leverage among the African countries. Through its infrastructure investments China has become the largest player in African infrastructure development, with Chinese state-owned Enterprises accounting for over 40% of the African infrastructure market. China is also growing its ambition for strategic and security interest in Africa, where it constructed its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2019.
These China-Africa relations, however, excessively focus on what China is doing in Africa and neglects how Africa is also changing China. Although the BRI has facilitated China’s outreach to Africa, it has also enabled African immigrants and refugees’ easier access to Chinese cities. In fact, about 500,000 Africans are estimated to be living in China. Guangzhou, located in the southern part of China, hosts the largest African immigrant community in Asia with a population of around 100,000, and its Xiaobei neighborhood is known as the ‘Little Africa.’
Dr. Gerda Heck, Assistant Professor at the American University of Cairo, recently gave a lecture for the research project “Infrastructure of Faith: Religious Mobilities on the Belt and Road” (BRINFAITH) at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences on the issue of Congolese Immigrant communities in cities around the world, including Guangzhou. She looked into the interplay between religiosity, global migration and urban spaces for Congolese migrants around the world. Through out-migration from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congolese Christian churches have spread to the migration destinations and shaped the urban infrastructure for interaction between the migrants and the local population.
Congolese Churches in Guangzhou
In the past three decades, sub-Saharan Africa had a rapid surge of Christianity, in particular Pentecostalism, after several political turmoils across the region. Thistrend was especially pronounced observed in DRC, where Pentecostal churches now play a significant role in Congolese society’s religious and cultural spheres.
“This Christian awakening, which emerged in the Mobutu area with the background of political instability, economic crisis, and escalating violence, not only affected the country’s religious sphere,” said Dr. Heck, “but also the Congolese public and cultural sphere have become increasingly charismatic since the 1990s.”
This sudden increase of Pentecostal Christian faith has penetrated Congolese society, redefining and restructuring its traditional models of kinship and moral agendas of solidarity to incorporate Christian elements. Because the DRC’s political instability since the 1980s led to the emigration of Congolese refugees and merchants, these trends in the Congolese religious sphere were also transferred to other cities around the world, especially in countries of the global north such as Europe, the United States, and Canada.
The migration of Congolese people to these developed countries, however, became difficult after these countries restricted the migration from the global south. Thus, alternative migration strategies led to new migration routes – either transiting from one city to another or searching for a new destination.
Due to easy-to-obtain business visas, trading opportunities, and growing political and economic ties between China and the DRC, China became a new migration destination for Congolese people. As a city with the largest sub-Saharan African community, Guangzhou became a new terminus for Congolese migrants since the beginning of the 2000s, especially among merchants and traders who intend to start a business in China. According to a Congolese community leader, there were about 450 Congolese living permanently in Guangzhou in 2015, and much large number of “suitcase traders” – known as femmes commerciales or commercial women – travel between Guangzhou and Kinshasa, staying in China for three days to three months each time.
The inflow of Congolese migrants also meant the introduction of Congolese Pentecostal churches in Guangzhou. Xiaobei area, with the largest sub-Saharan African population, hosted these Congolese immigrant churches – most of which are not registered, and escape the surveillance of Chinese authorities.
For instance, L’Eglise de Lumière – meaning Church of Light’ – is one of the eight Congolese churches in Guangzhou that has existed since 2015, located in one of the commercial buildings in the Xiaobei area
“While on the first floor, retailers are selling clothing, electric devices and African drapery, on the tenth floor the Sunday worship starts at 11 am. About 100 churchgoers were attending the worship,” said Dr. Heck, describing her visit to the church, “a Congolese pastor and trader from Kinshasa, who frequently visits the church on his business trip, was preaching.”
These churches mainly preach economic prosperity and social success, adapting to the reality of churchgoers’ daily business of local markets. The service is not only limited to the word of God but also instructing how to yield profit.
Dr. Heck’s illustration of the Congolese church in Guangzhou indicates how the commerce and religion of Congolese migrants are intertwined in Guangzhou. For instance, Pastor Michel, the head of L’Eglise de Lumière, first came to Guangzhou in 2005 with a business visa and founded his church. Pastor Michel has two duties in Guangzhou – to preach in the church as well as to buy commodities.
“The church serves as a connection hub, facilitating mobility. The church is almost exclusively filled with merchants or traders, and most of them are making petty trade between Guangzhou and Kinshasa,” said Dr. Heck, “attending the church on Sunday morning is interpreted as a Christian duty, a way for them to gather with other Congolese, and potentially meet new clients.”
The Congolese migrant church in Guangzhou illustrates the entanglement of economic success, mobility, and religion. Congolese churches around the world not only serve Congolese migrants’ religious needs but also contribute to the formation of the physical and social landscape of cities around the world. Because Pentecostal churches do not require much formality, compared to other Christian sects like Catholic or other Protestant churches, it is easier for the Congolese migrants to form their religious communities and adjust to meet the local settings of the host society.
African Immigrants in Chinese Cities and their Implications
The Congolese church communities in Guangzhou show that China-DRC relations are not only comprised of the exchange of goods and capital but also the interchange of the ideas, religion, and people. While China has used the BRI to construct infrastructures and shorten the physical distance between Africa and East Asia, the Congolese churches in Guangzhou show how these relations have enabled the intrusion of religions and cultures of other countries of the global South into Chinese cities.
Dr. Heck’s lecture points to two implications of China-Africa relations and, in a broader sense, the BRI in general. Firstly, inter-state relations reinforce the movement of not only trade and material values but also the mobility of ideas, religion and culture. The Congolese churches in Guangzhou show that African immigrants to China bring their distinctive religion that differentiates itself from the local Chinese society.
Secondly, due to such exchanges of ideas, the mutual transformation of the urban landscape can be observed in both China and sub-Saharan Africa. While China is investing its capital in constructing transport and communication networks across the African continent, improvements in the connectivity between China and Africa have facilitated African migration to China. The Congolese churches in Guangzhou show how ideas and faith can cross the ocean and lay their roots in different cultures. Similar trends have also been observed in Yiwu, where Muslims from different countries have established their own mosques and halal restaurants.
But African immigrants’ settlement in China may meet with discrimination from the host society due to their different racial and cultural backgrounds. In fact, after the outbreak of COVID-19, several hundreds of African immigrants left China due to severe anti-Black racial clashes. Chinese authorities in Guangzhou were also accused of discriminatory treatment of African residents, involving forced quarantine and repeated COVID-19 testing. If discrimination against Africans in China continues, the trans-regional religious and cultural exchanges between China and Africa will be affected. Hence, more efforts are needed to prevent discrimination and develop the cosmopolitan character of Guangzhou as a hub of the BRI.
(Note: the names of the “Church of Light” and “Pastor Michel” have been fictionalized to protect the anonymity of the church and its members.)
*About the author: Seong Hyeon Choi studied a Master of International Public Affairs at the University of Hong Kong and is currently working as an intern for ASIAR- Asian Religious Connections, a research cluster under the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.