In April, videos and images of African migrants facing discrimination in the southern port city of Guangzhou began flooding social media. In one, a Chinese official shows up at an African man’s apartment and forces him and his family to undergo a mandatory quarantine, even though his Chinese neighbors are allowed to move about freely. In another, a man holds up a notice at a Guangzhou McDonald’s that bans black people from entering the restaurant.
More posts showed Africans wandering the streets of Guangzhou with their suitcases in tow after landlords and hotels evicted them, as well as men sleeping on the sidewalk in the bitter cold. Another short clip showed three police officers roughly handcuffing an African man on the street, while another officer held a second man facedown.
The incidents occurred as China fears a second wave of coronavirus infections brought in from overseas. As some within Guangzhou’s large African community tested positive for the virus, Guangzhou authorities increased the risk level of the city’s two African enclaves and anti-foreigner sentiment began to rise. The trading hub of Guangzhou is home to Asia’s largest African population, with many going there to export cheap Chinese goods or study at the city’s universities.
Back in Africa, the videos spread widely, sparking public outcry against blatant racism and discrimination. African leaders quickly responded by meeting with Chinese ambassadors to discuss the mistreatment of their citizens, an unprecedented public rift between China and the continent of Africa, which has thus far had a close relationship built on trade and economic cooperation.
Days later the two sides had seemingly made up, with some African leaders blaming the maltreatment on poor communication. African countries rely heavily on Chinese investment and now COVID-19 aid, and experts don’t believe the incidents will ultimately alter China-Africa relations. But the Chinese response has not mollified the still outraged African public, causing the governments of Nigeria and Kenya to consider evacuating their citizens from China.
“The fact that Kenya owes China a lot of money does not mean our government should entertain outright violation of the rights of its people in China,” Hussein Khalid, executive director of the Kenyan human rights group Hoki Africa wrote in The Star.
MOST OF CHINA’S STRINGENT QUARANTINE MEASURES have lifted as the number of new infections has dropped. But China is still concerned about another outbreak as infected people return from other global hotspots such as the United States or Europe. The government has banned foreigners from entering the country, and anyone returning from abroad must go through a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Of imported cases, about 90 percent are Chinese nationals, according to China’s vice minister of foreign affairs. But Africans are bearing some of the most stringent of the remaining lockdown meausres.
The backlash against Africans in Guangzhou began in early April after a 47-year-old Nigerian man tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Guangzhou. Rather than undergo medical tests, he tried to escape from his quarantine ward: He allegedly assaulted a nurse and bit her face. The news spread quickly on social media, with Chinese commenters calling for his deportation along with a flurry of racist remarks against Africans.
A week later, authorities announced five Nigerians had tested positive for the virus, all linked to a restaurant in Yuexiu district known as “Little Africa.” In response, landlords and hotels evicted African tenants, restaurants and stores refused to serve African customers, and officials forcibly tested and quarantined them. African migrants took to posting videos of the discrimination on social media beginning April 9, and netizens quickly shared them with the hashtag #ChinaMustExplain.
Chinese officials tested and quarantined Africans who had not left the country since the outbreak began, who had not come into contact with anyone infected, who had already gone through a 14-day quarantine, and those who already received a clean bill of health. According to Xinhua, health officials tested 4,553 Africans in Guangzhou—111 had COVID-19.
As the reports of racist attacks drew the ire of Africans at home, Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffery Onyeama invited the country’s Chinese ambassador to discuss the allegations and called for an immediate intervention from the Chinese government. Two days later, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, said he met with the Chinese ambassador to the union and also called for remedial measures.
In a statement, Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, condemned “this act of ill-treatment and racial discrimination.” South Africa and Kenya also issued similar disapprovals and called for a solution.
This was an unprecedented response from African leaders, who generally try to deal with issues regarding China behind the scenes in order not to embarrass the Chinese government, said Winslow Robertson, founder of the China-Africa consultancy Cowries and Rice.
Initially China claimed the reports were rumors and blamed Western media for stirring accusations to damage the China-Africa relationship—even though the reports circulated widely in African media. Despite the videos and proof, Guangzhou authorities said they don’t tolerate discrimination and they were only trying to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe claimed the problem was based on a “misunderstanding” and that the media was sensationalizing “isolated incidents.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “the Chinese government is in close communication with our African brothers to ensure proper handling of the individual case. China-African friendship will never be shaken by wedge-driving attempt.”
To smooth things over, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would change its coronavirus restrictions on Africans, provide them healthcare without discrimination, and adjust the prices for quarantine stays in hotels based on financial needs. Chinese media posted videos of officials bringing Africans flowers during quarantine. In some cases, Africans filmed their own videos rejecting the gifts.
China’s reassurances initially appeared to work: Less than one week after his first statement, Nigerian Foreign Minister Onyeama backtracked, saying the situation in Guangzhou was not as bad as initially reported.
But a few days later, Onyeama switched his response again. He said he had continued to receive reports from people on the ground about an “institutional attack on the rights and dignity of Nigerians and Africans there.”
The Nigerian government launched an evacuation process for affected citizens in Guangzhou and will ensure compensation for some 100 people evicted from their homes and hotels. “That clearly is the immediate solution here,” Onyeama said.
In early May, Nigeria’s House of Representatives passed a measure to more closely monitor whether Chinese migrants are in the country legally.
DISCRIMINATORY ATTACKS AGAINST AFRICANS are not new, said Omolade Adunbi, an associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. Dating back to 1988, the Nanjing Anti-African protests pitted Chinese students against African students who, the Chinese claimed, received larger scholarships. Chinese students were also upset to see African students with Chinese women.
In Guangzhou, riots flared in 2009 after two Nigerian men were injured when they jumped from a building to escape Chinese immigration authorities. Hundreds of Africans surrounded a local police station, thinking the men had died. More riots came in 2012, when an African man died in police custody after getting into a fight over a taxi fare. More than 100 Africans gathered at the police station to question his death and blocked traffic.
In 2016, a commercial for laundry detergent depicted a black man who transforms into a “clean” Chinese man after getting thrown into the wash. Then during the nationally televised Chinese New Year gala in 2018, a Chinese actress dressed up in blackface to play a stereotypical African woman while exclaiming how much she loves China.
More recently, a political cartoon has spread on Chinese social media depicting a man in a hazmat suit sorting out foreign “trash” for breaking rules in China, including a black man who is thrown into a garbage bin.
But the global attention on the coronavirus pandemic and African citizens’ outrage is forcing African leaders to respond to the recent discrimination. “A lot of African countries have not been paying attention because of the relationship they have with the government of China,” Adunbi said.
China keeps pumping money into the African continent. In 2000, China and African countries launched the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which occurs every three years with a focus on economic cooperation. During the 2018 summit with African leaders in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $60 billion in financial aid for the continent. The funds included $15 billion in grants, interest-free loans, and concessional loans; $20 billion in credit lines; and $5 billion for buying imports from the continent.
In Nigeria, China’s influence is visible in the growing number of free trade zones that allow Chinese businesses to operate, Adunbi said. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. is also working on a railway project between Ibadan and Lagos, the country’s commercial hub.
African countries are even more reliant on China during the coronavirus pandemic, especially as Western nations struggle to contain the virus in their own countries. On April 6, an Air China Cargo aircraft touched down at the Kokota International Airport in Ghana with 37 tons of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and N95 face masks. The items, packaged in boxes plastered with the “China Aid” logo, went to 18 West African countries.
Two days later, a 15-member Chinese medical team, including doctors, nurses, and laboratory technicians, arrived in Nigeria to assist the medical fight against the virus. In Algeria, the Chinese state construction company announced it will build a 4,000-bed hospital to help coronavirus patients.
Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and founder of Alibaba, sent 1.5 million test kits, 5.4 million face masks, and tens of thousands of medical supply components to Ethiopia for distribution across the continent. Technology company Huawei, and Huajin, a global shoe manufacturer, also donated 1 million masks each.
With so much at stake, Adunbi does not think the discrimination in Guangzhou will affect relations between African nations and China: “Once the pandemic is over, it’s going to be business as usual.”
FOR THE AFRICAN PUBLIC, recent events have made a much larger impact. Nigerian Pastor Daniel Michael first moved to Guangzhou in 1997 and remembers locals were very welcoming and excited to meet him at the time. He taught English at a university and began holding Bible studies at a local McDonald’s, leading to the creation of Royal Victory Church.
The Chinese government cracked down on the church in 2004 after it grew to 1,500 attendees, including both Africans and Chinese. So the church decided to break into separate Chinese and African churches and meet in smaller groups. Michael and his wife, Helen, now lead a branch of Royal Victory Church in Hong Kong.
He noted the attitude toward Africans has changed as Guangzhou experienced a large influx of African migrants. Visas became more difficult for Nigerians to obtain, so more began to overstay their authorization to do business in China. The Chinese government often conducted random raids on lawbreakers, even though African governments overlooked Chinese citizens immigrating illegally on the continent.
Recent reports from Guangzhou disturb Michael: Many Royal Victory Church members had to go to quarantine centers or faced confinement in their apartments—including the pastor of their Guangzhou church.
Members of Royal Victory’s Chinese church quickly stepped up, giving food to Africans on the streets and dropping off food for those stuck in quarantine. “That is the nature of our church, it runs like a community,” Michael said.
Other groups of Chinese volunteers have also organized on WeChat to help provide food and shelter, translating relevant news and information into English, French, and Swahili, and providing counseling services. Some Chinese citizens posted videos of themselves saying “Africa, be strong!” as a sign of support.
Michael said many Africans in Guangzhou want to go home now, as the situation on the ground hasn’t improved even with the government’s apologies. Although Nigeria’s Onyeama said the government would help anyone who wants to go back, Michael said he won’t believe it until he sees it.
Winslow Robertson, of the China-Africa consultancy Cowries and Rice, said Africans feel a sense of betrayal: China often spoke of a brotherhood with Africa, trying to differentiate itself from the West. Yet “when push came to shove, when Chinese public health was at stake, China … treated them worse than other foreigners.”
While Africans always knew racism existed in China, they still saw it as a place to make money and build a new life, Robertson said. But the recent incidents revealed that even if you had property, married a Chinese woman, and did everything correctly, “at the end of the day, your blackness was always going to be a factor against you.”
By June Cheng and Onize Ohikere