China’s Racism Is Wrecking Its Success in Africa

The expulsion of Africans from their homes in southern China is causing a diplomatic storm.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before their meeting in Beijing on April 13, 2016.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before their meeting in Beijing on April 13, 2016. KENZABURO FUKUHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past week, hundreds of African migrant workers, traders, and students in the southern city of Guangzhou, home to Asia’s largest African diaspora, were tossed out onto the street—some by their landlords, some by hotel managers, and some by local officials. Those evicted, mostly Igbo Nigerians, insisted that they had paid their rent, had valid visas and the right paperwork, and had no contact with anybody infected with COVID-19. Meanwhile, many others were forced into a 14-day quarantine and random testing without getting their test results. Tony Mathias, an Ugandan exchange student, told Agence France-Presse: “I’ve been sleeping under the bridge for four days with no food to eat. … I cannot buy food anywhere. No shops or restaurants will serve me.”

Over the past two decades, China and Africa have become inextricably entwined. China has built roads and railways across Africa and is the biggest trading partner for the entire continent. Eighty percent of Nigeria’s bilateral debt is owed to China. About 60 percent of foreign direct investments to Ethiopia came from China in 2019. China has repeatedly stressed the importance of China-Africa alliances based on “mutual prosperity.” Yet these partnerships face irrevocable disruption if the Chinese government continues to downplay deeply rooted racial prejudices and dismisses the international outrage concerning the treatment of African migrant workers and students in China.

The events of April 10 are part of the response to growing Chinese fear of a reemergence of coronavirus infection but also build on long-standing hostility toward Africans in southern China. Anti-African feelings in China go back decades, including riots aimed at Africans in 1988-1989 in Nanjing. In Chinese media, Africans are often characterized as backward or primitive and blackness as unattractive. Virulent racism common on social media is largely unchecked by censors, including claims that Africans are rapists, drug dealers, or AIDS carriers.

Those prejudices have led to a string of incidents amid coronavirus-induced paranoia. On April 4, reports of an infected Nigerian man attacking a Chinese nurse went viral, unleashing a slew of online trolls demanding the cleansing of a city they claimed was “littered with blacks.” Three days later, four Nigerians tested positive for the virus after having been seen eating together at a local restaurant. These reports sparked widespread fear that Africans were the primary cause of recent upticks in coronavirus cases.

African expats were left at the mercy of xenophobic attitudes and heavy-handed enforcement. “They are accusing us of having the virus,” Tobenna Victor, an evicted Nigerian student, told the BBC. A viral post shows McDonald’s staff in a restaurant in Guangzhou holding a sign that says: “We’ve been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant.” Rumors quickly circulated that “300,000 black people in Guangzhou were setting off a second epidemic,” and even though public officials later debunked that myth, the damage to domestic perceptions in China had been done.

Video evidence of these mistreatments has sparked international outrage. A dozen African countries have summoned their Chinese ambassadors to explain the “inhumane treatment being meted out.” A coalition of African ambassadors in Beijing delivered a letter to China’s foreign minister demanding an immediate end to all discrimination. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, also expressed his “extreme concern.” Moses Kuria, a vocal member of the Kenyan Parliament, took a more aggressive stance, calling for the immediate removal of all Chinese nationals in Kenya.

Rhetoric in the African press was just as intense. The front page of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest newspaper, led with the headline “Kenyans in China: Rescue Us From Hell.” Similar news stories were found in the Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Ugandan press. The hashtag #ChinaMustExplain quickly trended on Twitter, as users expressed their anger and frustration. However, many people on Chinese social media praised the forcible expulsions and mistreatments as responsible steps to “stemming the spread of virus by Africans.”

China’s response has been to deny that any problem exists. Last Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded by stressing that China treats “all foreign nationals equally.” On Saturday, the Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe urged critics not to “sensationalize isolated incidents.” The Global Times, a state-controlled English-language newspaper, dismissed the situation in Guangzhou as a “Western trap to stir enmity,” all the while reaffirming China’s impartiality. Yet as more and more videos of African mistreatment emerge, China’s stance of innocence is harder to maintain.

Some measures have been taken. McDonald’s has apologized for the Guangzhou store’s refusal to serve black people, ordering the halt of any discrimination. Chinese volunteers banded together to raise money, connecting African migrants with hotels that accept foreign guests and even offering counseling services. Zhao, the spokesman, also stressed that Chinese citizens should end all racist remarks and that the government will indiscriminately provide accommodations for all foreigners. Yet Zhao did not specifically address allegations of forced evictions, lack of testing results, and other discriminatory actions. As of now, no formal apology has been offered.

Some have argued that the recent mistreatment of Africans is the unfortunate consequence of the fact that many of them are migrants living illegally in China whose murky identity poses risks to the public health during the virus. This technical hurdle factors into local officials’ heavy-handed approach to prevent a second wave of the infection.

The fact that many Africans lack legal status is partially a result of China’s very own stringent immigration policies and the frequent racism.

Yet the fact that many Africans lack legal status is partially a result of China’s very own stringent immigration policies and the frequent racism. Erratic laws and racial profiling make navigating byzantine immigration channels challenging. Local police are incentivized to stigmatize Africans as sanfei (“the three illegals”—illegal entry, illegal stay, and illegal work) regardless of their immigration status. During crackdowns on immigration, Africans are seen as easier targets than Europeans or other Asians. Demonization of Africans in news reports and social media serves to increase incidents of racial prejudice. In March, an invitation by the Chinese Justice Ministry for the public to comment on a proposal that would ease immigration restrictions led to an inundation of racist comments. African migrants were painted as sexual predators, and many Chinese men vowed to defend the honor of Chinese women.

The crisis in Guangzhou only reaffirmed the underlying racism of Chinese society. And while it poses very real challenges to Sino-African relations, no full breaks between China and African nations are on the horizon. Africa is an increasingly important market for China’s private investors, especially in the technology sector. China is also Africa’s top creditor, having lent an estimated $152 billion to nearly 50 African states between 2000 and 2018. Economic realities, compounded with the destabilization caused by COVID-19, demand that Chinese officials assuage African concerns. “Officials on all sides will have to scramble to put this episode behind them in order to focus on more pressing issues, such as containing the virus and Chinese debt relief,” said Eric Olander, the managing editor of the China Africa Project initiative and podcast.

Yet economic and political relationships between governments alone will not help China address this crisis, not when the insults remain so fresh and when many on the Chinese side still refuse to acknowledge the deep-rooted prejudices underlying the crisis. China’s image as a trustworthy and equal partner to Africa is in danger of being seriously tarnished, as the mistreatment and abuse of nationals from Africa risk confirming preconceptions that China is a racist country. If China is intent on being a major player on the world stage, it must not only confront racist tendencies at home but show that the respect it promises to smaller nations can be extended to their citizens.

Celine Sui is a United States-based independent scholar and freelance journalist focused on Sino-African relations.

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