China and Africa: A trial by pandemic?

Recent racist incidents in China are just a manifestation of deeply rooted attitudes vis-à-vis "blackness" in China that predate and will outlive COVID-19.

Guangzhou, China. Image credit Anna Frodesiak via Wikimedia Commons.

“We are being systematically discriminated against as blacks and African nationals,” a Ghanaian student I spoke to in mid-April and who was under forced quarantine in Guangzhou concluded with a shaking voice (he asked me to withhold his name for safety reasons). The student was in forced quarantine from April 6-17; although he had no recent travel history and no particular exposure to the virus. He was forced to take the coronavirus test, which unsurprisingly came back negative. This was not an isolated incident of discrimination and blatant racism based on skin color and passport.

For the last few weeks, the Chinese province of Guangdong and especially its provincial capital, Guangzhou, became the focus of news reports and social media posts on widespread discriminations and mistreatments of African nationals in the city. Evictions from homes and hotels, people sleeping on the streets, the police forcefully dragging black individuals, forced-quarantine, involuntary and repeated COVID-19 tests are some of the accusations that have been widely circulating. But the unprecedented level of outcries and indignations from African countries have also brought to surface China-Africa relations more broadly, with many quick to predict the looming end of the buoyant relationship.

In addition to a rise in imported COVID-19 cases, the targeted discrimination and racism against African nationals started after reports emerged that five Nigerian nationals in the southern city of Guangzhou, who tested positive for COVID-19, had broken a mandatory quarantine and been to multiple restaurants and other public places, thus infecting others in the process. Yet, since the coronavirus knows neither skin color nor national boundaries, it is surprising and particularly troubling that these crackdowns would be extended only to African nationals in the city, regardless of their travel history and risk of exposure. For example, two of my African colleagues at Peking University in Beijing received repeated calls from the Guangzhou police. They had participated in a two-day class trip to the city in early December, long before the coronavirus became a health concern even in Wuhan. Others who participated in the trip were not contacted; yet these calls are believed to be part of “contact tracing.”

In a rare move, African ambassadors in Beijing issued a joint complaint (reported by France24) to China’s foreign minister, arguing that “the singling out of Africans for compulsory testing and quarantine, in our view, has no scientific or logical basis and amounts to racism towards Africans in China.” Yet, while Chinese state media described the incidents as “small rifts,” the government, in a typical fashion, initially tried to deny the reports, instead characterizing them as “rumors,” “misunderstandings,” and stories fabricated and spread by Western media—an attempt to make the issue a new point of contention with the west (read the US). But for those familiar with Beijing’s responses to crises as sensitive as this one, the move is not surprising. In a usual fashion, the government was first slow to react to the outcry, before moving in full force to dismiss the existence of the crisis while also calling out on ill-intentioned forces (read Western media and their governments) for trying to drive a “wedge” between Beijing and its African counterparts. To anxious African governments, China was keen to reaffirm the principle of equality and equal treatment towards all.

Therefore, instead of promptly acknowledging the wrongdoing and working to solve the problem and alleviate the pain inflicted to African nationals in the city, there is a widespread feeling that the Chinese authorities have focused more on downplaying the issue or completely denying its occurrence. The official, polished diplomatic language will have us believe, for example, that China has zero tolerance for racism and skin-color-based discrimination. Yet, everyday reality tells a different story. Racism against black people or Africans in China has become so commonplace as to be banal. In fact, China may applaud itself for establishing friendly relationships with many African governments, but systematic discriminations and repeated ill-treatments of African nationals in China are also well-documented. Thus, there is a clear contradiction between the lived and experienced reality for Africans living in China and the way their governments and Chinese leaders interact. Given the current context with the coronavirus pandemic, some have explained the quickness with which many African governments have accepted Beijing’s reassurances, given China’s overall importance to Africa’s fight against the pandemic. But the fact of the matter remains that African government officials have never been comfortable and willing to officially address these issues, as they are perceived as rather too embarrassing for what is believed to a brotherly/sisterly relationship between China and Africa.

In Guangzhou specifically, recent incidents are just a manifestation or a symptom of a deeply rooted issue vis-à-vis ‘blackness’ in China that existed long before COVID-19 and will likely survive the pandemic, despite the recently announced measures to combat discrimination in the Guangdong province. And though some seem to celebrate “the rising African agency… that is spilling over in the [Sino-African] relationship,” one genuinely wonders how long that will last. For one, Beijing is happiest, as always, to have the incidents quickly forgotten (at least by African leaders) while African governments are also concerned with mobilizing more support and resources in their efforts to address the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on the continent, including appeals for medical aid and debt relief. Unsurprisingly, there is an apparent calm on the surface despite the boiling currents deep below the China-Africa relationship.

In early March, I wrote a piece on how the coronavirus has ignited deep-rooted stereotypes about China and how it was wrong to associate it with a particular geography or race because it knows not such social constructs. And I am now reiterating the same call with equal vigor. The best way, indeed, the only way to effectively defeat the ongoing pandemic is by working together, collaboratively. So, beyond the staged official PR visits with TV and camera crews, it is encouraging and commendable to see many people, including Chinese nationals, join hands to bring comforts to the affected individuals throughout the city.

For both Chinese and African government officials, however, these crises should serve as an opportunity for a fact-check, especially with regard to the much touted people-to-people exchange in China-Africa relations. And neither Beijing’s denials nor the disquieting silence of African governments is helpful for that purpose.

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