In early April, reports, images, and video emerged of maltreatment and discrimination against Africans living in Guangzhou, the capital of China’s southern province of Guangdong. Some were evicted from their homes, others barred from hotels and restaurants; many had passports seized and were forced to undergo COVID-19 testing and arbitrary self-quarantines, regardless of their travel history and in the absence of symptoms. Local officials initially stated that stringent measures had been put in place to stem a resurgence of COVID-19 from imported cases, and denied that they targeted Africans specifically, but the number of signs and verbal comments denying service or entry to “black people” suggested otherwise. China has faced accusations of racism in the past.
The city of Guangzhou is home to the largest community of Africans in China, attracting traders from many African states. In late 2019, the local government said that more than 13,500 Africans were living in the city, accounting for more than 15 percent of all registered foreigners. That’s down from the around 20,000 Africans living in Guangzhou in 2009. And by mid-April 2020, amid the pandemic, the mayor of Guangzhou said the total had dropped significantly to around 4,500. Still, these numbers only represent formally registered African residents and do not account for those in Guangzhou on overstayed visas or who entered illegally.
Among the recent spate of viral incidents was a notice in English displayed at a McDonald’s in Guangzhou stating “black people are not allowed to enter.” As internet users in Africa saw these reports, hashtags #ChinaMustExplain and #DeportRacistChinese trended on Twitter.
African legislators, celebrities, and their constituents expressed their outrage. Many condemned the treatment of their fellow citizens in Guangzhou and demanding explanations, while others have been more outspoken still, including Kenyan MP Moses Kuria, who suggested Chinese nationals in Kenya should leave and return to their country. Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, publicly shared a clip of his meeting with China’s ambassador to Nigeria with his more than 416, 000 Twitter followers. Meetings on such sensitive issues are typically kept far from the public eye.
Media across African nations featured headlines decrying the treatment of their citizens in China, for example: “Kenyans in China cry for help as they face stigma,” “Africa faces off with China over alleged racism and profiling,” “COVID-19 discrimination: FG draws red line with China,” “Ambassador Boateng Stands up against maltreatment of Africans in China,” and “Coronavirus fears spark xenophobia in China against Africans.”
In the immediate aftermath, a dozen or so African leaders summoned Chinese ambassadors to protest the treatment of their citizens in Guangdong. Separately, a group of African ambassadors in Beijing also sent a note to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemning the crackdown in Guangzhou as “stigmatization and discrimination.” The ambassador declared 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.” And yet, beyond this initial unified outrage, the extent of the diplomatic response has been constrained for several reasons.
In the past several decades, China has become a critical economic partner for many African countries. The value of China-Africa trade exceeded $185 billion in 2018, up from $102 billion in 2008. Between 2000 and 2018, Chinese loans provided more than $152 billion in funding to African governments, according to the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies. China has become Africa’s largest creditor; an estimated 20 percent of all public African debt was owed to China, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign.
The spread and transmission of COVID-19 in African countries presents another constraint. Compared to Europe and the United States, cases of the coronavirus are still fewer in number across the African continent. For example, according to the World Health Organization, as of April 26 Ghana had a reported 1,279 cases, Kenya 336 cases, Nigeria 1,095 cases, South Africa 4,220 cases, and Zimbabwe 29 cases. However, fears of a widespread crisis loom large as many African countries have weak and limited healthcare systems that may be overwhelmed.
China had already dispatched teams of medical experts to several African countries, including Algeria and Nigeria. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, has donated masks and coronavirus test kits and last week his foundation announced that it would be providing 300 ventilators to Africa, prioritizing countries without them. Chinese overseas communities have also organized donation efforts, including food items and funds.
Strapped for adequate medical equipment and supplies, African leaders find themselves looking for China’s support in the public health crisis. Bigger picture, many African countries depend on relatively amiable bilateral relations with China for their own economic development and political stability.
China’s Foreign Ministry has since turned to damage control, sans formal apology. Assistant Minister Chen Xiaodong met with representatives from 20 African countries, while Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the China-Africa relationship as “rock-solid and unbreakable” on a telephone call with the chairman of the African Union Commission. In prepared remarks, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian also stated that “All foreigners are treated equally. We reject differential treatment, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination.”
Still, in the short term, “without an apology or some other expression of regret from Chinese officials, African presidents and prime ministers will find it very difficult to simply move on to other issues like debt relief and cooperation with China on COVID-19 prevention,” writes Eric Olander of the China Africa Project.
This wave of discrimination not only exposed how swiftly local policies can frustrate and stymie broader Chinese foreign policy objectives, but also shed light on the disparate experiences of foreigners living in China — notably between those from the wealthier West and those from developing countries. Yun Sun, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “Beijing claims that all foreigners are being treated equally, but fails to remember that not all foreigners come from an equal footing.” Though the long-term consequences of local mistreatment of African communities remain unknown, Sun adds that “Beijing needs to design policies now in order to ensure local Africans’ reintegration into local communities and punitive measures for future discriminatory practices against African nationals.”