In January, China was criticized for hiding the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Through drastic measures, including a total lockdown on Wuhan, China was able to bring the epidemic under control. Consequently, the 76-day lockdown on Wuhan was recently lifted. However, the discovery of a new cluster of cases linked to Yuexiu district popularly called ‘Little Africa’ has led to the mistreatment of Africans and Black Americans. African leaders are calling this a systemic racism.
At least 8 people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Guangzhou spent time in Little Africa. Twenty-four-year-old Tony Mathias is an exchange student from Uganda who lives in Guangzhou, a commercial hub home to 15 million. Mathias is among the growing Africans that have become a victim of systemic racism by locals and authorities. Forced eviction from their homes and being turned away by hotels are some of the ill-treatment meted on Africans.
The United States says African-Americans are targets too. Consequently, the U.S. sent out a travel advisory on Saturday advising African Americans to avoid Guangzhou. The title of the U.S. statement was ‘Discrimination against African-Americans in Guangzhou’. Part of the statement read,
“In response to an increase in Covid-19 infections, officials in the Guangzhou metropolitan area escalated scrutiny of foreign nationals. As part of this campaign, police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin. Moreover, local officials launched a round of mandatory tests for Covid-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with ‘African contacts,’ regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine completion.”
The cause of the new wave of systemic racism against blacks
Anti-black sentiments in China is not new. Since the 1970s up until 1989, there were periodic reports of anti-black racism, particularly against African students. However, the recent systemic racism by virus prevention officials and locals was blamed on the actions of five Nigerians. The five were among the 8 diagnosed with Covid-19 in Guangzhou. Public health bureau in Guangzhou say officials are reacting to rumor that “300,000 black people in Guangzhou were setting off a second epidemic”.
It was reported that the five Nigerians broke a mandatory quarantine. Instead of staying at home, they visited restaurants and other public places. Consequently, close to 2,000 people who came in contact with them were subjected to compulsory quarantine and testing. The action of the Nigerians has attracted a serious backlash.
As of Thursday, April 9, 2020, the total number of imported cases of Covid-19 in Guangzhou was 114. Out of this total, 16 were Africans while the rest were returning Chinese nationals. The growing number of Africans with Covid-19 is partly the reason for the systemic racism. Africans, even those that have not left the country for years were subjected to mass testing. Recounting his experience Mathias said,
“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. We’re like beggars on the street.”
Early last week, images emerged of Africans sleeping on the streets of Guangzhou after eviction from their apartment. Also, they were videos of Chinese police harassing Africans on the street. CNN has reported multiple cases of systemic racism against Africans. However, police in Guangzhou has refused to comment on the matter.
Reactions by top African officials
Government and top officials across Africa are confronting China privately and publicly over the systemic racism. According to Sierra Leone’s embassy, African diplomats met with Chinese foreign ministry officials in Beijing stating “in very strong terms their concern and condemnation of the disturbing and humiliating experiences our citizens have been subjected to”.
Separately, Nigeria’s House of Representative speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila tweeted a video of himself quizzing the Chinese ambassador on the issue. Also, Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama summoned the Chinese ambassador, calling for an immediate government response.
Today I met with the Chinese🇨🇳 Ambassador to Nigeria on the disturbing allegation of ill treatment of Nigerian citizens in China. I showed him the video clip that had made the rounds. He promised to look into it and get back to my office on Tuesday. pic.twitter.com/9SUxH0rI7X
— Femi Gbajabiamila (@femigbaja) April 10, 2020
In Ghana, Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey condemned the “inhumane” treatment. The Chinese ambassador to Ghana has also been summoned concerning the systemic racism. The chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat has also summoned Liu Yuxi, the Chinese ambassador to the AU.
Kenya has also expressed displeasure against the ill-treatment of Africans in China. A statement from the Kenyan foreign ministry highlights the “unfair responses against foreigners, particularly of African origin,” in Guangzhou. However, the Chinese embassy in Nairobi said the authorities in Guangzhou “have been tasked to take immediate action to safeguard the legitimate rights of the Africans concerned.”
During the early days of the pandemic, African nations were among those that praised the efforts of the Chinese government to contain the spread. Also, African nations were on the side of Chinese officials discouraging calls for evacuations.
Chinese government reaction to systemic racism claims
Early last week, President Xi Jinping of China urged authorities to watch imported cases carefully. However, the majority of the so-called imported cases are people with Chinese passports. Luo Zhaohui, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs put the figure at 90% on March 26. On the other hand, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian maintains that the Chinese government treats all foreigners equally. Lijian said,
“Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China and African countries have always supported each other and have always fought against the virus jointly. I would like to emphasize that the Chinese government treats all foreigners in China equally, opposes any differentiated practices targeted at specific groups of people, and has zero tolerance for discriminatory words and actions.”
So far, the total coronavirus cases in China is over 82,000. Also, over 3,300 people have lost their lives to the virus in the country. However, the total confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Africa is about 13,500 while the number of deaths is 740. The managing editor of the China Africa Project, Eric Olander has a different view on the issue.
“When China engages Africa it’s the central government that does that. But when it comes to immigration enforcement that happens at the local level. That explains why there’s an inconsistency in the more upbeat messaging we hear about Chinese diplomacy on the continent and the increasingly difficult realities that African traders, students, and other expatriates face in their day-to-day lives in China.”