This weekend, African politicians in several countries convened press conferences, took to Twitter and signed joint letters of protest to register their outrage over allegations of poor treatment of African migrants in China. This seems to have been provoked by a new wave of videos and other accounts of purported discrimination that surfaced on social media. The authenticity of these videos, in terms of when they were shot and the specific context behind the interactions they depict, has not been verified. Regardless, the videos and other accounts inflamed an already tense situation.
There were two notable moments in this latest upsurge in anti-Chinese anger, occurring within 24 hours on opposite sides of the continent.
During her Thursday night broadcast, popular Citizen TV (Kenya) anchor Yvonne Okwara issued a blistering commentary about the reports of mistreatment and abuse that Kenyans and other Africans have allegedly endured in Guangzhou and then went to blame her own government for making the situation worse.
“Kenyans in China were mistreated and locked out of their homes. A couple expecting a baby was reportedly denied medical assistance at a nearby hospital,” she said in reference to this video that circulated widely on Kenyan Twitter.
“They then did the natural thing that a child would do and ran to their mother, which would be the Kenyan Embassy in Beijing to seek help, but this help was not forthcoming so they were forced to sleep in the streets… I am sure that the ambassador herself has had a place to sleep, food to eat and will get medical attention if she requires it,” she declared in her on-air commentary.
Okwara’s commentary did not spark this outrage but it was a prominent voice in a louder and louder chorus across conventional and online media platforms beginning Thursday and continuing into the weekend.
Then on Saturday, a series of Tweets by Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama dramatically escalated the situation after he revealed that he called the Chinese ambassador, Zhou Pingjian, back to his office for the second time in a week to discuss the situation of Nigerians and other Africans in Guangzhou. This time, he did not sound anywhere near as accommodating as he did during his first press conference, where it seemed that he had accepted Ambassador Zhou’s assurance that the alleged mistreatment was due to poor communication and over-zealousness by Guangdong health authorities in enforcing COVID-19-related restrictions.
“Contrary to what was agreed, to the promises that had been made and guarantees are given, the situation has not seemed to have ameliorated. And this was totally unacceptable,” he said in a press conference. “How could it possibly be that landlords are not taking back Nigerian tenants? And this is something we just cannot accept,” he added.
After the press conference, the Foreign Minister tweeted: “There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to completely trespass on the rights and dignity of Nigerians and Africans.”
This confrontational turn comes as a surprise, given that both Foreign Minister Onyeama and the Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, signaled last week that they had accepted Ambassador Zhou’s explanation and that the matter had been “sorted out.”
Social Media Videos Like This One Helped to Fan Outrage in Africa Over Allegations of Discrimination in China
When an African woman approached the mandatory temperature screening to enter a Chinese shopping mall, the guard seemingly brushes her away without clearly explaining why he is refusing to take her temperature and not allowing her to enter the mall.
“Only us?” she asks presumably referring to other Africans in her group. The man taking the temperatures appears to ignore her while she looks around confused.
Then a white European woman approaches the man, he turns his attention to her and then gestures that she can enter. The guard then turns back to the African woman waving his hands, presumably to indicate that she cannot enter.
The white woman then turns back to the African woman and says: “I’m sorry I cannot help you.”
The video, which lacks data indicating when and where it was shot, was shared widely on Tik Tok, Twitter and Facebook. Many African commenters took it as proof that, contrary to Beijing’s official statements, discrimination against Africans and other black people continues in China.
Two of China’s most outspoken diplomats in Africa took to Twitter to challenge this assertion and to deny that the video represents anti-black discrimination in China:
- Zhao Baogang, Deputy Ambassador to Zimbabwe: “In China wherever u go ur temperature will be tested. if suspected of fever you will not enter the place. this is a distorted video.” (@zhaobaogang2011)
- Fang Yi, Head of Political Office of the Chinese Embassy in Uganda: “Many of the videos circulating online have been found to be edited and did not tell the whole story. The credibility and motive of these footages is highly questionable. To be specific, Chinese and foreigners in this video can’t communicate with each with language directly. (@FangYi85320692)
Calls to Evacuate Africans From China Grow Louder Over the Weekend
Popular Kenyan economist David Ndii was among a number of high profile African stakeholders, largely in Kenya and Nigeria, who called on their governments to evacuate “our people” due to the mounting concerns of mistreatment and discrimination in China.
The renewed calls for African evacuations from China highlight the yawning gap between the discourse that’s taking place between African political leaders, where the public-facing rhetoric conveys consensus between the two sides, and that going in vast parts of civil society where people like Ndii feel that peoples’ sense of “dignity” has been violated by what’s been happening in Guangzhou.
Kenyan China-Africa scholar and Fudan University Phd candidate, Cliff Mboya highlighted in a Twitter post over the weekend that the discussion about evacuations has much broader implications for the larger China-Africa relationship:
“These evacuations don’t augur well for China- Africa relations!!! It will take great effort to reverse this damage. No amount of aid and propaganda can cure this but a change in tact! One way is to embark on an inward looking domestic public diplomacy, there lies the problem!” (@C4Mboya)
Public Demands in Nigeria and Kenya for Evacuations from China
- NIGERIA: “Quite a number of Nigerians in the region indicated interest to return to Nigeria. We are putting in place, as quickly as possible, the mechanisms of bringing them home. That is the immediate solution to their plight,” said Geoffrey Onyeama. (VANGUARD)
- KENYA: “The Kenyan government has asked its nationals living in China and willing to be evacuated at own cost to file their contact details as soon as possible. Officials at the Kenyan Embassy in Beijing issued a notice on Friday asking anyone ready to buy a ticket out of China to send their information via an online platform to be helped out of the country via Guangzhou.” (DAILY NATION)
Chinese Officials Respond to Allegations of African Discrimination by Showing Videos of Normal, Daily Life in China
Chinese embassies and diplomats in Africa responded to this weekend’s surge of online videos that purportedly show discrimination of Africans in China by posting their own videos that show African residents in cities like Guangzhou freely going about their daily lives with no problems at all.
- GOING TO THE SUPERMARKET: An undated video with no apparent location shows a black person casually walking in to a supermarket and easily passing through a temperature check. (ChineseEmb_Uga)
- TAKING A TAXI: The Deputy Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Zhao Baogang, posted that a “friend in Guangzhou” sent him the security video from a taxi that shows a black passenger enjoying a perfectly normal ride. (@zhaobaogang2011)
- COMPLETING QUARANTINE: The Chinese embassy in Nigeria posted a video of a young Tanzanian woman who said she’s now going about her daily life without problems after completing the mandatory two-week isolation period. “We were in quarantine but we feel like we were home,” she said while walking through the streets of Guangzhou. (@china_emb_ng)
The move appeared intended to serve as a counter-narrative to all the discussion going on across African social media about the reported maltreatment of migrants. While that may have been the intent, it’s worth noting these videos, barely received any engagement or comments, so the overall impact is quite minimal.
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