On April 8, a 15-person Chinese medical team arrived in Nigeria to assist with the country’s fight against COVID-19. The team brought with them more than a million masks, ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment and other pandemic essentials. It was another example of Chinese support for African countries during what is now one of the darkest, excruciating periods for humanity. But, the same day, I started to receive reports of Africans being discriminated against in Guangdong province, based on their COVID-19 status – videos of Nigerians roaming the streets of Guangzhou (Guangdong’s capital city) and sleeping under bridges amid rainfall went viral on social media.
Since I had traveled across China for 10 months in 2018, courtesy of the Chinese government, I have extensive contacts within the African community in China. Within minutes, I was able to reach a couple of Nigerians living in Guangzhou, and they confirmed the videos, adding that it appeared authorities in Guangzhou had also ordered mass testing of black people in the city. However, Chinese authorities, at the time, reiterated that China does not condone any form of discrimination against foreigners. “China always attaches great importance to the safety and health of foreign nationals in China and protects their legitimate rights and interests in accordance with law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said on April 7th.
On April 9th, Zhao was asked, again, to respond to the discrimination reports. “As for what you mentioned, we noted reports on that,” he said. “I’d like to stress that we treat all foreign nationals equally in China. We reject differential treatment, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination.” He also noted that China pays “high attention to the occasional incidents and misunderstandings” and urged “relevant authorities to improve working methods.”
By April 10, top Nigerian lawmaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, had summoned the Chinese Ambassador in Nigeria, Zhou Pingjian, and asked him about the incidents, reiterating that Nigerian citizens must be treated with respect anywhere in the world. Across Nigerian social media, there was an outcry about Chinese racism towards black people.
The irony is stark.
Over the past 20 years, no other country in the world has increased its economic and political investment in Africa as much as China. Chinese banks have funded infrastructure projects across the continent, provided aid running into billions of dollars and supported Chinese entrepreneurs to invest on the continent, creating jobs and manufacturing capacity. China, also, has never been far away during some of the continent’s trying times. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, Chinese doctors were on the ground in countries like Sierra Leone to mitigate the health crisis. Every year since 1991, Chinese foreign ministers’ first trip outside the country is always to Africa.
But reports of discrimination against black people is not uncommon in China. The incidents in Guangzhou, for example, are not novel. In 2018, Africans were denied hotel accommodation in the port city based on profiling of black people as illegal immigrants or criminals involved in the drug trade. It appears a case of profiling sparked the recent purge.
Although the COVID-19 was first reported in China, the country has managed to tame the virus’ spread. On April 7, China reported no new coronavirus deaths and Wuhan, which went on complete lockdown in early January, is gradually being reopened. Now, the Chinese government is worried about a second wave of infections brought in by foreign arrivals. On April 7, China’s National Health Commission confirmed 32 new cases of the coronavirus, all of who, the government said, were people who had arrived from overseas.
So officials were naturally on edge when five Nigerians who had reportedly eaten at the Emma Food restaurant on Kuangquan Street in Guangzhou were found to be infected with the deadly virus. But, then, landlords, local authorities and hotel operators began to evict black migrants from their homes and hotel rooms without recourse to standard contact tracing.
“It’s not exactly clear if this was a coordinated effort or random panic about the spread of COVID-19,” remarked Eric Olander, managing editor of The China Africa Project.
Regardless, to generalize based on skin color will always be a grave, moral injustice.
While the current controversy might only linger for a while and soon be forgotten in the long, winding cabinets of history, Beijing must realize these are the incidents that tarnish its positive relationship with African countries and create deep distrust of China and its intentions among the more than a billion people living on the continent. Beijing should acknowledge that discrimination against black people exists in China and must publicly condemn such acts. People who are found guilty of discrimination must also be reprimanded accordingly. It is not enough for China to profess its friendship with Africa through its deeds on the continent, but also on home soil. After all, as they say, charity begins at home.
While traveling across China in 2018, with more than 25 other African journalists, I made many friends and experienced Chinese hospitality in all its shades of warmth and splendor. But our African group wasn’t spared the frequent stabs of racism. For example, in Hubei province, a woman hurried out of the swimming pool because two of my colleagues, Omphi and Tlotlo, got in. She swore as she stalked away, suggesting that their skin had contaminated the water.
All racism is grounded in ignorance, so the Chinese government should create practical plans to educate its citizens and also embark on public sensitization programs aimed at dispelling myths of blackness being inferior, being ‘dirty’. This is a very serious problem. In 2016, a Chinese laundry detergent advertisement featured a black man being washed to become white. A blackface skit with monkey costumes at a New Year gala program in 2018, which was broadcast widely across China, is another example of Chinese racial blunders. It is a very grave problem, which Beijing must take very seriously if it truly considers its relationship with African countries as one of great friendship and mutual benefit.
Solomon Elusoji is a journalist working in Lagos. Over the past seven years, he has worked on development stories across Nigeria. In 2018, he became a China-Africa Press Centre (CAPC) fellow after living and reporting across China for ten months.
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