Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images

‘Here in China, we have no voice’

Africans living in Guangzhou say they are being accused of spreading the coronavirus and face arbitrary quarantines and discrimination

Volunteers in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

Nine days ago, Jerry Christian, a 24-year-old Ugandan student, was forced into mandatory quarantine in Guangzhou, southern China. He was removed so swiftly from his apartment by seven policemen and four doctors that he could not read the name of the hotel he was taken to. Officials locked him in his room and warned him that he faced punishment if he protested in any way.

“I don’t feel safe,” Christian told me via a WhatsApp voice call. He added that he has no recent travel history and had been tested negative for the virus by the authorities less than a week before he was detained. “I was healthy,” he said. “I’m worried about my life.”

Christian’s experience mirrors that of a number of people in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub of 13 million residents and home to the largest African population — about 15,000 — in China. While restrictions on movement were lifted after a 76-day lockdown, local authorities in Guangzhou maintained that Africans must remain quarantined amid fears that they are spreading the virus. Around 4,500 African traders, students and migrants now face strict pandemic control measures, including repeated testing and arbitrary isolation in government facilities, hotels or their apartments.

The crackdown began in early April after five Nigerians tested positive for Covid-19. Local authorities upgraded the risk levels in two African communities and began forcefully isolating them. Videos on social media showed Africans being turned away from public spaces, including a local McDonald’s, which had put up a notice that read, “We’ve been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant.” McDonald’s China has since issued an apology in a statement to NBC News. 

In the weeks since, reports of xenophobic attacks on Africans by Chinese citizens have increased. Landlords have also kicked African tenants out of private apartments and hotels, forcing them to sleep on the street. 

This treatment has stirred such anger that it is now threatening to harm China’s economic relations with the continent. Along with the African Union, a dozen governments including those of Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana met with Chinese ambassadors and protested the mistreatment of Africans. A group of African ambassadors in Beijing also published an open letter urging authorities to stop the “inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.” The letter stated that “stigmatization and discrimination” created the false impression that Africans are responsible for spreading the virus.

China has denied victimizing Africans in any way. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Linjian explained in a statement on the ministry’s website that the country is under great pressure to prevent a second outbreak of Covid-19, but added that it had “zero tolerance for discrimination.” 

“The Guangdong authorities attach great importance to some African countries’ concerns and are working promptly to improve their working methods,” he said. 

Prominent activist organizations have also condemned China’s actions. On April 12, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Coronavirus shouldn’t be a pretext for discrimination: Africans in China have become targets of suspicion and subjected to forced evictions, arbitrary quarantines and mass coronavirus testing, as Beijing steps up its fight against imported infections.”

Following the backlash, the authorities distributed gifts of cookies, masks and thermometers to Africans in Guangzhou. Some have also received government certificates stating that they are free of the virus. This documentation should allow them to move around normally, but a number of Africans spoken to for this story said officials had told them to remain indoors for now. 

Last week, the Chinese embassy in Kenya posted two videos on Twitter showing Africans happily going about their daily lives. “We never ignore the concerns of African friends in Guangzhou,” said the text accompanying one post. Another video posted on Twitter by the Chinese embassy in Uganda showed African residents entering a supermarket. 

But according to a spokesperson from Black Livity China, a reporting organization that focuses on the African experience in the country, free gifts will not make up for the mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou. 

“A lot of people feel like these simple gestures will not erase or downplay what has happened,” said the spokesperson, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “There’s a sense that we’ve suffered these injustices and this token will not erase or downplay that. As long as the Chinese government keeps on reporting new cases, saying, ‘Oh, imported by foreigners from this particular country,’ I think that hostility is just going to build and fester.”

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has courted African nations with billions of dollars in infrastructure loans, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma delivered millions of testing kits and large amounts of personal protective equipment to all 54 African countries in March, and 23 Chinese doctors have been dispatched to Algeria and Nigeria to counter the spread of the coronavirus. However, China’s image in Africa now appears somewhat tarnished. Following reports of discrimination against Africans, Nigeria announced plans to evacuate its citizens from the country last week. On Thursday, Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said the country was “deeply wounded” by the discriminatory treatment.    

According to W. Gyude Moore, a policy analyst with the Center for Global Development and a former Liberian minister, the deep economic ties between China and Africa mean that these tensions could be resolved quickly.

“African governments needing assistance to respond to the pandemic — whether on debt or the provision of medical supplies — cannot afford to antagonize China right now,” he said.

Alongside his immediate anxieties about the virus and the prospect of a prolonged period in lockdown, Christian fears for the future. He was recently evicted from his apartment by his landlord, and is worried he will no longer be able to rent a home when the restrictions are eventually lifted. He also continues to face discrimination and says the leaders of African countries should intervene to help.

“Wherever I go, Chinese people pick up their phones and start recording videos, which trend on their social media platforms like Weibo,” he said. “Here in China, we have no voice and I’ll advise our leaders to wake up and stop all this.”

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Shola Lawal

Shola Lawal writes about the environment, human rights, migration, conflict and gender. She received the Future Awards Africa Prize for Journalism in 2019. She is based in Lagos, Nigeria.