Reports of maltreatment of Africans in China are as disheartening as they are condemnable. Africa had accepted Beijing with open arms. But what happened in that Asian country recently ran counter to the principle of reciprocity in international relations.
The major issue here was that officials in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, home to Asia’s largest African migrant population, subjected many African nationals to coronavirus-related discrimination. Some of these Africans were evicted by their landlords and rejected by hotels in the city such that they had to sleep in the street. They were also forced to undergo coronavirus testing and arbitrary 14-day self-quarantine. Local shops refused to attend to them and other black people. The situation was such that even McDonald apologised after reportedly barring black customers from its restaurant in Guangzhou.
The maltreatment of Africans in China smacks of racism. The Chinese cannot do this to American or European citizens. And it is simply a reflection of how Africa is perceived in international relations.
What engendered these incidents were concerns in China that foreign travellers might bring in a second wave of the COVID-19. Though the disease originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the Chinese believe they have significantly contained it. Local authorities see Africa as the source of the largest number of imported cases. As at early April, the city of Guangzhou identified 119 imported cases. Out of this number, 25 are said to be foreign nationals. Thus, local Chinese began to fear that all Africans in the city were infected. Though the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, denied the story of the maltreatment of foreigners, he emphasised that the country was still facing imported cases and domestic resurgence.
It is worthy to note that discrimination against black Africans is not new in China. COVID-19 only heightened it. The feeling in some quarters is that the visas of some Africans have expired. Hence, they allegedly evade mandatory testing and inspections because of fear of arrest and deportation. Even those who have undergone mandatory quarantine have had to reportedly pay between $40 and $50 per day, and $2,500 for treatment, a bill many of them cannot afford.
There was revulsion in Africa when videos of these harassments and inhuman treatment went viral on the social media. A member of Kenya’s parliament, for instance, called on Chinese nationals to leave Kenya immediately. Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Zhou Pingjian, over the incident. He further lamented that the images of Nigerians seen in the streets with their possessions were extremely distressing for Nigerians at home.
The Foreign Ministry of South Africa expressed deep concern over the reports. Ghana and Uganda also summoned their respective Chinese ambassadors to register their protests. The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, expressed extreme concern and invited the Chinese Ambassador to the African Union to personally discuss the allegations. The former African Union Ambassador to the United States and president, African Diaspora Development Institute (ADDI), Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, also kicked against the maltreatment.
While we support the protests, we urge African countries to ensure that this matter is resolved diplomatically. Else, it may greatly undermine China’s diplomatic and trade efforts in Africa. In bilateral relations with Beijing, African countries are usually the weaker partners. As at 2019, China’s trade with Africa was reportedly worth $208 billion. China has given medical, fiscal and infrastructure support and expert advice to many African countries. But when it gives loans to some of these African countries, key assets are pledged to service such loans. Most times, these countries are trapped and their sovereignty compromised because of repayment hurdles.
We are of the view that if Africa has respected China, China should also respect Africa. African Union and African countries should stand up and demand fair treatment from China. But they have to, first of all, make Africa a proud place and erase the poor perception others have of the continent as an economic parasite.
Good enough, Chinese authorities have promised to gradually ease restrictions against Africans except for confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients as well as others with close contacts. They are also said to have started providing lodging and food to affected resident Africans.
In addition, Beijing should ensure that Africans are protected now and even after COVID-19. Punitive measures should be meted out against those engaging in discriminatory practices against Africans. Efforts should also be geared towards reintegrating African population into local Chinese communities.