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China’s African Communities Suffer as Covid-19 Fuels Anti-Foreign Sentiment

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In countries like the US, fear surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in documented attacks directed at those of Asian descent. Yet as China’s imported cases of the virus have increased — despite an official statement saying 90% of these cases were Chinese passport holders — recent incidents give reason to believe anti-foreign sentiment may also be surfacing.

In a since-deleted article on Chinese messaging app WeChat, a comic titled “An Illustrated Handbook on How to Sort Foreign Garbage” depicted foreigners being sorted into waste bins by people in hazmat suits. The sorting was based on offenses ranging from not wearing a mask, to secretly criticizing China online.

In other instances, netizens expressed anger over the “special treatment” foreigners received in quarantine, and still more criticized their lack of compliance with regulations on face masks. Stories of individuals being barred from establishmentsverbal aggression and even eviction are beginning to appear online.

And in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, rhetoric both online and offline demonstrates that this trend may be disproportionately affecting the city’s African communities, as anti-African sentiment rears its ugly head.

On Chinese social media platform Weibo, speculation swirled around a possible closing-off of Guangzhou’s Sanyuanli neighborhood. This came after reports that five new imported cases were Nigerian nationals, who had visited a number of restaurants and public places in the city before testing positive, and being taken under medical observation.

As the hashtag “Guangzhou Sanyuanli” (#广州三元里#) gained momentum — it sits at 300 million views to date — the online conversation quickly devolved into virulently racist posts directed at Africans. “They should go back to where they came from,” said one user. “It should have been locked down earlier,” wrote another. “Every time I go to Sanyuanli, I feel like I’ve gone to Africa.”

On April 7, the Office of the Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarters in Yuexiu District released a statement saying that rumors of the neighborhood’s closure were false, but that “strengthened control” related to original prevention and containment measures was in effect.

Stories of African residents of Guangzhou being harassed or evicted due to discrimination are also beginning to reach international news outlets. A Nigerian goods trader surnamed Chuk told CNN that he was refused from his hotel after the required 14 days quarantine, and along with 15 others, was left sleeping on the street for days.

Others said that they were singled out for testing by their employers and schools, despite not having left China for months or having had contact with any known patients. Community leaders in Guangzhou stressed, however, that to their knowledge testing would be happening at random.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since released a statement addressing the situation in Guangdong. “China and Africa are good friends, good partners, and good brothers,” says spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “In the process of epidemic prevention and control, the Chinese government has always attached great importance to protecting the lives, health and safety of foreign personnel in China. It treats all foreign personnel in China equally… and has zero tolerance for discriminatory words and deeds. […] African friends will be treated fairly, justly, and amiably in China.”

Anti-foreign — and particularly anti-Black — sentiment similarly arose around the news that China may relax its requirements for foreigners to apply for permanent residence. Many netizens responded with outrage about the prospect of letting “low-quality” foreigners — a term specifically aimed at Africans and other immigrants in subsequent online posts — being able to make China their home.

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However, the city of Guangzhou has had a lengthy and fruitful history of cultural exchange with its African residents. The city’s African community swelled in the ’90s, as West Africans settled in the port city to reap the benefits of China’s economic boom.

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Chinese-African cultural exchange has given rise to shared business ventures, deep personal relationships, and even all-new fusion food in cities like Nairobi.

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Yet there’s little doubt that the situation in Guangzhou could have a very detrimental effect on China’s relationship with a number of African nations.

As Eric Olander of the China Africa Project recently wrote on Twitter, captioning a video of “Chinese law enforcement pushing around a Nigerian man,” the “impact that these social videos are going to have on the broader China-Africa narrative is going to be enormous.”

Update: This article was updated to include the statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on April 12.

Header image: An African woman, back, and local Chinese residents walk on a road in Yuexiu district, Guangzhou

RADII Staff