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African expats accuse China of xenophobia

Ineke Mules
April 14, 2020

Africans in Guangzhou say they were forcibly evicted from their homes and refused new accommodation. After initially denying the claims, Beijing is now scrambling to mend diplomatic relations with the continent.

Xi Jinping visits South Africa
Image: picture alliance/landov/L. Hongguang

Africans living in China's city of Guangzhou have accused Chinese authorities of discrimination after being subjected to compulsory coronavirus testing and a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Students and expatriates in a part of the city known as "Little Africa" were forced to remain inside their apartments last week, regardless of their recent travel history or risk of exposure to the virus. Many others say they were evicted without warning and left homeless. 

Read more: Building Africa: Can Europe's construction firms compete with China's?

The situation has pushed Beijing into damage control out of fear the dispute could set back years' worth of diplomatic outreach across Africa. 

'You can't argue' 

Several Africans reported being forcibly evicted from their apartments by their landlords and refused accommodation in hotels around the city.

Herman Assa, a Cameroonian living in Guangzhou, told DW he and his fellow expats have little control over the situation.

"Sometimes, a landlord just tells you to pack up and leave the house," he says. "If you argue, they tell you the police have told them they've been given quick notice that you need to leave the house."

Finding new accommodation following eviction also proved difficult. Assa and others claim they were either forced to pay extra or turned away.

"Sometimes if you want accommodation, you pay extra. If a house costs 1000 Yuan (€130, $141) per month, you will pay 2000 Yuan…You can't argue. If you do, they won't listen to you. And when I was trying to negotiate for a new house, the police came and told me to stay in that vicinity. The security guard called the police, and then they came and told me I could not stay in that area." 

Read more:How China benefits from Africa's smartphone boom

African economy too dependent on China

With coronavirus reportedly now contained mainly within China, residents are concerned over the possibility of a second wave being brought back into the country by overseas travelers. However, African expats living in Guangzhou say this treatment has little to do with curbing the transmission of coronavirus but is instead part of a broader xenophobic campaign against Africans driven by misinformation and fear.

"My friends have complained that they have gone to the shops and are then being told 'no-no, you can't enter here," says Assa. "They have been told that Africans now have the highest epidemic rate and are importing the disease back into China."

Africans living outside of Guangzhou also say they are being asked to stay indoors. "Since the de-confinement of the city on April 8, we international students have always been confined," Nankouman Keita, a Guinean student studying in Wuhan, told DW. "We don't know the reason. When we see our Chinese friends in the city, we don't understand. Morally, it's not right."

Although newly imported cases of COVID-19 have been recorded, they are primarily linked to Chinese citizens returning home from abroad.

China reported 108 new cases on Sunday, over 90% of which were imported, with Chinese citizens returning from Russian accounting for approximately half.

A total of 111 African nationals living in Guangzhou tested positive for coronavirus during the initial outbreak. The city's executive vice mayor said on Monday that 4,553 Africans had undergone testing in Guangzhou since April 3.

However, according to city officials, a total of 4,553 Africans currently live in the city – implying that every African registered has been tested.

Africans at home react with anger

Back home, African citizens and politicians alike have responded with anger and resentment to reports of alleged xenophobia in China, as first-person accounts of those affected by discrimination continue to circulate online.

"Of course videos were circulating on social media of very disturbing scenes involving Nigerians in the city of Guangzhou," said Nigeria's minister of foreign affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama."The narrative was that Nigerians were being discriminated against…and were being stigmatized against as carriers of COVID-19. Of course, this was extremely distressing for us all."

In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party issued a statement against China's treatment of African nationals.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the abuse and racist mistreatment of Africans living and working in China; particularly, at a time when we should be supporting each other to recover from the coronavirus pandemic," the statement read. 

China tries to mitigate the diplomatic crisis

Over the past decade, Beijing has sought to establish strong diplomatic and trade ties with African states. There are fears that the current dispute may damage some of these ties beyond repair if the concerns are not quickly addressed.

According to official figures from China's General Administration of Customs, China's trade with Africa was worth $208 billion in 2019.

After initially denying any form of discrimination against "African brothers," China's foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijan, said on Monday that action would be taken in the days ahead to address the alleged poor treatment of African expats in the region.

"In response to some African countries' concerns about their citizens in Guangdong Province, the authorities have conducted an investigation and adopted a series of new measures. We believe that with the joint efforts of both China and Africa, the issue will be properly resolved."

African economy too dependent on China

The ambassadors of some African countries in China sent a jointly-signed letter to Foreign Minister Wang Wi, asking authorities to work harder to stamp out discrimination against Africans.

"The Group of African Ambassadors in Beijing demands the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhumane treatments meted out to Africans," it read.

The note also highlighted a number of specific incidents, alleging that Africans were having their passports seized after being evicted from their accommodation and were threatened with deportation or arrest.

Ghana's foreign minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchway, and the leader of Nigeria's lower house of parliament also met with the Chinese ambassadors of their respective countries last week to follow-up on reports of mistreatment of their citizens.

The African Union (AU) also expressed "extreme concern" over the situation and has called on Beijing to remedy the issue as soon as possible.

China accuses the US of exacerbating discord

The US has also stepped into the dispute, with two US diplomats warning African-Americans to stay away from the Guangzhou metropolitan area.

They issued an alert that city authorities had told restaurants and bars to refuse to serve those who "appear to be of African origin" and that mandatory tests and quarantines were being imposed on anyone with "African contacts."

On Twitter, US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus decried the treatment of Africans as "shameful xenophobia." 

China responded strongly to the US's involvement, accusing diplomats of trying to exploit the situation to harm relations between China and Africa.

"Under the current situation where the international community urgently needs to work together and fight against the epidemic, it is irresponsible and immoral for the US to sow discord," said Zhao Lijan. "Its attempt to drive a wedge between China and Africa will never succeed."

The US has frequently cautioned against African states becoming too economically intertwined with China, as the emerging superpower seeks to secure long-term diplomatic relations on the continent with promises of loans and investment.

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