The recent photos, videos of African nationals, living and/or working in China, being evicted from their homes by landlords or turned away from hotels, despite many claiming to have no recent travel history or known contact with COVID-19 patients are quite disturbing. It’s disturbing because of the default assumption that COVID 19 started from outside China, yet it emerged from within, and the world had to burden with the containment strategy on the same.
Sleeping on the streets
In some of the videos, awash on social media, African nationals can be seen being harassed by police and others sleeping on the streets in the cold southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
The unfortunate incidents have drawn ire from many parts of the continent particularly on social media with African social media users taking turns to attack the Chinese people, government over the racist and xenophobic actions exhibited in Guangzhou. In this regard, civil society organisations in Africa have launched a petition to the African Union on Chinese mistreatment of Africans in China.
The Chinese government ought to be pressured to respond adequately and in a manner that shows they acknowledge the problem at hand. So far, Beijing’s responses have been inadequate, unconvincing and insincere.
Incidentally, American media and government found this as an opportune time to put a wedge between China and Africa in their diplomatic rivalry and battle for political and economic influence across Africa. A statement from the US State Department said: “It’s unfortunate but not surprising to see this kind of xenophobia toward Africans by Chinese authorities…Anyone who watches Chinese engagement in projects across Africa recognises this kind of abusive and manipulative behaviour.”
Several African countries have remained mum except for a few who have released statements in that regard. Countries like Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana to name a few have spoken out over what happened in China.
Zimbabwe, a country that has aggressively pursued an active and engaged relationship with China than other African states chose not to speak. However, the reactions so far from African countries are weak and quite disappointing, they failed to hit the bull straight in the eye. It appears as if they are also defending the actions of the Chinese. The responses by the African leadership are worrisome as they confirm suspicions on shady deals that are happening at elite levels without consent by African citizens.
In a majority of the statements, no country dared challenge the Chinese government to at least acknowledge and apologise for the barbaric behaviour towards African nationals. Despite “expressing concern” over the incidents, our inferiority complex was exposed. One country after the other re-emphasised on the “excellent” relations dating back to the decolonisation project in Africa. It cannot be business as usual and this is not a very good example of excellent relations.
Posting on his, Twitter handle yesterday April 13, 2020, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat claimed that he had a phone call with Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi, who assured him of the measures underway in Guangzhou to improve the situation of Africans, in line with what he termed “the strong and brotherly partnership between Africa and China.”
For how long will Africa continue being beholden to China’s poisoned chalice, quoted in “generosity”?
One would have thought that Africa, through organised formations such as the African Union and her sub-regional blocs should aim at advancing and protecting its interests and that of its people first, but it seems there is a challenge of protecting our sovereignty in the face of a domineering imperial China.
In response, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied the stigmatisation and mistreatment of African nationals despite the overwhelming visuals of several of these incidents captured in Guangzhou. Several Chinese diplomats accredited to Africa had a fair share denying the allegations.
Consequently, the official statement made by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian displayed sheer arrogance lacked an acknowledgement of what had happened and bordered on emotional blackmail.
While the Chinese have been at pains to acknowledge the racial discrimination, McDonald’s China apologised after a video went viral, of a McDonald’s employee in Guangzhou, China, holding up a sign that read: “From now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant”.
Instead of (1) issuing an apology, (2) an expression of regret (3) a commitment to investigate the allegations (4) condemning the barbaric acts; the Chinese Foreign Ministry went on counting fingers and toes on the number of African countries they assisted. Overall, the response from China is disgusting, arrogant lack of sincerity and borders on a stinking superiority complex with clear insinuations that China is doing Africa a big favour.
The emphasis on mutual respect, brotherly love is not sincere as we have noticed that the relations between China and Africa are not as even as mutual as the emphasis being made.
What is happening in Guangzhou is not new, racism against Africans once hogged the limelight in 2013 and still, no decisive action was taken. Negative attitudes toward the peoples of Nigeria have been fuelled by their alleged involvement in drug-related crime in Guangzhou, which is a rather low bar.
A worrying trend
In a 2014 Al Jazeera report on African migrants in Guangzhou, journalist Jennifer Marsh highlighted the plight of African migrants. She noted that “While the central government publicly welcomes the migrants, recent draconian visa legislation has sent a clear signal: Africans in China – even highly prosperous, educated economic contributors — are not welcome.”
This, coupled with how the Chinese have treated Africans working for Chinese in Africa in places like Nairobi and Addis Ababa shows a serious challenge in the China-Africa relations. Several cases of racism, discrimination by the Chinese people in Africa with an exceptional case of a Chinese boss in Kenya comparing Africans to monkeys.
China’s relations with Africa have changed over the past half-century. In the decolonisation period, China played a critical role under the internationalism of its communist principles but as China emerges as a powerful capitalist state the relations have changed. Under the latest phase, China-Africa relations are now dominated by the search for natural resources and markets for its goods, in turn, African economies are loaded with debt and nationalist leaders are now shareholders in companies.
Thus, the weak statements from African countries point out to three fundamental narratives, Firstly, the African elites are compromised and embedded in the soft power cocoon at Chinese business relations level and as such in most African countries, you would notice that much of the shareholdings are between the Chinese and local elites. Secondly, the political party relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and ruling parties in most African countries are very cosy, the exchange programmes and scholarships that ruling party activists in Africa have been enjoying makes them compromised. Thirdly, African countries are benefitting from the Chinese Belt and Road initiative with infrastructural developments with the construction of airports, roads, railways and the telecommunications have left African leaders compromised and in this case, they do not have the moral standing to challenge China.
The question is, are these relations simply going to be a replica of what Walter Rodney in the book How Europe underdeveloped Africa said about Europe: “It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be in direct colonial rule,” and in this case China. Considering the racism it seems Africa hasn’t learnt anything from Walter Rodney.
Standing up to China
However, going forward, Africa (in particular the AU, regional bodies like ECOWAS, SADC, EAC and the civil society) must compile and document the evidence of the abuse of Africans in this regard and speak loudly against these abuses. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the African Union (AU), must show leadership and demand a public apology from the Chinese government over the racial xenophobic attacks committed in Guangzhou and other parts of China. China must be forced to apologise and put in place clear measures to bring this barbarism to an end before it escalates. There is a need for genuine engagements of both parties to ensure peace to improve people to people relations based on genuine mutual respect.
Further to the afore-stated, the peoples of Africa need to increase muscle as the agency in the holding of their respective political leaders through people to people solidarity. This is the time to consider such a move especially when African citizens are vulnerable in economic capitals with an enslaving mindset like China. In essence, if the AU is to be considered a serious actor in the global polity, it needs to move with speed to facilitate for the repatriation of African citizens, despite its Headquarters in Addis Ababa being a donation from China. Without citizen to citizen solidarity, Africans, you stand alone!