People of African descent are facing a disturbing wave of discrimination in China amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this week. The report comes after anti-African racism in Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people in Guangdong province, rose to international attention in a slew of viral social media posts last month. Examples included a laminated paper sign displayed at McDonald’s with the words “black people are not allowed to enter,” a black woman being denied entry into a shopping center, and African migrants, forcibly evicted from their apartments, stranded on the streets.
“Chinese authorities claim ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, but what they are doing to Africans in Guangzhou is a textbook case of just that,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing should immediately investigate and hold accountable all officials and others responsible for discriminatory treatment.”
Guangzhou is home to the largest African community in China. While about 14,000 nationals of African countries are known to live in the city, researchers estimate that many more are there undocumented. At the end of the 2000s, according to some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Africans lived there. Many work in the city’s wholesale markets since they’re barred from other kinds of employment, such as factory work.
Anti-African discrimination came to a head in the city in April, after online rumors started circulating that parts of Guangzhou with large African communities were quarantined and two Nigerians who had tested positive for COVID-19 escaped, and a state news agency reported that a Nigerian man attacked a Chinese nurse in an attempt to leave an isolation ward. On April 12, Guangdong province began a campaign to test all foreigners, but Human Rights Watch says that, in practice, the authorities only targeted and quarantined Africans. Many of those targeted had no recent travel history or contact with individuals who had tested positive.
Since early April, people of African descent in Guangzhou have been evicted, forced to sleep on the streets, barred from public transit, and refused services at hotels and restaurants, the report found, while other foreigners have generally not received similar treatment.
For the most part, the Chinese government has denied any form of discrimination in Guangzhou. “All foreigners are treated equally,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated on April 12. “We reject differential treatment, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination.” As Human Rights Watch pointed out, Chinese state media also ran stories that attempted to debunk “twisted reports” of discrimination by claiming foreigners are treated equally and criticizing Western media for highlighting supposed misunderstandings and “provok[ing] the problems between China and African countries.”
On Monday, however, the Chinese government finally announced new measures to combat racial discrimination in Guangzhou, Quartz Africa reported. The Chinese Embassy in Nigeria said that Guangdong province officials are implementing “measures on ensuring equal services in nine sectors,” which target sectors and businesses that have been denying Africans service. The authorities have also established a hotline for foreign nationals with concerns.
But it may be too little too late. “You can’t just tell people one day that the blacks have the virus, and the second day that black people are not that bad,” a black Canadian man in Guangzhou told Human Rights Watch. “You can’t expect people to suddenly embrace that. Literally, people are running away from me on the street.”
China’s new position comes after a diplomatic crisis ensued between China and several African countries. Over the past two decades, the economies of China and Africa have become increasingly intertwined, as China has become the largest trading partner for the entire continent. Because of this, it’s rare for African leaders to criticize China—which has invested billions of dollars in African countries through loans and investments—but the conditions in Guangzhou have led to rare sustained pressure, condemnation, and demands from African leaders. Ghana’s foreign affairs minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, called for the Chinese government to address the situation immediately. “I regret and highly condemn this act of ill-treatment and racial discrimination,” she said in a statement.
While African leaders are now speaking up, anti-African discrimination in China is nothing new. As Hsiao-Hung Pai wrote in the Guardian, the pandemic has only exposed China’s long history of anti-African racism. Even before the pandemic, Pai wrote, China had harsh immigration crackdowns and routinely prevented African migrants from living in certain areas of Guangzhou. Africans also have no legal recourse against racial discrimination, Pai pointed out.
It’s been clear for centuries that infectious diseases can bring out a society’s worst tendencies to vilify the other and to find and target imagined threats—usually ethnic groups—for invisible viruses. In medieval Europe, Jews were the scapegoats for the plague. In 19th-century America, it was Irish immigrants for outbreaks of cholera. During the coronavirus, people of East Asian descent, particularly from China, have been targets of violent discrimination in the U.S. and other western countries. Guangzhou’s treatment of Africans is yet another instance of a community that has been long been subject to unequal treatment receiving heightened abuse in a time of crisis.