Written By Obianuju Eneh
Xenophobia is the dislike or prejudice against people from other countries. Not to be confused with racism which is prejudice based on the colour of your skin. In recent times it is a word that has been commonly attached to South Africans when in actual fact it happens all over the world.
There is nothing new about xenophobia, it happens every day and ranges from micro-aggressions to outright violence. In some cases; certain nationalities are victim to xenophobia following social dissatisfaction, economic turmoil or a high influx of a certain nationality migrating to a country.
The current global health crisis has changed everything we know about our world but not what we know about human nature. Naturally, someone has to be blamed for this outbreak and rightly so the Chinese response to the outbreak has been called into question. During the initial phase of the outbreak Chinese people in the diaspora have been victims of attacks, people have stopped using their services and President Trump coined Covid-19 as “The Chinese Virus”. Again, human nature shows us that someone has to be blamed for the outbreak. This is especially relevant as the largest German newspaper, Bild, have invoiced China with a €149bn bill for damages caused by the coronavirus.
Now, in China a second wave of the coronavirus has gripped the city of Guangzhou and Africans have become the new scapegoat. Guangzhou has the largest African community in Asia and has been nicknamed “Little Africa” because many flock to the city in the hopes that they can find a lucrative business opportunity. But Africans have seen attitudes towards their citizenship in the city have changed drastically – inexplicably.
When the second wave of the corona virus hit Guangzhou, the local government ordered a 14-day quarantine and surveillance of Africans even if they did not test positive for COVID-19. As a result, both Africans and Black Americans became the target of xenophobia. We have to ask: why were Africans in particular targeted and not the whole city? We have to ask this because the city of Wuhan is where the virus originated so why would they think that only Africans have the virus. This hate stems from an incident that took place at Guangzhou Eighth People’s Hospital where a Nigerian man was being treated for the virus. According to the Shanghaiist, the patient attempted to leave the quarantine ward and in the process attacked a Chinese nurse. These images were posted online, garnered a lot of attention and further enforced the negative opinions that the Chinese already had about Africans.
In addition to this, five Nigerians tested positive for the virus which sparked rumours of a second wave of the coronavirus which had been imported by foreigners, namely Africans.
As a result, Africans have been refused access to hospitals, they are being illegally evicted from their homes and they are being turned away from convenience stores. Significantly, all of this is being co-signed by the police and local government.
The mandatory testing, quarantining and xenophobia of Africans in Guangzhou has created a international relations crisis for China and African leaders. A number of African ambassadors in Beijing have written a letter to China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, demanding all mistreatment of Africans to end immediately.
Ghana’s Foreign Minister of Affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey addressed the Chinese Ambassador to express her disappointment with the treatment of Africans in the city. The Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila showed videos of Africans being mistreated in Guangzhou to the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria. Sierra Leone stated that 14 of their citizens had been placed in a compulsory 14 day quarantine. Kenya’s Foreign Ministry have spoken out against the xenophobia especially the actions of Chinese landlords. They will also be making provisions to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. 160 Moroccans were evicted from Wuhan China as well as Algerians, Libyans and Tunisians.
It has also caused Africans living in Africa to consider and scrutinise how they are treated by the Chinese in their own countries. A Chinese restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria was shut down by the Consumer Protection Commission after it became apparent that they do not service Nigerian nationals. This further emphasized a growing divide between African citizens and Chinese workers. Differently, it is important for African leaders and Chinese officials to maintain healthy diplomatic relations because of what both parties stand to lose if they fall apart – more so African nations.
It is difficult to say whether or not the Chinese are tackling this because they initially denied that the abuse of Africans were actually taking place in Guangzhou. They also stated that these were isolated incidents and that we should not sensationalise the images that are viral on social media.
Africans such as Nigerians, Kenyans, Malians and the Senegalese have been living and working in this city since the 90s and racism is definitely not a new experience. According to the Guardian, China has the lowest immigration in the world with just 0.7% of the population. It is no surprise that measures have not been taken to debunk negative stereotypes of foreigners. The resurgence of the virus also highlights the hypocrisy of the Chinese, as they were victims of xenophobia in foreign countries but quickly became that which they opposed. A Chinese comic posted a picture to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of twitter, which showed foreigners being thrown into the trash by the Chinese.
As many as 80,000 African students are currently in China as the Chinese have encouraged exchange programs especially with West African students. But what does this resurgence of xenophobia and racism mean for Africans and Black Americans?
Is it time for African leaders to reconsider their financial and industrial partnerships with the Chinese? Or is it too late?
Just 111 Africans have tested positive for the coronavirus in Guangzhou out of 1566 cases. With only 7% of the cases being African citizens, it is a reminder that racism is deep rooted in Chinese society.