By Ma Tianjie
If “people to people connection” was really one of the five pillars of the Belt and Road Initiative, it has been seriously damaged over the past week. The disturbing images and video clips of shelterless Africans roaming the streets of Guangzhou, as the result of evictions, rattled the cyberspace of the African continent and started a diplomatic crisis rare in the history of China-Africa relationship.
The incident was one of the unintended consequences of China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, now in its 5th month since the first reported cases emerged in Wuhan, Hubei province in December 2019. As domestic spread of the virus is more or less brought under control and situations in other parts of the world became more serious in recent months, the frontline of the response effort began to shift: emphasis was put more on stemming the import of cases from overseas. Chinese and foreigners returning from international hotspots of outbreak were subject to quarantine and testing measures that had gradually evolved in China with sophistication and force. And Guangzhou’s African community, the largest in Asia, began to feel the heat, as landlords and hotels began evicting black tenants out of both panic and prejudice. The resultant scene created an ugly spectacle and a cross-continental outcry.
By the end of Apr 15, the issue had been declared “sorted out” by African leaders, who, days earlier had made open and unprecedented protests about the situation to Chinese diplomats and officials. There are signs that African governments are now ready to move on and return the relationship to normalcy after receiving assurance from the Chinese government of “equal treatment of foreigners” and “zero tolerance for discrimination”.
But as Nigerian journalist Solomon Elusoji wrote in a latest China-Africa Project analysis, “while the current controversy might only linger for a while and soon be forgotten in the long, winding cabinets of history, Beijing must realize these are the incidents that tarnish its positive relationship with African countries and create deep distrust of China and its intentions among the more than a billion people living on the continent.”
The impact of the incident, on the hearts and minds of the African public and on the long-term prospect of China’s presence on the continent, will likely be long-lasting regardless of the intention of political elites on both sides. Here is a quick take on how the situation is going to continue to playout in the near future, based on information available to us from public sources.
1. Tensions between Chinese authorities and African communities will likely continue
When Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke of “equal treatment” and “zero discrimination”, he was talking in code language that only those familiar with dynamics of the country’s Covid-19 response in the past months could fully comprehend
Racial discrimination against black people, manifested both online and offline, is not uncommon in China. Elusoji, a guest of the Chinese government in a 2018 tour in China, experienced it firsthand. But another side of the story, that is often lost in international conversations about the situation, is the issue of perceived “preferential treatment” of foreign citizens within China, which has intensified tensions amid the implementation of confining Covid-19 control measures across the country.
Before the Guangzhou situation flared up, Chinese internet has witnessed multiple controversies of foreign residents in China being “taken better care of” than Chinese citizens under the coronavirus control regime. In some situations, this translated directly into more lenient quarantine measures for foreign nationals than for Chinese citizens. This created huge resentment online and began to challenge the credibility of the government’s pandemic fighting measures for the citizenry. Exceptional cases of assault on nurse by a Nigerian Covid-19 patient and group infection of 5 Nigerian residents of Guangzhou only made things worse.
It was in this context that on Mar 9, Beijing city had to make an explicit statement about “bringing all foreign nationals under the same coronavirus prevention regime as Chinese citizens.” It is also the subtext of Zhao Lijian’s “equal treatment” reference. It can mean equal treatment with respect. It can also mean equal treatment of coercion (as Chinese citizens know well).
The Guangzhou incident is possibly a mixture of over-correction on “equal treatment” and terrible under-performance on cultural and racial sensitivity. There were complaints that African people were subject to an extra 14-day quarantine on top of the existing quarantine rules applied to everyone in Guangzhou. If controlling the pandemic is the final goal, then racial profiling, targeting people based on skin color rather than epidemiologically relevant factors such as travel and contact history, which China has proved effective at tracking via mobile apps and QR codes during the epidemic period, does not make sense.
But coronavirus also exposed the deep-rooted issue of managing foreign nationals in Guangzhou. For China’s brand of pandemic-fighting measures to work, which has now evolved into an ultra-sophisticated system of mandatory hotel quarantine, home quarantine, neighborhood watch, travel history tracking and massive testing, it has to have a confident grasp of the movement of people living in China. While Chinese citizens can be more easily brought under such a society-wide system of control through all kinds of surveillance and administrative measures, foreign nationals are more challenging to incorporate. Different visa types, people working on incorrect visas, multiple nationalities and the diplomatic issues that entails, as well as various language and cultural factors all make it more difficult to monitor and control this diverse group of residents.
As Yangcheng Wanbao, Guangzhou’s influential local newspaper, pointed out in an Apr 9 Weibo post, Guangzhou’s African community management was a “black hole” (without racial connotation) in the middle of the city. Authorities there genuinely have a hard time keeping track of the African population, which for many years has taken root in the southern China city known for its highly active international trade sector. At a “normal” time, such undocumented presence might not pose too much a problem other than occasional need for order keeping. But Covid-19 will likely force the hand of the authorities to fundamentally change the status quo and eliminate grey areas that have so far shaped the existence of the African community there.
Regardless of this contextualizing of the Guangzhou incident in the past and in light of the pressure of Chinese public sentiment and pandemic-fighting measures, new cases of profiling and arbitrary treatment may well emerge and further test the strength of so-called “China-Africa brotherhood.”
2. Chinese social media will be slightly tamed for racial contents
To further complicate things, throughout the Guangzhou incident, Chinese social media (Weibo and WeChat) became hotbeds for racist comments against the African community. The Chinese internet actively censors any information that is considered politically sensitive, but racially inflammatory comments, including the N-word, did not seem to qualify for that category. This is beginning to change.
On Apr 15, Weibo suspended and permanently shutdown 180 user accounts for “publishing information about foreign countries” and “promoting community discrimination.” As most of the accounts and contents in question are now deleted, it is impossible to find out what exactly triggered the crackdown. But given the timing, it is reasonable to assume that recent events have prompted Chinese authorities to take a hard look at racial discrimination on social media.
Even though Chinese internet users inhabit a cyberspace separated from the rest of the world by the Great Firewall, the Guangzhou incident shows that what’s being said inside the wall can still penetrate the double barriers of language and technology and cause outcry outside of China’s borders. Over the last few weeks, a great number of African social media users (many of whom speak and read Chinese after studying or working in China) screenshotted and translated Weibo utterances of racism on Weibo and posted them on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
In some cases, Chinese internet users jumped over the fence (using VPNs) to pick fights with netizens in other countries over what they considered cultural and political offenses, actively bringing insults to the cyberspace of other countries. From the information released by Weibo, at least one user was suspended for participating in the online quarrel with Thai users over perceived offenses. An episode (unrelated to the Guangzhou incident) that became a spectacle on Twitter and created new vocabulary in the Urban Dictionary.
Chinese social media’s agitating role in racial and foreign affairs has been made clear by incidents in Guangzhou and beyond. This will likely bring more regulatory (i.e. censoring) attention to such content in the near future. Whether this will actually contain its destructive force in the China-Africa relationship is yet to see. If the root cause of tension is unaddressed, social media is but one place where grievance, bigotry and outright hatred bubble up.
3. True people to people connection is taking place
As people stare into the bleak future of China-Africa connections at the civilian level, severely tarnished by the latest incident, one may find some hope in the grassroots efforts trying to build bridges and tend to the wounds.
As some Chinese web users indulged themselves with racial slurs, others alarmed concerned compatriots that “if we don’t do something about racism in China, everyone will pay for the downward spiral of hatred between Chinese and Africans.”
Motivated Chinese netizens pressured McDonald’s for an explanation and apology for a “no black” notice at one of its stores in Guangzhou. And a group of volunteers self-organized to provide support to Africans who have lost shelter in the city.
One impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China is a rekindled sense of civic duty among many of its citizens. The crisis that almost brought Wuhan to its knees in Jan and Feb mobilized people to donate and volunteer for their fellow countrymen. Now that sense of civic duty is being extended to Africans in Guangzhou.
Such efforts are not without costs. Paranoid Guangzhou residents reported the volunteers to the police, claiming that they were undermining pandemic control measures. It highlights the stubbornness of anti-black sentiments but also the preciousness of citizens standing up to such prejudice.
As the world continues its struggle against the coronavirus and experiences the cracks in the international order that are emerging and widening, the events in Guangzhou in the spring of 2020 will forever form part of the covid-19 experience for both China and Africa. Communities on both sides can choose to go along with the downward spiral or turn it into the beginning of a difficult yet necessary conversation. Doing the latter would take agency, wisdom, and time.