Africa faces off with China over alleged racism and profiling

Saturday April 18 2020

People gather on a street in the "Little Africa" district in Guangzhou, the capital of southern China's Guangdong province on March 2, 2018. Africans in southern China's largest city say they have become targets of suspicion and subjected to forced evictions, arbitrary quarantines and mass coronavirus testing as the country steps up its fight against imported infections. PHOTO | FRED DUFOUR | AFP


A host of diplomats across the continent’s capitals either summoned Chinese ambassadors or wrote sharp protest letters to Beijing, objecting to the mistreatment that was captured in widely circulated social media clips.

China is reported to have imposed compulsory Covid-19 tests in its southern Guangdong city, but enforcement of the order saw blacks evicted from their residences, denied service in restaurants, hospitals and supermarkets and in some cases even assaulted.

The AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki, said Africa was “extremely concerned” at the reports of racial profiling of black people and called for immediate action.

He held talks with Chinese ambassador to the AU, Liu Yuxi; even as African ambassadors in Beijing also pushed the Chinese government on the matter.

The United States also protested against the mistreatment of African Americans, even as Beijing rejected strongly the accusations of racial discrimination.

Covid-19, which had by Friday infected nearly 2.2 million and killed almost 150,000, originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan early this year.


The Asian country has, however, successfully curbed the spread of the virus by imposing tough measures against public gatherings even as infections continue to soar in other parts of the globe.

The world’s second-biggest economy, which sees Africa as an important source of raw materials and market for its finished goods, is pulling all stops to prevent importation or fresh cases of the virus.

Remedial measures

Video clips emerged of blacks thrown onto the streets ostensibly because they did not meet the set of conditions imposed to tame spread of the virus.

Even as it denied charges of racial profiling, China has said that it will not relent in the fight against Covid-19, maintaining that every suspected individual will have to undergo strict quarantine measures.

In a departure from the traditional bilateral resolution of such issues, African countries appeared to take a common stand, and China’s response betrayed the gravity of the matter.

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on Wednesday placed a call to Mr Mahamat offering remedial measures, although a statement released by the African Union did not reveal specifics of the discussions.

Virus importation

Wu Peng, the Chinese ambassador to Nairobi, initially denied the accusations. But he later met with Kenya’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Macharia Kamau to receive Kenya’s “displeasure” over the matter.

“No excuse can justify discrimination and prejudice,” Kenya said in a statement.

Whether the Chinese response to the charge had calmed Africa was yet to be seen.

Kenya on Saturday sais it will evacuate its nationals, at their own cost, as a result of the social media clips.

China’s measures to curb importation of the virus have included granting foreigners special medical cards certifying their coronavirus negative status, which is used for admission into restaurants or markets.

It is a measure that Chinese officials say will stop importation of the virus back to where it all began.

China had by Friday reported 83,760 cases of Covid-19 since it reported the outbreak in late December. Official records show nearly 78,000 people have fully recovered and more than 4,000 died.

A dispatch released last week by the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicated “both Chinese and foreigners are required to observe local anti-epidemic regulations.”

China is using a controversial testing method called the nucleic acid test (NAT), which detects the genetic material of a micro-organism in blood. That test, some medical researchers say, is useful in detecting a disease early; but it can give data beyond Covid-19 status, by showing blood count and other existing infections like HIV or Hepatitis B.

The Chinese are also demanding that landlords let houses only to foreigners with special medical cards showing they were free of the virus.

Those certificates are obtained through forced quarantine, at own cost, for 14 days; after which one has to take four subsequent tests.

In total, one could stay in a hotel for up to four weeks, should anyone in the quarantined group test positive.

That Africans or people of colour were targeted may have something to do with the rank of Africa in the relationship with China, argued Joyce Kibet, the Head of Economic and Trade Pillar at the Regional Women Forum of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region .

Broken honeymoon?

China’s close economic relations with Africa and hefty loans borrowed by the continent’s leaders, she told The EastAfrican, have silenced any protestations against Chinese ill acts.

“This has continued to mute African governments’ ability to pull out the justice card on China’s human rights violations. The consequence of this is playing out as a current reality, as showcased by China’s mistreatment of Africans domiciled in China,” she said.

Africa should take this opportunity (of rare protests) to build a strong, short-term and long term continental human rights foreign policy model with China.

Such a model would allow the continent to respond collectively, as well as enact a collective escalation mechanism with regards to Sino-African human rights foreign policy that also calls for measurable gains towards China’s human rights relationship with Africa.”

The protest may have broken the “honeymoon” in China-Africa relations, Dr Kigen Morumbasi, a security expert and international relations lecturer at Strathmore University told The EastAfrican. Increased solidarity among Africans as shown this week, he argued, could pose a dilemma for Beijing.

“[It is] twofold: It threatens to weaken Africa’s confidence on FOCAC (the forum on China-Africa Co-operation, a tri-annual conference) and dent China’s social image on the continent,” he said.

The Kenya Diaspora Alliance, a founding member of the nascent Africa Diaspora Alliance, demanded a stop to the mistreatment.

“We stand in full solidarity with our African sisters and brothers in China who have had to tolerate the barbaric acts we have seen on our screens and social media the past few days,” said Shem Ochuodho, the KDA Global Chairperson.

Already, the spread of the virus had forced some African countries into local sustenance such as in production of masks, even though none of them wants to break bonds with the outside world.

“The main dilemma that China will face depending on how it tackles the matter is how Beijing will maintain the ‘image’ of China as a responsible international actor that seeks the creation of a harmonious society,” Dr Morumbasi added.