Covid-19 pandemic tests China’s response to its African neighbourhood

Does China really brace its African brotherhood?

On April 8, Anda was heading to the lab to continue his research as usual but was held back by his school. The university told him via a phone call that he couldn’t come to the lab according to “certain government policy”.

Then, the police visited his apartment, checking his passport and interrogating if he had been moving around. After the inquiry, the police put a notice on the door of his apartment, informing the neighbour his family will be quarantined. 

For the following four weeks, Anda had a “boring” quarantine life with his family, occupied with video games and indoor exercises. “My wife was tired. My son was not happy as he couldn’t go out. But there is nothing we could do because we have to abide by the rules.”

In April, thousands of African residents like Anda were suddenly mandated to self-quarantine for at least 14 days in Guangzhou, China. The city hosts the largest African population in Asia, which is estimated around 15,000 to 25,000

As a prosperous port and heart of the “world factory”, Guangzhou has been attracting African traders since the early 2000s. The majority of the traders land in the city with a short-term business visa and ship Guangzhou’s cheap products to their home countries for resale. Some of the lucky ones manage to stay as long-term residents, running their own business and even having a Chinese spouse. They view Guangzhou as a land of opportunities where they could have a fresh start and possibly raise their social class.

Anda is a Nigerian pursuing his PhD at a university in Guangzhou. Dwelling in the city for three years, Anda has been investing himself in the research and getting on well with his Chinese fellows. However, the pandemic came as a shock to him. “We have visas to be here. We are not here by mistake. Why were Africans quarantined overnight?”

On April 7, five Nigerians tested positive for the coronavirus in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu District. Four had eaten in a local African restaurant called EmmaFood. Amid concerns about imported infections and a possible second wave of the pandemic, local authorities started paying more attention to Africans, tracking them down and subjecting them to stringent containment measures.

Anda was not even the extreme case compared with short-term African visitors seeking cheap products in Guangzhou. 

Burgeoning African businesses in Guangzhou Photo: Sina News/Li Dong

Ekon Selassie, a Nigerian in the fashion business, usually visits Guangzhou to order cheap clothes. While planning a two-week stay, he was stranded in Guangzhou for three months. 

Ejected by the first hotel he stayed, Ekon inquired over 20 to find another. After checking in, he was immediately put into quarantine. Not knowing how to order food online, Ekon starved for a whole day until his business partner brought some bread and fruits.

Normally, Ekon would visit the port to ensure his goods were safely packed into a shipping container. But because of the quarantine, he had to tell logistics agents to release the cargo without being able to inspect it.

Ekon was able to take the evacuation flight to come home at the end of May. Recalling his tough journey in China, he couldn’t understand why the local authority treated him with such poor manners. 

“If you(the authority) want to do something, you have to explain,” said Ekon. “China is benefiting from the money I spent. You don’t have to come to me and just force me to do something.”

Either a resident or a new comer to the city, Africans in Guangzhou were often wondering: Why did the local authority treat us like this? While citing African countries as “brothers”, does China really welcome us?

Rattled management

Guangzhou, the commercial hub in southern China, has been a perfect place to observe south-to-south immigration and multiculturalism in a mono-ethnic state. However, the Covid-19 pandemic put forward an unprecedented challenge for the city’s administration to manage its foreign neighbourhood. 

During the pandemic, the Chinese government deployed surveillance technology to trace positive cases and alert Chinese residents. People voluntarily complied with the government’s instructions, wearing facial masks, submitting temperature results, and isolating themselves at home. Since the outbreak started in Wuhan in January, China’s heavy-handed measures managed to contain the domestic cases to one-digit increase each day within two months. 

As domestic infections gradually slowed, the Chinese government has shifted the target to imported cases since March. Since African nationals were not incorporated in the draconian management imposed to Chinese residents, Guangzhou’s authority feared the Africans would become untraceable virus carriers who might probably conceive a second wave. 

“If you didn’t have records of who they were, then you are going to round up everybody,” said Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said the radical measures taken by Guangzhou’s authority was more like a panic reaction rather than institutional racism. 

Miscommunication was commonplace at the encountering between Africans and local administration. “Language barriers widened the information gap. Africans were not aware of China’s strict measures to contain the outbreak, so they felt they were racially targeted once the communication failed,” read an article written by Joe, a Chinese volunteer supporting the Africans during the pandemic.

Sometimes, the language barrier could trigger physical conflicts. CNN released a video showing an African national encountered brutal policing. “When the police failed to communicate with the Africans, the inhumane treatment would take place,” said Xiaotian, a Chinese volunteer and an anthropology student.

“The police were pressured by the senior department that no Africans should appear on the street, as the authority is wary the Africans may spread the virus. Every police officer has their KPI to accomplish, and they have to do it overnight.” 

While the whole nation was mobilised to combat COVID-19, Africans had no idea of what they should do as official instructions were mainly in Chinese. They were excluded from China’s collective narratives of battling with the virus until they became the risk. 

When the authority realized they should handle the risk, they reacted promptly but was desperate to fully control the scene. They even skipped the efforts of facilitating communication with the Africans. The interpretation and translation work was almost done by Chinese volunteers like Xiaotian. They supported the Africans spontaneously rather than hired by the government.

“The bureaucracy maintained its efficiency but didn’t coordinate the efforts of various parties. They could have invited assistance from African networks, African Chamber of Commerce, Chinese volunteers, etc,” said Xiaotian. “Why did they have to decide the policies in a black box? That really confused me.”

The cat-and-mouse game was played by Africans and local authority over the last decade, but became more intense during the pandemic. As the local government required Africans to do Covid-19 tests and submit personal information on the tracing app, many Africans declined because they worried the authorities would find their visa had expired and then deport them. But African’s refusal triggered more aggressive raids.

“The government should have extended their visas and provided shelters at a time of emergency,” said Kun Huang, a PhD candidate studying China’s racial discourse at Cornell University, New York State.

Kun also pointed out the community-level administration’s capacity of managing Africans was compromised due to its reliance on China’s top-down beauracracy. 

“The pandemic stresses that the government needs to react quickly, but when the policy trickled down to the grassroot-level department, it has already lagged behind. The feedback from the communities could not be heard by senior departments either,” said Kun Huang. While potent to address Chinese residents, the top-down approach induced inconsistent policies and chaotic implementary.

Xiaotian said the police received different instructions everyday. “They clustered Africans in place A, but the next day the government told them to move Africans to place B,” he said.

“Chinese government was using domestic policy to manage immigrants, which reflected the flaw of China’s immigration legislation and management,” said Chen Liang, an anthropologist at Sun Yat-sen University, at a webinar.

Cultural acceptance

Beyond the flaw of legislation and management, the reluctance to culturally accept foreign residents, either from the authority or Chinese citizens, should be of concern.

China’s success in containing coronavirus is associated with its speedy response and micromanagement of every risky corner. More importantly, it has millions of obedient citizens following the regulations no matter how radical they were. 

Chinese are used to compromise individual interests for the greater good once the country was hit by a public health crisis or a natural disaster. They don’t mind that the authorities might intrude their privacy and freedom, which are deemed as tax for shelter by many Chinese. While the rules were highly internalized in Chinese citizens, they didn’t necessarily have the same effect if applied to African nationals.

Anda said the community workers were helpful during his quarantine. They could buy groceries and take away garbage for his family. Despite that, Anda was still upset as he felt his freedom was robbed. “The worst thing you could do to a human being is to take away his freedom.” While Anda said this in the webinar, he was confronted by some Chinese, commenting “is your life more important than your freedom?”

This trivial confrontation was tip of iceberg of China’s anti-blackness and xenophobic sentiment during the pandemic. In February, China’s Ministry of Justice proposed a bill which would soften the criteria for foreigners to acquire residential permits, but spurred widespread rejections on social media. 

A vocal group of netizens worried the influx of foreigners would erode the purity of “Chineseness” and abuse the welfare system. The online rally particularly concerned the inflow of African community, considering them as an inferior group committing crimes and intermarrying Chinese women. They even started a thread called #Chinese boys protect Chinese girls#, where numbers of comments vowed to protect Chinese women and urge them to marry yellow-skinned Chinese to derive its blood line.

In an op-ed written for The Paper, a major Chinese publication, Kun Huang noted that Africans are always scapegoated for contaminating “Chineseness” and disrupting social order. The nationalist rhetoric perpetuates the belief that China is only for Chinese.

“Many Chinese imagine their nation in a nationalist and racial way, ”said Kun Huang. “They think a nation should consist of people similar to them. They share similar thoughts and emotions. They serve each other and form a community of common interests. In fact, they are quite similar to the conservative groups in the UK or the US.”

Kun also said nationalism is intrinsic to victimized thoughts that immigrants would exploit the society. She added that nationalists are often the marginalized ones. 

“Most racists are not powerful ones who can wipe out the immigrants. You can see white supremacists in the US are quite anxious, fearing the minor ethnicity would compete them out,” said Kun Huang. Back to China, the xenophobic narratives mainly took place at Weibo, China’s solution to Twitter, whose users are mainly said to live in third- or fourth-tier cities or rural areas.

Anti-Blackness on Weibo also extended to objecting interracial marriages, specifically referring to the combination of African men and Chinese women. The hashtag campaign #Chinese boys protect Chinese girls# insisted Chinese women should submit to traditional rituals, which exhibited toxic masculinity of treating women as men’s possession. 

“The relations between non-Chinese men and Chinese women were seen as a violation of the reproductive endogamy of the Chinese race. As non-Chinese men were collectively imagined as a threat to Chinese women, Chinese men thus claimed the right to possess Chinese women in the name of protecting them,” read Kun Huang’s op-ed. 

What about the future?

As the pandemic elevated the tension between Africans and Chinese, what about the prospects of African immigration to Guangzhou?

The coronavirus outbreak would allow the Chinese government to massively apply surveillance technology, which would make African lives more difficult in Guangzhou. Roberto Castillo, an anthropologist at Lingnan University, said mass tracing technology will restrict the mobility of undocumented Africans in the city.

“Without a legal abode, foreigners cannot apply for Alipay Health Code, a system that assigns a colour code to users indicating their health status and determining their access to public spaces such as malls, subways and airports,” read Roberto’s article on African Arguments.

Prior to the pandemic, Africans in Guangzhou could sense the surveillance is increasing. Anthropologist Gordon Mathews said the logistic agents sending Chinese goods to Africa, which are mainly run by Africans, are finding their profits shrinking as Guangzhou’s authority began to monitor their phone calls and emails. They used to be able to ship counterfeit products but can’t make it now.

Guangzhou’s long thriving business scenes, described by Gordon as “low-end globalization”, may not be sustainable. Apart from the headache of being watched, Africans are leaving Guangzhou because of the rising cost. 

“If China rises up the value chain, Chinese people aren’t going to manufacture anymore for Africans.They’re going to manufacture instead for Americans and Europeans and already that’s happening a lot,” said Gordon Mathews.  

China has been the engine of the world’s economic growth over the last decade. Though the momentum was crippled by the pandemic, China still has the potential to rebound its economy. The Asian giant desires global talents to upgrade its image and enhance its soft power, and the proposal soliciting a more lenient immigration policy was in line with that. However, the rebranding of the Chinese government will probably rule out Africans seeking trade opportunities in Guangzhou.

“I don’t think there is much racism either among the Chinese people or in the Chinese government,” said Gordon Mathews. “It is probably more like anti-third world ism.” 

Gordon added that Africans traders in Guangzhou are migrating to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, due to its lower prices and more friendly policies. He predicted Ho Chi Minh City is replacing Guangzhou as the centre of low-end globalization. While its manufacturing capacity is not comparable with Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City is becoming a rising player.

Night view of Ho Chi Minh City Photo: Unsplash

Nevertheless, China probably needs to hire foreign labour force as the society is aging, which mirrors Japan’s practice of offering low skilled jobs to foreigners. 

“I was astounded in Tokyo the last time I was there, every restaurant I went to, the people serving me were from China,” said Gordon Mathews. “Will the same happen in China? China hasn’t needed to do that because it relies on rural migrants coming in. But that pool of rural migrants is going to dry up at some point.”

If the inflow of immigrants is inevitable, China may have to shift its foreign policy from a supervising role to a serving role.

“Africans have to register in the police station within 24 hours they land in Guangzhou,” said Kun Huang. “From the perspective of local authority, they treat foreigners as traceable targets.”

She added that the Chinese government should take the welfare of every resident into account. “Regardless of language, education background, nationalities or possession of proper documents, the authorities should think how they can care about and safeguard the people living on this land, ensuring everyone could sustain themselves rather than being exploited.”