Africans in Guangzhou are mostly merchants who have lived in the southern Chinese megacity for years. Photo: WeChat

While the Chinese diaspora in the West feels aggrieved at the fact that they are being blamed for the ravaging “Chinese virus,” tens of thousands of Africans who have taken up residence in China also complain that they are now being singled out and harrassed.

Africans living or doing business in China feel they are being maligned as the country shores up its defense and checks to stave off a new wave of Covid-19 infections.

There have been posts and reports about fisticuffs between Africans and police and health inspectors in Guangzhou this month, and nerves are still a little frayed in some neighborhoods in the largest urban center in southern China, which is home to one of the largest overseas African communities in Asia.

It has been revealed that Nigeria’s consul-general in Guangzhou rescued three of his nationals last weekend after Chinese police and paramedics in hazmat gear tried to confiscate the passports of the Nigerian businessmen and bundle them into an ambulance. The diplomat rushed to the scene and stepped in.

Consul-General Anozie Madaubuchi Cyril, wearing a mask, was seen protesting in English in a video clip circulating online.

“If you want your policy to work, shut down Guangzhou and let everyone including the Chinese remain indoors for 14 days. If you do that, the issue of discrimination will not be there … But if you are only picking Africans, that is the highest humiliation anyone can get,” said the incensed diplomat.  

He complained that Guangzhou authorities had not communicated with the consulate before “going to all the Nigerian houses and asking people to come out for quarantine.”

Guangzhou has one of the largest overseas African communities in Asia. The city is sometimes called the ‘capital of the third world.’ Photos: WeChat

Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, has had many African merchants and illegal immigrants since the 1990s as the bourgeoning trade and logistics hub is a vital entrepôt for the flow of cheap garments and electronic gadgets from China to the continent.

Estimates about the size of the African community in the city vary from 30,000 to as many as 300,000 and the neighborhoods where they aggregate, like Yuexiu district where offices of Guangdong’s provincial party committee and government are also based, are now called “Little Africa” and most locals typically avoid going there to mingle with them.

Guangzhou cadres have scrambled to dispatch officers to track and isolate Africans after a cluster of infections was confirmed, with cases involving Africans returning to the city. Also targeted were their close contacts, including local landlords and partners.

The worry was that the emerging community outbreak and surge in imported cases may threaten to spoil the city’s exemplary efforts to keep out the virus.

New cases have been tapering off in Guangzhou with daily numbers in single digits since March, on top of a total of only 18 patients still receiving treatment or recuperating, according to the official data as of Tuesday afternoon. Guangzhou’s accumulated tally of infections is 365.

Yet a Guangzhou deputy major has spoken of the alarming resurgence of the novel coronavirus being incubated in the city’s African community. The city tested 4,553 Africans within the past 10 days and 111 of them returned positive results in nucleic acid screening. These included those displaying no symptoms even after coming down with the respiratory disease, and all had been isolated in special wards, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily reported on Monday.

Undated photos show a street clash between Africans and police in Guangzhou. Photos: WeChat

But Africans and their close contacts complained about being roughed up by officers and hauled off to centralized quarantine camps or requisitioned hotels, which they had to pay for themselves, simply because of their skin color, even though some insisted they had not returned to Africa for years or traveled overseas in recent months.

There were also reports about some Africans being forced to live rough on the streets after their homes in Yuexiu were cordoned off, with constables guarding entrances in swoop-like police operations to hunt for more people to be screened.

Quite a few Africans, even after their time in quarantine, were also turned away by their landlords and were not allowed in hotels or restaurants because of the fear they may still carry the virus. The irony is that the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year.

Following the stand-off in the street between Nigeria’s top representative in the city and Chinese police, Nigeria’s House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila swiftly summoned Beijing’s ambassador Zhou Pingjian to lodge a formal protest.

A photo of Zhou appearing to bow in apology with the speaker sitting opposite him soon angered Chinese netizens, with the Chinese embassy rushing to clarify that the ambassador was merely observing social distancing and was stooping to watch a video clip about Africans in Guangzhou on the speaker’s cellphone.

Zhou reportedly assured Gbajabiamila that Guangzhou would treat all foreigners fairly and that the sweeping measures being implemented were also aimed at protecting their well-being amid the fast-evolving global pandemic.

The image of the Chinese ambassador ‘bowing to the Nigerian parliament speaker’ has elicited fury among Chinese. Photo: WeChat

It was also reported that Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and the African Union had also summoned Chinese diplomats to voice their concerns. The Union’s commission chair Moussa Faki reportedly told Liu Yixi, the chief of Beijing’s mission, that he was disturbed by how Guangzhou was treating Africans, many of whom had lived in the city for years and could speak fluent Cantonese and Mandarin.

Observers say Beijing’s “bromance” with its African allies may face a rare, adversarial reset if the row continues, and the growing number of Chinese investors and businessmen in Africa may become targets for reprisals in the worst-case scenario.  

Washington’s consulate in Guangzhou has also advised African Americans against visiting the city as they may face delays with checks and searches and even discrimination. Guangzhou has been slapping a mandatory quarantine order on all arrivals from overseas, irrespective of their nationality and health, in line with all other major Chinese cities that have strong transportation and people-to-people links with foreign countries.

During a press conference on Sunday, Guangzhou mayor Wen Guohui sought to bring down the tension. He told his compatriots that the rumor that 300,000 Africans were occupying the city was pure demagoguery and he clarified that there were about 13,600 Africans residing in the city in 2019.

He said the actual figure of Africans now in the city could be way lower as many were yet to return from their own countries. But he admitted that 12 of the 13 new imported cases reported last week involved Africans, insisting that health inspections at the city’s airport must not be slackened.

China has decided to scrap the spring edition of the Canton Fair, the nation’s largest trade fair held in Guangzhou, amid the lingering Covid-19 threat. Photo: China News Service

Guangzhou’s renewed efforts to beef up checks on non-locals also has something to do with Beijing’s decision to cancel the spring edition of the Canton Fair, the nation’s largest semiannual foreign trade fair held in the city.

Merchants from overseas, many of them Africans, have been asked by the Chinese commerce ministry to visit a designated online platform to do business, allowing Guangzhou to tighten border checks – and possibly get tough on Africans in the city.

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