People gather on a street in the 'Little Africa' district in Guangzhou, where pandemic-fueled racism has been reported. File Photo: AFP

Recent incidents of discrimination toward Africans in Guangzhou have caused a rupture in Sino-African relations. As images of Africans being evicted flood social media, widespread anger over these incidents have been met by unsatisfactory explanations from a Chinese government desperately trying to contain the damage to its image.

The Covid-19 pandemic has acted like a magnifying glass exposing every society’s ugly side. For China, this translates to exposing an underlying xenophobia and a general lack of protection for individual rights. Undoubtedly, this diplomatic crisis has come to symbolize the formal end of China’s honeymoon in Africa.

From this point on, China will be treated with significantly more suspicion by African civil society. So where should Sino-African relations go from here?

The context

Africa was ushered into the modern world in an atmosphere of great trauma. From the slave trade to the brutal exploitation of the colonial era, the modern African psyche has understandably been transfixed on the demand for racial equality from its European colonizers.

In contrast, the modern era of Sino-African relations began on a footing of solidarity. Maoist China was a revolutionary power and eagerly helped various African liberation movements secure arms, training and aid in their fight against colonization.

However, as the Mao era passed into the current period of economic development, China’s priorities shifted. Its focus decisively swung toward the West seeking to emulate the economic, industrial and technological success of the Western world.

Then, in the 2000s, China began to cultivate a new “win-win” relationship with Africa, recognizing great potential on the vast continent. Africa at the time was emerging from a chaotic period of youthful independence and was largely dismissed by the Western world as a basket case.

China recognized Africa as an opportunity, where its nascent industries could expand without intense competition from more established foreign rivals. On paper, it was a “win-win” situation as China provided capital, infrastructure and facilitated economic growth on the continent in exchange for market share, access to natural resources and political support.

However, as two decades have passed and China has transformed into a colossus, the uneven nature of the relationship between a rising superpower and far smaller and weaker African states have become transparent. This chasm in power between the two sides is especially aggravated when juxtaposed with the images of discrimination that African migrants have faced in Guangzhou.

A need for an African purpose

While the demand for fair and equal treatment of Africans by China is an absolute necessity, this should not be the sole focus of Africa’s relationship with China. The reality is that beyond token expressions of goodwill, incidents of insensitivity like what we have seen in Guangzhou are only the symptom of larger problems in Chinese society.

Because of a culture of insularity, societal preference for light skin and a Confucian hierarchical view of the world, prejudice against Africans in China will likely rear its ugly head again. In addition, China’s authoritarian system which values material progress and efficiency and cares little about the protection of individual rights offers little hope that such incidences would not arise again, especially in the context of a public health crisis.

Yes, Africans should demand equal treatment and the cessation of discrimination, but as China’s Africa policy serves Beijing’s interests, the policies of African states toward China should also serve a reciprocal purpose.

Africa is in a different place than it was 20 years ago. In the last two decades, the continent has registered some of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Led by a breed of technocratic leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who has been compared to Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, many African countries have begun the path toward economic growth and effective governance.

As the Covid-19 crisis continues to ravage the major economies of the world, geopolitical realities will also experience constant shifting. The Sino-US rivalry in particular look set to intensify as both sides continue to assign blame to the other for this crisis.

The acceleration of hostilities between the world’s two largest economies will disrupt global supply chains causing many multinational corporations to diversify their manufacturing sources away from China and toward neutral territory. Countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and India look to be early winners of this trend. However, this global shift also provide a strategic window of opportunity for Africa.

The African driver in its relationship with China should be focused on acquiring tools that ultimately strengthen Africa and African independence. These include technical know-how in building infrastructure, the establishment of manufacturing supply chains and using experiences in China’s own rise that could be applied to Africa.

Just as China long used its relations to the Western world to fuel its own progress, Africa must demand the same in its relationship with China, the West and any other outside power seeking to expand its influence on the continent. With a young and rapidly growing population, a continent of immense geographical size and natural resources, Africa is destined to play a large role in this century’s story.

The aftermath of Guangzhou is that African civil society has made its voice heard in the China-Africa story, which heretofore has primarily been dominated by state-to-state relations. However, it is imperative that Africans do not simply demand an end to discriminatory incidents, but that a wider understanding of purpose must be demanded by Africans in their dealings with China.

This century offers the promise of an African renaissance after centuries of colonization and exploitation. From Addis Ababa to Kigali to Lagos, a new and dynamic Africa is exchanging the pessimism of the past for the optimism of the future. In a world descending into chaos, Africa has a unique opportunity to become a safe haven of stability and prosperity. Africa’s relations with China and others should serve the purpose in fueling this African renaissance.

Frederick Kuo

Frederick Kuo is a published San Francisco-based writer, UCLA graduate and owner of local real estate brokerage Amber Rock Properties. His writings focus on economics and geopolitics within a social and historical context.