By Zhang Wei & Gordon Bellmouth
In many parts of China today, Africans face more terrifying than the virus pandemic, a rising tide of discrimination driven by coronavirus, xenophobia and deep-rooted prejudice against black people. On April 6, Sanheli, a neighbourhood in Yuexiu that is called “Little Africa” due to its sizable population of African immigrants, became the subject of a social media frenzy after a since-deleted Weibo post claiming that Yaotai village, located in the neighborhood, would be completely locked down for 14 days. “Some specific groups of people will be targeted for testing during this period of time,” the post read.
Officials have denied that any such lockdown is in place. The post was written by a random Weibo user who didn’t mention the source of his information, but it sparked rumors that there had been a resurgence of COVID-19 driven by outsiders. As speculation ran rampant, Weibo users began to suggest that the local African community was to blame for Yaotai’s rumored lockdown. Some of them pointed out that the measure came on the heels of an ugly incident in Guangzhou last week, when a Nigerian man who had contracted COVID-19 allegedly attacked a nurse while trying to flee a hospital.
In recent times, the expatriate community has been increasingly targeted on the Chinese internet. Africans in Guangzhou face daily ethnic discrimination on a regular basis. Last month, when China’s Ministry of Justice unveiled a new set of regulations designed to loosen residency restrictions for some foreigners, it was met with fierce opposition underpinned by a groundswell of bigotry and racial stereotyping about black people. Many hotels in Guangzhou were turn away guests from African countries for no particular reason.”
In July 2019, following the establishment of a new national bureau dealing with immigration issues, China’s Ministry of Public Security rolled out a series of relaxed rules that make it easier for foreigners who possess in-demand skills and people of Chinese ethnicity from overseas to apply for permanent residence. Despite these cautious steps taken by the government, China remains a country with nearly zero experience regarding large-scale immigration. This dynamic has led to concerns from critical observers, who argued that China would be taken over by an influx of incapable foreigners if the new laws eventually took effect
The widespread xenophobia in China didn’t come out of nowhere. As a homogeneous country that thrives on a strong, dictatorial and sometimes aggressive sense of national identity, China, on the policy level, is traditionally hostile to outside influences and unwelcoming to immigrants. Even under a recent new proposals and move by the government to improve its immigration laws, China offers no path to citizenship. In practice, the main benefit that comes with Chinese green cards is a prolonged residence period compared to work visas.
In an April 08.2020 report published in supchina.com authored by Jiajun Fen,
“It seems that the incident has caused more damage than all the locally transmitted cases that China had to deal with in the past two months,” Weibo user @不吃猫的鱼 wrote in a post, which included a photo showing a street in Sanheli blocked by barricades. The Weibo user’s complaint struck a chord with a vast number of Weibo users. As of Tuesday evening, a day after it was posted, the message had received about 23,000 comments and more than 547,000 likes. Meanwhile, as similar complaints piled up, people on Weibo started to coalesce around the hashtag #广州三元里 (#GuangzhouSanyuanli) to spout racist, bigoted, and hateful rhetoric about Africans in Guangzhou. In a typical Weibo comment, one wrote (in Chinese): “The black people in Guangzhou constitute a serious problem for the city. They are lazy and unhygienic. Many of them are drug addicts or thieves because they don’t have much in their savings. I wouldn’t be surprised if a second outbreak occurred in Guangzhou.”
Meanwhile, the information office of Guangzhou’s government said (in Chinese) in a press conference yesterday that since five Nigerian migrants tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the city had launched a “comprehensive investigation” of potential coronavirus transmission in the expatriate community. “Put frankly there is increasing fear and worry in the region about a second wave of cases,” Maximus Ogbonna, president of the Nigerian community in China, told the China-based website Black Livity. “Because many associate this with foreigners, they are testing to make sure they are clear.”
But the local government has also sought to quell the eruption of irrational fears over the African community in the city. As of April 7, more than 32,000 people traveling from overseas had been put under home quarantine or sent to designated facilities for 14-day isolation. Those holding foreign passports constituted about 6,300 of those people. “The pandemic in Guangzhou is under control,” a government official said. “There’s no need to panic about the situation as long as you properly implement protective measures.”
As China prepares for a second wave of COVID-19 cases to hit their cities, Africans living in the commercial hub ‘Little Africa’ – found in the Yuexiu district – said they’ve been discriminated against and faced racism. And a U.S. Embassy security alert on Saturday said that ‘police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,’ and local officials have launched mandatory testing and self-quarantine for ‘anyone with “African contacts”. Some Africans have even described being suddenly evicted from their homes. ‘I’ve been sleeping under the bridge for four days with no food to eat… I cannot buy food anywhere, no shops or restaurants will serve me,’ Tony Mathias, an exchange student from Uganda, talking to France 24.
Mathias was evicted from his apartment on Monday. He said: ‘We’re like beggars on the street. Africans in Guangzhou also claimed they haves shunned by others in public and targeted for additional COVID-19 tests without ever seeing the results. ‘There is an escalating scrutiny of foreign nationals, but they are targeting the Africans and the African American community. Since last Thursday we saw 114 new cases reported in Guangzhou of coronavirus infections and 16 of those were Africans,’ said journalist Sarah Clarke for Al Jazeera. ‘We’ve seen a number of reports from social media from members of the African community in Guangzhou making complaints of mistreatment, arrests, eviction and being denied access to restaurants and hotels, and some students are even claiming to be living on the streets and being denied food,’ she added.
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The spokesperson also tried to strike down rumors of a Yaotai lockdown, saying that vehicles and residents were free to enter and leave the village as long as they have valid health codes issued by local health authorities. In denial of speculation that there were about 300,000 African migrants in Yuexiu, the spokesperson said that the district was home to roughly 3,500 foreigners, and that most of the foreign residents there were from the U.S., followed by Mali, Nigeria, Canada, and Australia. When it comes to imported coronavirus infections, a health official at the meeting noted that of the 111 imported cases discovered in Guangzhou, 86 were Chinese citizens flying back from overseas. Among the rest, 16 were from African countries such as Nigeria and Congo