One of the many side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has resulted in a world where racial tensions and xenophobia have been reinforced. In the past few months, we have witnessed xenophobic attacks on people of Asian descent in Europe and America, and mistreatments of Africans in Guangzhou, China.
In April, many Africans in Guangzhou were subjected to unfair treatment. Many were forced to go through an additional 14-day quarantine, despite not having travelled recently. Some were evicted by landlords or rejected by hotels. Some were even left homeless. Although the local authority improved measures and eased coronavirus rules for African nationals after African diplomats collectively voiced their concerns to Beijing, Chinese authorities and their state-owned media refuse to admit that there is any racism or discrimination in China. This stance makes it impossible to have any deep public reflection.
Historical, contemporary and political factors of xenophobia in China
China’s official discourse has always been portraying China-Africa relations as ‘win-win” or an “all-weather” friendship. As Chinese leaders and diplomats frequently point out, the history of China-Africa relations is a history of common struggle against colonialism and imperialism to achieve national independence and prosperity. During the historic 1955 Bandung Conference, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai emphasised the principles of "Afro-Asian solidarity" and the need for "seeking common ground while putting aside differences". The conference represented the collective awakening of Asian and African countries to the importance of unity in their struggles for independence and development.
Despite promising foundations, the history of China-Africa relations was not always rosy. Between the 1960s and 1990s, there were many anti-African incidents across China. Most of the incidents happened at or started from university campuses. Demonstrations against Africans, particularly African students in Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin and other cities, held between the late 1970s and the early months of 1989 were well documented by the media and scholars.
“The Nanjing incident” in December 1988 is an example. Triggered by a dispute between a Chinese gatekeeper and two African students in Nanjing who were bringing Chinese girls into their dorms on Christmas Eve, the dispute developed into massive student demonstrations. In the late 1980s, Chinese universities were viewed as institutions that challenged governmental discourses, paralleling the pro-democracy movement. As the scholar Yinghong Cheng argued in his paper, Chinese students and intellectuals believed that Mao and his successors had wasted China’s resources and allied with backward nations at the expense of the people.
Differently from the xenophobia and anti-black sentiment in the 1970s and 1980s, the social context of xenophobia in contemporary China is more closely linked with globalisation. With more Africans coming to China for business, many Chinese feel that Africans create social problems in Chinese cities. The problem of “Sanfei” (三非, which literally means illegal migration, residents and employment) has been frequently mentioned by the Chinese media, with self-media (自媒体, referring to independently operated social media accounts) in particular frequently exaggerating the number of Africans in Guangzhou, while portraying them as a group of “criminals that rape Chinese ladies and are doing drug trafficking business”.
Xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiments in Africa
In turn, xenophobic sentiments against the Chinese have been popular in many African countries and they are closely linked with Africa’s history of colonisation.
Although many African leaders have praised China’s contribution to their nations and the continent, the Chinese engagement in Africa has also received a lot of criticism and skepticism, with the worry that China’s approach to Africa amounts to a second “scramble for Africa”. Politicians, the media, civil society groups and ordinary Africans express concerns that China might be a neocolonial power and threat. For example, in 2006, Thabo Mbeki, the then president of South Africa, warned that Africa’s continued exports of raw materials to China, and imports of Chinese manufactured goods, could “condemn to underdevelopment” the whole continent and lead to a “colonial relationship with China”.
One popular perception of Chinese engagement in Africa is that the Chinese do not employ locals, or that they employ very few locals. Rumours such as the Chinese using prison labour to build infrastructure in Africa have circulated for more than a decade. Researchers have attempted to challenge such perceptions. For example, in more than 1,000 Chinese companies surveyed by McKinsey, 89 percent of employees were Africans. Carlos Oya and Florian Schaefer’s four-year research also found that the workforce localisation rates of the Chinese companies in Ethiopia and Angola were substantially higher than usually assumed in media depictions. In the Ethiopian construction sectors, the localisation rates were above 90%.
Populist politicians have taken advantage of ordinary Africans’ fear that the Chinese are taking away jobs from locals. Zambia’s late president, for example, won the 2011 election by playing the “anti-Chinese” card. In many of his presidential campaign addresses, he accused the Chinese of paying low wages and taking away local jobs. He threatened to expel the Chinese from the country. His nephew, Miles Sampa, the mayor of the capital, Lusaka, seems to have learned a lot from his uncle. Miles Sampa recently received significant praise on social media for investigating Chinese companies, including the Chinese state-owned Sinoma Cement Company, Bank of China, and privately owned Chinese supermarkets and barbershops. On Miles Sampa’s Facebook page it is very easy to find extreme comments with hostility towards the Chinese community. According to several Chinese investors I have spoken to, they are more worried about another round of anti-Chinese sentiments in Zambia than about the pandemic itself. Some are considering shutting down their businesses as they are afraid that populist politicians will lead to the Chinese becoming the “scapegoat” of the falling economy.
In a time of pandemic, ordinary Africans will have to face dwindling economic opportunities and challenging realities, which could possibly be more severe than the 2008 financial crisis. The worsening economic situation and the loss of jobs during the pandemic will also contribute to the fear of immigrants, i.e., the fear that immigrants (Chinese in particular) are taking away jobs. This may provide a favourable climate for populist politicians who are seeking more political power and self-aggrandisement.
French philosopher Alain Touraine once asked a provocative question: “Can we live together?”, exploring the question of how we might live together in a globalised world. For the Chinese and the Africans, it is no longer a question of “can or cannot” but a question of “how”. How can the Chinese and Africans live together, especially in a time of pandemic?
The tragic death of George Floyd sparked protests in the US. Western societies are now reckoning with the legacies of institutionalised racism and inequalities. It is also time for China, if it wants to be seen as a responsible global leader, to confront racist tendencies within China by strengthening its public education on the topic of anti-racism. In addition, it is important for China to note the need for minority input in the creation and implementation of any strategies and policies.
Chinese citizens need to make their own efforts too. As the Nigerian scholar Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi recently pointed out, Chinese citizens in China must understand that their actions could have implications for their compatriots in Africa. For Chinese companies in Africa, although, generally speaking, they are already highly localised in terms of their local employment rate, it is still very urgent to further localise their management staff to avoid labour disputes.
The manipulation of the masses is harmful and dangerous. And we have seen enough political blame games, manipulated by politicians. African politicians need to have higher moral-ethical considerations. It is their right and responsibility to monitor foreign investments and to urge related institutions to regulate foreign companies. However, scapegoating and blaming the Chinese (or any foreigners) will not solve Africa’s economic problems. Instead, rising xenophobic sentiments will lead to the further loss of investors’ confidence.
For the Chinese and African media, the question might be: how should we write stories about “the other”? As we have seen the trend of polarisation in both the Chinese and the African media, it is also time for them to reflect on their social responsibilities and stop demonising each other. Just as the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warns, the danger of a single story creates stereotypes and problems. If we only hear a single story about another person, another race or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.