Prejudice and Pandemic: Africans in China Amid Rising Xenophobia

Since early April, the Chinese media has suggested a possible second wave of coronavirus cases within the country, coming from the outbreaks outside of China. After five Nigerian residents tested positive for COVID-19 in Guangzhou, China, the African community there has experienced heightened racial tensions. There have been widespread accounts on social media of people being forced to sleep on the streets beside their belongings. Pictures and videos were posted online showing notes from businesses stating that “black people are not allowed to enter.” Other sources show Africans being harassed by the local police on the streets. 

All of this follows heightened scrutiny of foreign nationals by Guangzhou authorities. Existing tensions have evolved into a racist backlash, as the government issued a mandatory quarantine for all residents of African descent regardless of their recent travel or contact histories. According to CNN, their homes will be monitored with tracking devices that alert officials if they “open the door.” Such forceful measures have been quite common in China amidst the pandemic. However, when they target foreign residents of a particular race without absolute necessity, their seeming impartiality is obscured by underlying prejudice and resentment. 

The hostility towards the presence of Africans in China was further amplified when an article about an African man attacking a Chinese nurse who tried to stop him from leaving an isolation ward went viral on Chinese social media platforms. It reinforced the image of Africans as being truculent and unreasonable toward well-meaning anti-pandemic measures. Such excessive publicizing of a singular incident has infiltrated the minds of Chinese natives, leading them to look at their African neighbors through a maliciously presumptive lens. 

Amidst the fear of the pandemic, such implicit biases have manifested in blatantly racist actions in a country where racism is rarely discussed. The heavily filtered media has displayed polarized sentiments towards the African descent community. Individuals angered by the report about the African man attacking the nurse have been verbally retaliating the Black community in China, whereas authoritative diplomatic figures have repeatedly emphasized the impartiality and inclusivity of China’s treatment of the African residents. 

Racism seems to be a Western concept that is inapplicable to China’s circumstances. Furious individuals online are oblivious about the implications of their expressions. The authoritative voices refuse to associate China with any politically-incorrect 

On April 9, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the protests from African Union ambassadors against the mistreatments of African residents, denying all allegations of racism and blaming the U.S. for trying to “sow discord.”  

However, such politically-correct diplomacy does not and cannot dismiss the “bitter humiliation” of the African residents’ dignity, as a Nigerian resident in Guangzhou reports, alongside the intrinsic wrongness in depriving them of sustenance and shelter. Most importantly, it cannot undo the race-based tension that has existed for a long time among Chinese-African communities. 

The coronavirus pandemic has induced an outbreak of xenophobia across nations and cultures, revealing racism disguised in the name of self-preservation. 

First, discrimination against Asian communities in the United States has drastically increased as the virus spreads. Aggressive verbal attacks and physical assaults towards people who look Chinese demonstrate a spasm of animosity that is reminiscent of the kind that was exerted towards American Muslims after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

On the other side of the world, communities of African descent have been rejected and pushed out by housing and businesses. 

However, the history of Black communities in China is completely different from the one here in America. We cannot apply the critical lens that we use to examine racism in the American context to China’s condition, or vice versa. 

Guangzhou has long had the largest African community in China. Since China’s economic boom in the 1990s, Guangzhou has attracted thousands of African traders, with many Africans in the city traveling in and out of China for purchasing runs several times a year on short-term business visas. 

Ever since the African population boomed in cities like Guangzhou, discriminatory sentiments against Africans have been growing in the country. As a Chinese native, I believe that such animosity stems from both racism and ignorance. It comes from the absence of education of sociology on race; from the misrepresentation of Africans in culture and media; and from the lack of effort in confronting and resolving the fundamental fear of otherness.  It is always easier to attack something unfamiliar than to attempt to understand it.  

In areas with a high African population, a considerable amount of local Chinese people hold the belief that “Africans bring many security risks.” On social media, one can easily find comments echoing such a belief. Another popular fear is one of “Black invasion,” as the number of African residents in certain areas has become substantial and their daily activities — many of which contrast with the traditional Chinese lifestyle — have become more visible to the masses. 

In many Chinese people’s eyes, their “Black brothers” often travel “in droves,” engage in “drug trafficking, harassment of women, and fighting, which seriously disturbs law and order,” as Zhang Cong reported in Wenhui News. Interestingly, such a stigma does not apply to all people of African descent in China. Socioeconomic status plays a subtle but conspicuous role in shaping people’s judgments. 

The growth of African communities in China paralleled China’s economic reform for the past few decades. The newly-gained material abundance for the people deeply shaped the country’s ideology — economic and political prosperities have become the foremost qualities that people evaluate in one’s identity. 

Despite the racial bias exerted towards the African communities of China from natives, the global success of Black public figures (the majority from wealthy countries in the west), such as politicians, actors, and athletes, continue to draw the admiration of the Chinese public. Most people see their success as exceptions to the rule. Contrasting the judgments made about American wealth and power versus the stereotypes of African poverty and suffering, it reveals insights behind the hostile attitudes specifically towards the less affluent native African traders. It is not only about skin color, but also about the kind of clothing you wear and what kind of job you have — essentially, it boils down to social class.

Many Chinese natives might first look at people of African descent differently not out of hostility (at least not initially), but a well-intentioned curiosity because of the historically homogenous population and lack of exposure to different racial groups. However, under the influence of social media and people’s perceptions of different socioeconomic statuses, the once benign ignorance has evolved into fear, prejudice, and exclusion. 

The pandemic has only served as a magnifier of these problems, reflecting the widespread stigma tied to certain nationalities, races, and socioeconomic statuses that transcend national borders and ethnic groups. 

The global racial hierarchy created by politicians, media influencers, and other people in power has been ingrained in major economies around the world for decades. It can manifest in nuanced and dangerous forms where the victims are further burdened by a lack of socioeconomic power. 

Racism, regardless of being explicit or implicit, cannot be ignored by societies, governments, communities or individuals. The coronavirus pandemic forces us to confront the obstinate problem of race, once again. After all, racism is not rooted in animosity, but fear that is integral to human nature. It manifests in different ways across peoples and societies. It is an obstacle that we ought to conquer together.

Based on the aforementioned accounts, we have a long way to go.