Firstly, it is important to point out that reports hitherto have emanated, in the main, from the southern city of Guangzhou. There have hardly been reports of this kind of abuse in other parts of China, for example here in Beijing. It would, therefore, be a stretch to suggest that this is something taking place across China.
Guangzhou is the trade capital of (southern) China and foreign nationals, from across the world, often visit Guangzhou for business and trade purposes. Guangzhou is also likely to be the city in China with the highest concentration of foreign nationals and these will include Africans.
Since about a month ago, reports, primarily through video footage and screenshots, have come in that Africans are being abused and discriminated against in Guangzhou.
Some have said that this is a deliberate clamping down of African foreign nationals in Guangzhou and surrounds. An allegation, in particular, is that the Chinese local authorities allege that African nationals are carrying the Covid19 virus.
On the other hand, reports have also come in, from both Chinese people and Africans themselves, that the Chinese authorities, given Covid 19, are simply clamping down on foreign nationals and Africans in particular because of illegal behaviour. This illegal behaviour ranges from visas expiring to not cooperating with authorities in respect of quarantine measures.
Yes, it is true that special measures are put in place to secure foreign nationals especially. But this is more to avoid the embarrassment of a foreign national, irrespective of nationality, dying on Chinese soil.
The greatest sin one can commit in China and the east generally is to cause embarrassment and when one understands this culture, one appreciates the overprotective measures the Chinese have in place precisely to safeguard against such embarrassment.
That the current situation in Guangzhou is causing embarrassment should explain why, naturally, the Chinese authorities, academics and society at large would almost automatically go into a state of denialism about this and take a defensive approach.
For example, there is little doubt in my own mind that while the majority of people in Beijing are slowly getting their lives back to normal, we, as foreign national students, in particular, remain under serious lockdown measures (Day 78) in order to protect us.
My own university is clear: either you live under strict lockdown measures or you board a flight to go home. Those are literally my options.
Unfortunately, not everyone will understand this. When they look and see Chinese people moving around freely and authorities insisting that they, as (African) foreign nationals, must remain in quarantine then it is a bit difficult to digest.
At the same time, there will be extra cautious measures put in place in respect of foreigners given that China is in the phase now of fighting foreign transmissions ie when the infected person comes from outside of China.
Having said all of that, I do believe this is also a liminal moment. Liminal moments take place when society is almost in a state of transition or in a state of being in a trance. Things are moving around us but we are not necessarily moving.
Usually, for those of us who have studied phenomena such as unruly politics, states of liminality throw up or bring about the best and the worst in societies at the same time. These issues are in sharp display and one can see them clearly…issues that are usually left to the unconscious state of society.
In this respect, my own research, looking at China-South Africa/Africa relations has shown that while our governments may have enjoyed mutually benefitting and strong relations this has not necessarily translated to the grassroots or where our respective peoples are at.
It is simply true that most Chinese have discriminatory attitudes towards Africans. This discrimination and prejudice often translates to “making persons illegal” and therefore suspecting them of being criminals before even being found to be so.
In South Africa, this too is the case. An African foreign national is assumed to be an illegal immigrant before he or she is thought to be there legally and providing a scarce skill. The current situation in Guangzhou is simply not unique to China.
What we see through the media about Chinese abuse of African foreign nationals is almost exactly the kind of sinophobia and discrimination, racism and prejudice the world experienced towards China and the east, in general, a few days into the outbreak of Covid19.
South Africans, Africans and the world in general had and continue to have discriminatory attitudes and prejudice towards the Chinese (and this situation in Guangzhou is almost like a God-send allowing them to justify these discriminatory attitudes).
To suggest that the discrimination and prejudice only on the one side is to be naive. Discrimination and prejudice take place on both sides.
Therefore what my research has certainly shown is that while our relations as countries have grown politically and even to a quantitative extent economically, it has not grown at a social, or what the Chinese term “people-to-people”, level. The central government will no doubt take measures against local authorities in Guangzhou because, as the MFA statement has indicated, Africa and China share deep historical roots and have a common destiny.
Again, the situation in Guangzhou, as the situation across the globe in the first few weeks of the outbreak of Cobid19, is a classical example of the underdogs fighting each other while the global oligarchs get away with murder. With the current slump in trade globally, most definitely affecting cities such as Guangzhou, we can only imagine how this scramble for limited resources and opportunities is creating conflict between those who are merely struggling to survive.
Wesley Seale is currently in Beijing, China completing his PhD