Human Rights Watch to Africa: Don’t Let China Get Away with Racism

In this photo taken on March 1, 2018, people walk in the "Little Africa" district in Guangzhou, the capital of southern China's Guangdong province. - The commercial hub has long been a magnet for fortune-seeking Africans, but traders and students say they face unfavourable visa rules and increasingly heavy policing. …
FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch called on Africa to unite and “unequivocally call on the Chinese government to cease all discrimination against Africans in China” on Tuesday, a response to ongoing reports of racist acts against black people in the country.

The reports have centered around allegedly anti-coronavirus policies in Guangzhou, southern China, home to one of the nation’s largest African populations. Restaurants in the city began posting signs in April explicitly stating they would not allow black people to enter. African citizens in the city said many landlords had abruptly evicted them, leaving them on the street, as hotels would not accept them either. Some said government officials had forced them into house arrest under the guise of quarantine even if they had not left the city in a long time, showed no signs of having contracted the Chinese coronavirus, and tested negative for the virus.

The Chinese Communist Party denied any racist acts had taken place on behalf of its citizens and claimed that the measures were necessary to curb the virus, which originated in central Wuhan, China. Chinese officials have insisted since late March that “imported” cases are the only threat to the Chinese, meaning foreigners require more scrutiny to keep the rates of infection low.

Some African governments have expressed disillusion with the Chinese regime, but many have deep financial ties to Beijing, compromising their stances. China has invested billions into a plan known as the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), which it debuted as a plan to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road from western Europe to Beijing. Instead, it has invested in building expensive infrastructure projects in Africa, paid for through predatory loans offered to the local governments.

“African governments together should unequivocally call on the Chinese government to cease all discrimination against Africans in China, and carry out prompt and transparent investigations to hold to account all those responsible for discriminatory practices,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement published Tuesday. “African governments should also press China to enforce measures to prevent discrimination in the future.”

The non-governmental organization’s China wing also demanded that the Communist Party “immediately investigate and hold accountable all officials and others responsible for discriminatory treatment.”

An article at Human Rights Watch’s site noted that “no evidence scientific basis” existed for discrimination against black people in the name of curbing the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. It also asserted the Communist Party has long been complacent towards racism against black people:

Police frequently target Africans, often linked on Chinese social media with violent crimes and overstaying their visas, for immigration enforcement. Some job advertisements specifically exclude “heiren,” or blacks, or set a lower salary for African applicants. Some Africans report being paid less than their white colleagues for the same job. Many also said they have experienced of being turned away by taxis, restaurants, or shops. In 2018, a sketch aired during the annual Lunar New Year Gala on state TV featured a Chinese actress in blackface saying things such as “China has done so much for Africa,” and “I love Chinese people! I love China!” A Chinese laundry detergent brand advertisement showed a black man being pushed into a washing machine, getting “cleaned,” and emerging as a lighter skinned Asian.

The organization also published testimony from Africans in Guangzhou who experienced the allegedly coronavirus-related racism first-hand.

“We don’t know what to do, we don’t know where to go to, we have no money, nobody wants to talk about it. We want African governments to take up the issues with the Chinese government,” one man, identified by the pseudonym “John F.” said.

Others lamented that even the end of the pandemic would do little to help them. Micomyiza Jean-Claude, a citizen of Burundi, told Human Rights Watch, “Even after the isolation, people will shout and bully us, and call us ‘virus.’ Life will be different even after the pandemic.”

“I am very tired of being humiliated every day and African leaders keep quiet on racism going on in Guangzhou because they don’t want to spoil business they are doing together. The leaders give more value to business and close their eyes on humanity,” Jean-Claude added.

The first reports of racism against black people in Africa – not merely any African nationals – surfaced in mid-April in Guangzhou. Among the more outrageous reports was a sign posted at a local McDonald’s restaurant stating that black-skinned people were not allowed to enter the premises. Dramatic video footage of African citizens sleeping on the street – at a time in which most of the world is implementing some form of “stay-at-home” guideline – also surfaced. Locals not evicted from their homes complained that they were not allowed to leave their homes, even when testing negative for coronavirus.

“Some Africans in Guangzhou need to readjust their way of thinking. They are not onlookers in the face of COVID-19. Guangzhou is their second home,” the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party propaganda newspaper, opined in response to the evidence of racism. “As a part of the city, they need to respect and comply with prevention and control measures just like everyone else. Controlling pandemic is not only for the benefit of the locals but also for the expat communities, including Africans.”

Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama declared his nation to be “extremely disappointed” by the reports and announced his government had demanded local consulate officials tally any material damages and every instance of racism against Nigerian citizens. Last week, Benjamin Kalu, the spokesman of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, announced a series of measures to hold China accountable for racism against Nigerian citizens.

Among the new provisions would be a thorough inspection of Chinese citizens’ legality in being present in China. Chinese citizens in good standing with the Communist Party are known to regularly run afoul of local immigration laws in Belt and Road countries in Africa.

Attorneys in Nigeria also announced last week they are seeking $200 billion in damages from China for unleashing the coronavirus pandemic on the world.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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