Students fall victim to a ‘war against all Africans’

African students in Guangzhou, China, have been thrown out of their homes, forcibly quarantined and refused entry into public areas as xenophobic hostility towards Africans escalates in the wake of warnings by Chinese President Xi Jinping of “new difficulties and challenges” related to a possible “second wave” of the pandemic.

Tensions escalated after five Africans were said to have tested positive for coronavirus in Guangzhou and a Nigerian national, also said to be positive, was reported on 1 April to have attacked a Chinese nurse at the Guangzhou hospital while trying to escape.

These events have intensified hostility towards people of African descent, including students who have been forced to stay away from university campuses.

Evicted without notice

Students have reportedly been barred from entering public places such as supermarkets and train stations, evicted from their apartments without notice and forced into quarantine; others have been forced to undergo coronavirus screening.

At least half a dozen students from Africa staying in Guangzhou confirmed to University World News via WhatsApp that they had faced some form of stigmatisation in the past week amid racial tensions that have engulfed the city.

“I have been in China for over two years and I never faced such discrimination. We have been treated like second-class citizens and kicked out of our home completely unprepared, at night, and had the police hounding us like animals… the universities and embassies could not help… my biggest fear is being deported before I finish my degree”, said Esther Kamwenda (not her real name), a Kenyan student pursuing health sciences at the Guangzhou Medical University last week.

Forced quarantine

She and many others have since been placed under quarantine and forced to undergo COVID-19 screenings.

A 19-year-old Zimbabwean student also related via WhatsApp how she was arrested, forced to undergo tests, accused of spreading the virus, and detained for hours before being released.

Meanwhile, placards with racial slurs were displayed at supermarkets and restaurants forbidding Africans from entering the premises and videos have emerged on various social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter showing some Africans roaming the streets at night with their possessions, unable to find shelter.

Students from Nigeria and Kenya have been shown in videos from their hiding places, pleading with their governments to intervene and assist them as they are no longer safe in Guangzhou and are now going hungry as supermarkets have refused to sell food to them.

Africans accused of being virus carriers

Of note has been the derogatory statements made on WeChat by local people accusing Africans of being virus carriers “of AIDS, of Ebola and now of coronavirus”.

African Americans are also worried.

A health alert posted on the ‘US Embassy and Consulates in China’ website on 13 April warned its citizens that officials in the Guangzhou metropolitan area had “escalated scrutiny of foreign nationals” ordering bars and restaurants “not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin”.

It said officials had launched “a round of mandatory tests for COVID-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with ‘African contacts’, regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine completion. African Americans have also reported that some businesses and hotels refuse to do business with them.”

The current crisis in Guangzhou has immense psychological implications for students who have been under lockdown since January with minimal financial support and are now unable to freely access the services that they require to survive.

A war against all Africans

Amanda Chari (not her real name), a Zimbabwean student at Guangdong University of Technology, said: “Even though I am not directly affected because I am inside the university campus, I don’t feel safe. This war is against all Africans staying in Guangzhou; we are being singled out for being African, which is really depressing.”

While it is mandatory for students to stay within university campuses, hundreds of students choose to stay in apartments outside universities, but have also been forced to take the coronavirus tests while students from countries such as India were not subjected to these tests, according to another African student in a leaked video posted on Facebook over the weekend. This was done despite the fact that they did not meet the criteria for those that may have been infected by the virus.

Calls to Chinese president

Arikana Chihombori-Quao, former African Union ambassador to the United States and head of the African Diaspora Development Institute (ADDI), condemned the situation and appealed to President Xi in a video posted on the ADDI website to do what is “right and fair” because the ill-treatment of Africans in China would have a negative bearing on China-Africa relations as a whole.

While there are an estimated 10 million Chinese nationals living in Africa, China has also been receiving thousands of African students into their universities, over 81,000 to date, with the highest numbers coming from Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

At the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Chinese government pledged to provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships.

Zimbabwean political analyst Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya stated during a WhatsApp interview with University World News that the Chinese government “had an obligation to stop racism” as it was a peremptory norm of international law and forbidden by all states under the United Nations provisions and general state practices. If not addressed, he said African students would be at risk of more violations with the surge of racism in Guangzhou.

The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe issued a statement via Twitter on 13 April that said: “Virus attacks us all, but China protects everyone equally. More than 3,000 Zimbabwean students in Hubei; only one was infected but was quickly cured. Is this the result of the so-called racial discrimination?”

However, questions continue to arise as to why the government has stood by while Africans including students are being mistreated.

At a press conference on 13 April, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied differential treatment towards African nationals in China, saying: “Regarding the concerns of some African citizens in Guangdong Province, the local authorities have looked into them and adopted a series of new measures.”

Zhao said Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong had met with some African diplomatic envoys in China and Guangdong authorities had held a news conference at which they announced “a series of measures, including to improve medical observation and health management measures related to foreign citizens as relevant epidemic response procedures require, treat them without differentiation, and provide more public health service and guidance tailored for foreign citizens … take further measures to accommodate African nationals caught in difficulties … [and] establish an effective communication mechanism with foreign consulates-general in Guangzhou … [and] firmly oppose any racist and discriminatory words or deeds.”