Despite the huge amount of censorship on China’s social media, none of these posts have been removed. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have become the primary target of suspicion, racial discrimination and abuse amid public fear of a second wave of Covid-19. And this intolerance has peaked in Guangzhou, a city of 12 million people in the highly industrialised Guangdong province.
It started with the local government in Guangzhou implementing surveillance, conducting compulsory testing and enforcing a 14-day quarantine for all African nationals – even if they had earlier been tested negative and hadn’t recently travelled outside China. In Yuexiu district, the largest African migrant community in China, many Africans were evicted by landlords – despite having paid their rents – and left to sleep rough on the streets.
The widespread racism has caused a huge public outcry across Africa, shared on social media under the hashtag #ChinaMustExplain. YouTuber Wode Maya, who has lived in China and is a fluent Mandarin speaker, urges fellow Africans to “wake up to what’s happening”. The global African diaspora has put pressure on African embassies and institutions to act. Last weekend the Kenyan government announced plans to allow its citizens stranded in China to be evacuated.
The official Chinese responses were at first silence or denial. State media such as Global Times and Xinhua failed to report the story in the first few days after the news broke in African news outlets. Later, the Chinese authorities began to recognise the reports of racism as “reasonable concerns”, though migrants continue to feel unsafe.
The ideology of “race” in China goes back a long way. In the late 19th century, Qing imperial reformers searched for an “answer” that could revive China in face of European and Japanese colonialist expansion. “Race”, “nation” and nationalism have since been embedded into Chinese republicanism in the early 20th century, and then into the establishment of the Chinese Communist party.