China is losing its critical African “friends” when it needs them the most

With rising tension between Beijing and the West, China needs friends now more than ever. But repeated racially-motivated discrimination against Africans in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou are undermining decades of China’s efforts to build a reservoir of diplomatic goodwill across Africa. 

Spike in attacks on Africans in Guangzhou

Anxiety and anger are rising across Africa in response to reports emerging from Guangzhou of hotel workers ejecting Africans in the middle of the night and officials seizing passports and threatening arrest and deportation. Videos circulating online showed restaurants in Guangzhou with signs refusing entry to Africans. Nigerian Consulate Officials also reported widespread forceful quarantines and testing of Africans in the city. 

Guangzhou has served as a “trading community and a bridge” between Chinese and African businesses since the early 1990s. As the heartland of China’s export-led manufacturing sector, Guangzhou is the host to the largest African population in China. According to Xinhua news agency, over 15,000 Africans lived in Guangzhou in 2018, not taking into account illegal immigrants and overstayers.

Over the years, the influx of African migrants into the city has led to clashes with local city officials. But the recent wave of clearly racially-motivated attacks has resulted in an Africa-wide outcry and is likely to have far larger implications for Beijing’s diplomatic position in Africa than previous incidents.

Diplomatic backlash from Africa

Tensions between China and the West are already at their highest level for decades, with the US, France, Germany and Australia accusing China of disinformation and cover-ups relating to the COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese diplomats have responded with vociferous counter-attacks denying these claims. 

In this context, the support of African countries, some of which have been close to Beijing for decades, have become all the more important. 

To illustrate, 22 Ambassadors from (mostly) western countries signed a letter in June 2019 addressed to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter criticised China for the surveillance and restrictions of Uyghurs Muslims in Xinjiang. Less than a month later, a group of 37 countries, including 17 African countries signed a letter in support of Beijing’s so-called “deradicalization measures in Xinjiang”.

That is the type of diplomatic support Beijing was hoping for from African countries in the current crisis. However, this support seems unlikely due to what has happened in Guangzhou. In April, several African diplomats in Beijing sent a letter to Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi and the chair of the African Union, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, protesting the “stigmatisation and discrimination” of Africans in Guangzhou. “The Group of African Ambassadors in Beijing immediately demands the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans,” the statement said.

Some African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, went as far as summoning Chinese Ambassadors to express their displeasure over the mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou, a rare public display of official anger by ruling African elites. For instance, Kenya’s foreign ministry said it “officially expressed concern”, and is working with Chinese authorities to address the matter

For the first time, officials at Africa’s top regional body, the African Union, openly expressed their displeasure with China. The Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Mr. Kwesi Quartey, invited the Chinese Ambassador to the African Union,  Mr Liu Yuxi, to convey their displeasure with incidences of racial abuses, telling the Chinese Ambassador, the incidents “were clearly unacceptable”.

Beijing’s response

Officials at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have tried to downplay the severity of the incidences in Guangzhou by denying that the evictions and attacks on Africans were racially motivated, and arguing that media attention is instigated by the West in a deliberate attempt to damage Sino-African ties. 

According to the Ministry, Guangzhou is enforcing anti-virus measures on anyone who enters the city, regardless of nationality, race or gender. The Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe dismissed the accusation that Africans were being deliberately targeted. “It is harmful to sensationalize isolated incidents,” he said in a tweet “China treats all individuals in the country, Chinese and foreign alike, as equals.”

Beijing-Africia reconciliation?

China still has a lot of good will in Africa, and most African countries are unlikely to completely turn their back against Beijing any time soon. But this is a bad time for Beijing to get into diplomatic rows with African countries, many of which have traditionally been friendly towards the rising China. Beijing has not been shy to state that its aid, trade and investment in Africa is intended to build “mutual-friendship”. 

With rising tension between Beijing and the West, China needs friends now more than ever, and Africa may be its best hope. But China is squandering African goodwill.