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Society & Culture

It Wasn’t Racism in Guangzhou

Apr 21, 2020
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

Recent reports about “brutal law enforcement” by certain government departments in Guangzhou, China, during the coronavirus epidemic, have led to some Nigerian and other African citizens being evicted from hotels and rented homes and forced to “sleep on the streets.” Videos have gone viral on social media that were quickly labeled by some as examples of discrimination and racism against Africans in China.

Before holding such a heavy hat, it is necessary to first know the origin of the matter and the scope of the people involved, whether these were individual cases or of a universal nature.

Some social media reports suggest that the epidemic prevention and control measures in Guangzhou are particularly aimed at Africans. However, investigations have shown that the Africans who could not return to their hotels were inconvenienced by accident and that epidemic control measures in Guangzhou have been uniformly applied to all persons in residential areas — local Chinese or foreigners — who have tested positive for the coronavirus or who have had close contact with infected people.

On April 14, Zhou Pingjian, the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, and Geoffrey Onyeama, the Nigerian minister of foreign affairs, clarified the matter at a joint press conference in Abuja, Nigeria. They explained that the Guangzhou government had closed residential areas and isolated close contacts of a Nigerian who had eaten at a certain restaurant and tested positive for the coronavirus. Those who required quarantine were naturally not allowed to return to their hotels or other accommodations.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the local governments in Guangzhou have shown great concern over the incident because of the misunderstandings that have arisen from it. The ministry reiterated that the Chinese government treats all foreigners on equal footing and that it opposes and has zero tolerance for any discriminatory practices that target specific groups of people.

Of course, any rude behavior in implementing strict quarantine measures must be prevented and corrected. But we also need to understand the enormous pressure faced by local governments and communities when the epidemic was running rampant in China. Now, as the country has achieved some success in the fight against the epidemic, the focus of prevention has shifted. Blocking imported cases is being emphasized to avoid a rebound at home. Without such new measures, our previous achievements could all be lost.

Guangzhou is an open international trade city and the only trade port in Chinese history that has never been closed. There are a great many foreigners based in Guangzhou, hence great difficulty in controlling imported cases. Since April 4, Guangzhou has tested 4,553 African nationals and confirmed 111 cases, 19 of which were imported from abroad.

In recent years, I have been to Sanyuanli and other communities in Guangzhou where many Africans live.  Many rent local residences but have little interaction with Guangzhou natives and local communities. They’re busy with their own business and have their own social circles. When the coronavirus infection broke out, creating an urgent need for group prevention and control across the whole community, the separation of these African residents made it difficult to share information and take collective action to prevent its spread.

This is fertile ground for misunderstanding. There was even an incident in which a Nigerian who had been confirmed positive refused medical attention. When a nurse tried to give him an injection for treatment, he became so agitated that he bit her and caused serious injury.

Fighting the coronavirus is an unprecedented common challenge facing human society. COVID-19 can be deadly — it threatens and disrupts people’s normal lives — so it’s natural that some people become anxious or agitated.

This is a common enemy we are fighting. Thus, responsible media as well as rational public figures and government officials should work for the unity of the international community in fighting the epidemic. We should all cherish the feeling of friendship between people of different countries and avoid irresponsible remarks that might undermine it.

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