This is a flashback. Just about a year ago, the tough speaking Ugandan President, Yuweri Museveni blamed the World Bank and the West as a whole for driving Africa into Chinese arms by their refusal to fund railways projects across Africa.
Hosting some Chinese officials then, President Museveni lashed at the World Bank for refusing to lend Uganda money to build a railway network,noting that the World Bank told off Uganda when it sought for funds, that countries that “build railways use own money.”
He said that such a statement from an economist purports to support Africa’s transformation through private-sector led growth shows that some actors are not serious. Museveni, who was in China for a four-day visit, told a meeting in Beijing that Uganda Railways tried to get money to fund railway construction from the World Bank but in vain.
“One of our engineers recently told me that the Uganda Railways tried in vain to get support from the World Bank until one official told them that countries that build railways do so with “their own money,” Museveni said.
“How will the private-sector grow if it is bedevilled with expensive transport costs, expensive electricity costs or no electricity at all, expensive cost of money, etc.? It is against that negativity, that China’s solidarity should be measured.”
“As we gather here, therefore, we cannot forget to salute the Communist parties of China, the USSR, Cuba and the other socialist countries that constituted the third factor in our emancipation,” he said.
Reality a Year After
A year after , Uganda appears to have fallen out with Beijing on railway financing. China was unwilling to commit such fund after the faltering experience of Kenya.
Kampala has eventually resorted to a mixture of private public sector funding of her railway revival. It has slowed down the SGR agenda and in turn opted for rehabilitation of the old guage lines.
Interestingly, the Ugandan government has engaged a western led consortium in the rehabilitation efforts. Just two or so weeks ago, the national government of the Republic of Uganda approved US$ 376M for the 215km Malaba – Kampala meter-gauge railway refurbishment project.
An additional investment of over US$ 12M has also been approved to purchase eight locomotives for the line and more than US$ 2.5M for routine repairs across the network.
This was revealed by Charles Kateeba, the managing director of Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) in a letter addressed to the parliamentary committee on matters of national economy.
According to Mr. Kateeba, the Malaba – Kampala meter-gauge railway refurbishment would not only bring to life cheaper means of transport but also help reduce the number of trucks on the roads which would consequently lead to the reduction of wear and tear effect on the East African country highway roads.
Furthermore, the government hopes that the Malaba – Kampala meter-gauge railway refurbishment will reduce cross-border road traffic and help to limit the transmission of any future pandemics such as COVID-19.
The ambitious Uganda Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project
The above-mentioned investment is part of the ambitious Uganda Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project which aims to improve freight connections particularly between the capital city of Uganda and the country’s eastern border with Kenya.
The project includes the redevelopment and reconstruction of the East African country’s dilapidated 1,266km, 1000mm-gauge network to standard gauge and extension of the network to approximately 1,724km.
All this will be done in four sections: Malaba – Kampala, Kampala – Mpondwe, Tororo – Gulu, and Bihanga – Mirama Hills.
The construction of the Tororo – Gulu section has already been contracted to Vinci Group subsidiaries namely Sogea Satom and the ETF.
The two companies will replace the entire section 375km meter-gauge railway with a standard gauge railway.
They will also be responsible for the production and installation of 200,000m3 of ballast and the replacement and repair of sleepers, rails, and fastenings.
Angola has cut the number of oil cargoes that it will ship to Chinese state firms to pay down debt to Beijing as it seeks to renegotiate repayment terms to deal with the crippling impact of the coronavirus, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Angola said this week it had asked for G20 debt relief and was in advanced talks with some countries importing its oil on adjusting financing facilities, but expects no further debt overhaul to be needed beyond this.
The sharp global economic slowdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic pushed Brent oil prices to their lowest levels since the late 1990s and U.S. oil futures to negative territory for the first time in history.
The price drop has put heavily-indebted Angola into a fragile state as it derives a third of state revenues from oil.
By far, its biggest creditor is China. Analysts say Angola has over $20 billion in bilateral debt with the lion's share owed to China. Much of the cash was borrowed to build roads, hospitals, houses and railways across the southern African country.
On top of its Chinese debt, Luanda secured a $3.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last year and state oil firm Sonangol has borrowed $2.5 billion from banks between end-2018 and mid-2019, the IMF said.
A global oil output cut deal led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has added to Luanda's woes.
As an OPEC member, Angola was pressured to cut oil exports starting from May. The result has left the country with fewer and lower-value cargoes to split between paying off its Chinese debt and filling its depleted coffers.
The sources said that China's state-owned Sinochem would receive five cargoes in July, down from the usual seven or eight, while the trading arm of Chinese giant Sinopec called Unipec would receive none.
Unipec typically receives two to three cargoes earmarked as debt repayment.
Sonangol, Angola's finance ministry, Sinopec and Sinochem did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
China's foreign ministry said on Wednesday that the relevant departments were in contact with Angola over its request for debt relief.
"These oil-backed loans create stronger interdependence (between lender and borrower) than traditional financing. This tactic of diverting cargoes is not new as seen elsewhere," David Mihalyi, a senior economic analyst with the Natural Resource Governance Institute, said.
Chad threatened to cut repayment cargoes to commodities trader and miner Glencore during a major loan restructuring in 2017. Similarly, Congo Republic has cut many repayment oil cargoes to Glencore and commodities trader Trafigura as discussions drag.
Angola is not the only African country heavily indebted to China. The IMF and ratings agency Moody's have raised concerns about debt levels in sub-Saharan Africa particularly with China.
Racism against Nigerians – and other Africans – is not new in China. Africa-China history is marked by solidarity, but also dented by old and new racism. Nothing at this moment suggests that the current situation will drastically change.
Some recent events are low moments in the ever-oscillating relationship between China and Nigeria.
A video emerged on 10 April of a Nigerian diplomat in China, Razaq Lawal, publicly criticising his compatriots’ maltreatment in Guangzhou by Chinese officials. Lawal protested that Nigerians were kept in COVID-19 quarantine beyond the normal 14 days for Chinese citizens. Chinese officials were also seizing their passports. He pointed out that the Nigerian government did not treat Chinese citizens living in Nigeria any differently from its own citizens.
The video drew the ire of Nigerians and the Nigerian government. The speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, demanded answers from the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, Zhou Pingjian. At about the same time the Nigerian Medical Association was protesting a government decision to invite a Chinese medical team to assist in the fight against COVID-19.
Based on my research on relations between the two countries (especially in terms of labour relations) over the past decade, I believe that incidents like this may keep recurring. That’s despite the assertion by Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, that Nigeria would “take definitive steps against China”.
I identify three main reasons.
Why things won’t change
Official relations date back to February 1971, when Nigeria established diplomatic relations with China. But contact between ordinary Nigerians and Chinese predates the 1967-70 Biafran Civil War. Though some argue that China supported the Biafran forces against the Nigerian government, no post-war government in Nigeria has confirmed Beijing’s involvement.
Along with other African countries, Nigeria supported China as the genuine representative of the Chinese people in 1975. This led to the replacement of Taiwan at the United Nations. High-level bilateral visits followed, setting the stage for increased trade. Although accurate figures are difficult to find, Nigeria-China trade galloped from about $1.8 billion in 2003 to $13.5 billion in 2018.
As the relationship grew, more Nigerians established business and other relationships in China.
Nigerians’ maltreatment must, however, be understood within the broader maltreatment of Africans in China. This can be traced to the 1960s, when African students began to arrive in China. It intensified in the 1970s and 1980s when there were protests against – and by – Africans in China.
Coincidentally, a landmark incident that led to the death of a Nigerian happened in 2009 in Guangzhou, where Nigerians were recently maltreated. It led to protests by Nigerians and other Africans, “demanding justice from the Chinese police after officers chased the man out of a high-rise window in a tightening security crackdown on illegal over-stayers in the city this year”.
In 2012, there was another protest by Africans in Guangzhou over the death of a Nigerian in police detention.
It’s my view that Nigeria’s reluctance to call out Chinese actions over the years is the main reason why the status quo persists.
While publicly painting a picture of equality, China continues to dominate relations with Nigeria, as I observed in a 2015 paper co-authored with Bukola Ajayi. We see this in imbalanced trade, Nigeria’s growing dependence on China, and China’s growing importance in Africa. We also drew attention to the issue of counterfeit, adulterated and sub-standard drugs and other products imported from China into Nigeria.
Back then, I commented on Chinese labour relations in Nigeria and the challenges of fostering the International Labour Organisation’s decent work agenda. My paper pointed to the weakness of the Nigerian government to respond to the maltreatment of its citizens by Chinese companies. I argued that this created a space for both civil and uncivil responses by non-state actors.
In April 2020 – five years later – we witnessed another report of maltreatment.
The second reason is due to Chinese investment in Nigeria.
A good number of Chinese multinationals and small companies operate in Nigeria. Chinese companies in Nigeria are building much needed roads and railways, airports, and telecommunications infrastructure. There are currently about 218 registered Chinese firms in Nigeria. They are involved in construction, furniture, food and beverages, beauty, and product assembling plants, among others.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s trade deficit against China remains huge. Between 2015 and 2018, for instance, the trade deficit stood at N6.83 trillion (which exchanges for about $17.5 billion today) in favour of China. This affirms that China benefits more at the moment. Though accurate data remains difficult to get, it is estimated that total trade between both countries between 2015 and 2018 was about $49 billion. This means that goods imported from China into Nigeria in that period were about $17.5 billion more than those exported from Nigeria to China. In any case, a significant amount of Nigeria’s export to China is a primary product: crude oil.
The third reason concerns China’s financing of development projects.
China is a major financier of large projects in Nigeria. These include the $874 million, 187km Abuja-Kaduna rail; the $1.2 billion, 312km Lagos-Ibadan expressway; the $1.1 billion Kano-Kaduna railway lines and the $600 airport terminals in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano.
An estimate puts the current cost of Chinese projects at $47 billion. Many of these are financed by Chinese loans. It will be difficult for a country that relies so much on China to take action against Beijing.
With the poor labour standards in China itself and institutions’ weakness in Nigeria to check periodic abuses of Nigerians by Chinese companies, the chances seem low that Nigerian politicians and government will – or can – seriously respond to Nigerians’ maltreatment in China.
What to do?
The latest treatment of Nigerians in China is a dent on Nigeria-China relations. But if relations are to make progress, at least two important issues must be addressed. First, the Chinese government must do more to educate its people, making ordinary Chinese sensitive to issues of racism.
Second, Chinese citizens in China must understand that their actions could have implications for their compatriots in Africa. This could affect China’s long-term relevance in Africa as a partner.
But these issues concern not just ordinary Chinese citizens. Racism may be a symptom of much bigger problems for the Chinese government. This could be an opportunity for the Xi Jinping government to learn, and more importantly act.
The number of convictions related to corruption in China nearly doubled last year, according to a report by Beijing’s top prosecutor, as President Xi Jinping ramped up his crackdown on graft.
According to the annual report from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate submitted to the national parliament, 18,585 people were prosecuted for crimes related to corruption in 2019, a 90 percent year-on-year increase.
Sixteen cases involved former provincial or ministerial-level Communist Party cadres, including former Yunnan party chief Qin Guangrong, who was accused of taking bribes.
The latest high-profile targets of the anti-corruption campaign include former shipbuilding executive Hu Wenming and ex-deputy national security minister Sun Lijun, who were both placed under investigation for “serious violations of discipline and the law” in May and April respectively.
Last year also saw a 50 percent rise in the number of cases involving Communist Party members transferred to prosecutors for investigation, according to the report, which was discussed Monday afternoon.
China is holding its delayed annual National People’s Congress this year, but with much stricter controls on access and many sessions closed to the media due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A total of 25,000 trials involving corruption, malfeasance and bribery were concluded last year, which led to 29,000 people being convicted, according to the Supreme People’s Court work report released Monday.
More than a million officials have been punished under the anti-corruption campaign so far, which has been a cornerstone of Xi’s seven-year tenure.
Critics have accused the campaign of targeting Xi’s political enemies.
The Supreme People’s Court also reported that there were 22 trials under the controversial martyrs’ law, which criminalises all insults to Communist heroes.
Several internet users and even an online comic platform have been punished since the law was introduced in 2018.
There was also a notable increase in the number of prosecutions last year for cyber crime and intellectual property infringement, at 33 and 32 percent respectively.
The report also said that more than 2,500 people were prosecuted for coronavirus-related criminal offences between February and April this year.
China’s foreign ministry said on Saturday the United States needed to stop the “unreasonable suppression” of Chinese companies like Huawei.
The Trump administration on Friday moved to block global chip supplies to blacklisted telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies, spurring fears of Chinese retaliation and hammering shares of US producers of chipmaking equipment.
China will firmly defend its companies’ legal rights, the foreign ministry said in a statement in response to Reuters’ questions on whether Beijing would take retaliatory measures against the United States.
China's Global Times newspaper on Saturday quoted a source close to the Chinese government as saying that Beijing was ready to take a series of countermeasures against the US, such as putting US companies on an "unreliable entity list" and imposing restrictions on US companies such as Apple Inc, Cisco Systems Inc and Qualcomm Inc.
The newspaper, published by the People's Daily, the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, said the source also mentioned halting the purchase of Boeing Co aeroplanes.
"China will take forceful countermeasures to protect its own legitimate rights" if the US moves forward with the plan to change rules and bar essential suppliers of chips, including Taiwan-based TSMC, from selling chips to Huawei, the Global Times quoted the source as saying.
Tensions between the world's two largest economies have spiked in recent weeks, with officials on both sides suggesting a hard-won deal that defused a bitter 18-month trade war could be abandoned months after it was signed in January.
In addition to the move on Huawei, the US Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees billions in federal retirement dollars, this week also said it would indefinitely delay plans to invest in some Chinese companies that are under scrutiny in Washington.
I must repeat that Africa deserves to be paid a compensation for the damages COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on lives and livelihoods.
In their prickly reaction to my April 16 Washington Post #ChinaMustPay article (a response published in the Guardian Newspaper of May 3, 2020), the Government of China through their Embassy in Nigeria missed the opportunity to responsibly address the serious issues raised.
I must repeat that Africa deserves to be paid a compensation for the damages COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on lives and livelihoods.
Unfortunately and unfairly, my country, Nigeria, is one of fifty-four countries in Africa that are struggling to respond to the disruptive effects of China’s failure to take responsibility for a pandemic that could have been easily contained and localized to avoid the ruin it has caused our continent and the world at large.
Since Beijing failed to adhere to basic scientific and research transparency in the critical early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, it must accept responsibility with humility. Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili
Therefore, a legitimate demand for accountability and payment of penalties by rich and powerful countries for damages their behaviors do to vulnerable people ought not to attract the kind of sour response China released.
There are six points that authorities in Beijing ought to humbly consider.
First, it is now clear to the world that China’s opaque handling of the pandemic is costing my country, our continent and people too much in lost lives and livelihoods. The unjustified suffering of the poor and vulnerable brought on by the actions of a comparatively rich and powerful country demands a new system for addressing global inequities.
I maintain that information in the public domain points to the fact that China suppressed vital information from the rest of the world on COVID-19. The burden to present convincing counter-factual information lies with China and,so far, it has failed to do so.
Second, I assert again that China owes Africa yet-to-be-estimated compensation. Its acts of negligence in December and early January resulted in a fast-spreading global pandemic that collapsed the continent’s economic growth from 2.9% in 2019 to negative 5.1% in 2020. Most importantly, China should, in the interim, take responsibility and ease the severe fiscal pressure on our countries, by announcing a cancellation of over $140 Billion in loans its government, contractors and banks have advanced to Africa over the last two decades.
Following this debt cancelation, an international consortium made up of the G20, China, Africa Union Commission and global institutions like the United Nations, World Bank and IMF should be constituted to assess the full extent of damages and the compensation due.
Third, Chinese authorities should know that we are Africans who are not lackeys of any power. Laying a baseless charge of “dancing to the tune of others” to an African reveals an appalling mindset toward our continent. It may in fact be this same sort of attitude that frames the extremely offensive profiling of Africans who are resident in China.
We do not dance to the drumbeat of any country or any continent -- our sole tune is the African Beat.
Fourth, the spirit of transparency ought to be in China’s own interest. It is intriguing that Beijing has so far failed to embrace my suggestion to allow an Independent International Panel of Experts to review and assess China’s handling of the COVID19 pandemic. Why? Is China afraid of full disclosure that can help the world learn vital lessons on how to manage global threats and risks better?
Fifth, this global New Normal requires faster prevention of cross-border risks and threats. The best antidotes to minimize global negative externalities that harm the weak and vulnerable are absolute transparency and removal of information asymmetries by countries.
As part of this New Normal, the global community has a duty to learn and correct past failures to penalize bad behavior. My #ChinaMustPay article is a call therefore to innovate global mechanisms that compel countries to start now to do the right things whenever risks and threats emerge.
Innovation is what China rode on to economic greatness. What then is wrong with asking for such as a legitimate part of our global New Normal?
Sixth, it should be in China’s historic and conscientious national interest to prevent future exploitation of vulnerable countries by economic supwerpowers. I did acknowledge previous global risks that similarly emanated from other rich and powerful countries and injured Africa’s economic growth and development. I find it hard to believe that China, given its history and experience with colonial mistreatment, would want this cyclical pattern to continue. Do the authorities in Beijing really want Africans to simply accept harmful actions of rich and powerful countries?
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in an April 2020 report on coronavirus pandemic stated that “over 300,000 Africans may lose their lives due to COVID-19.” According to the Africa Union Commission, the coronavirus is already collapsing many economies in Africa and worsening poverty. Already, the livelihoods of hundreds of millions on the continent, especially children, young people and women are already lost to the damaging economic disruptions caused by COVID-19.
The IMF calls the impact of the pandemic on Africa as “the worst reading on record”. It went further to state that Africa’s “Fiscal space is limited, and fiscal financing needs to address the crisis are large - at least $114 billion for this year”. International rating agencies have massively downgraded the credit ratings of African countries making investors more skittish.
I proposed a penalty system in the form of a Global Risk Burden Tax that will from now be payable to weaker and more vulnerable countries and their people whenever forced to bear a disproportionate burden from preventable global risks that emanate from rich and powerful countries.Such penalty tax would also serve as a disincentive to prevent the kind of unbecoming actions and decisions that escalated the spread of the deadly virus out of Wuhan.
China must know that where our lives and livelihoods are concerned, no country, regardless of how powerful it may be, can intimidate us Africans ever again.
Beijing should do the right thing now and accept the debt it owes Africa as a result of its failures on COVID-19. That is how responsible world powers should behave in the 21st Century if they are to be taken seriously.
Ezekwesili is the former vice-president for the Africa region at the World Bank and the former minister of education for Nigeria. She is the co-convener of #BringBackOurGirls Movement.
If China continues to use mass surveillance technologies after COVID-19, staying untraceable may be impossible for undocumented migrants.
The African diaspora has long thrived in southern China. But this may all change following the pandemic. In tackling the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government has employed a variety of technologies to surveil and trace individuals. These may soon leave little room for the kinds of irregular migration, mobility and living situations that have allowed many African communities to live, work and operate in China up till now.
For the last two decades, the southern city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, has been at the forefront of the African presence in China. The overwhelming presence of foreigners in this trading hub has often tested local authorities’ capacity to control its non-native population. This has often resulted in tensions between local police and foreign communities, such as those from West Africa who often report harassment and discrimination.
It has also contributed to friction between local, provincial and national policymakers in China. For instance, Beijing grants thousands of entry permits to African nationals each year for diverse political reasons. It is authorities in Guangdong, however, that typically have to deal with the impact of these decisions. One practical outcome of this lack of coherence is that, over the past decade, Guangzhou has seen a sharp increase in people overstaying their visas.
In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials in Guangzhou reported that 16,000 Africans were legally residing in the city. Last week – as Africans were evicted from their homes and hotel rooms, denied entrance to restaurants and confronted by other forms of discrimination – local authorities said there are currently just 4,500 African nationals in the city.
This suggests a sharp decline in just six years, though these numbers only describe legal residents. There are no equivalent figures for overstayers, but it is well known that this group (most of whom are from West Africa) account for a significant portion of the city’s African population. These individuals are also responsible for organising much of the intense commercial activity that takes place between Guangzhou and the likes of Addis Ababa, Mombasa and Lagos.
As in many other parts of the world, many overstayers in China hide (or lose) their passports. By doing this, they become “voluntarily” undocumented with the aim of being untraceable if caught. This has always been a precarious path, but it is even more so following a pandemic in which one of the most effective strategies to contain the virus has been mass testing and tracing.
Under these new circumstances, Guangzhou’s longstanding population of undocumented migrants is cast in a new light. It presents an even greater challenge for the city’s authorities already struggling to manage its community of overstayers. These officials are fearful not only of an outbreak among this foreign population but also of Beijing’s ire if this does happen.
Surveillance in post-pandemic China
One way in which the Chinese government is likely to address undocumented migrants is through technology. COVID-19 is proving to be a landmark moment in terms of the relations between mass surveillance and the control of people’s movement. From the use of robots and drones, to facial recognition and apps, China has relied heavily on technology and artificial intelligence in its response to the outbreak.
It is impossible to ascertain how long we will live with COVID-19, but it is not unthinkable that, even after the threat has ceased, measures to contain mobility will remain in place. This would make life very difficult for undocumented migrants in China. For example, without a legal abode, foreigners cannot apply for Alipay Health Code, a system that assigns a colour code to users indicating their health status and determining their access to public spaces such as malls, subways and airports.
In the past, foreign migration to China has followed the logic of commerce and, for those without legal status, has often involved a game of cat and mouse with authorities. After the pandemic, the new logic may be one of crisis and emergency, characterised more by anxiety and surveillance. It may become virtually impossible to live without papers in this context, as untraceability becomes regarded as unacceptably “high risk” by Chinese authorities.
One lasting impact of COVID-19 may well be that it begins a new stage in the construction of a global architecture of control and surveillance. African overstayers and the thriving commercial sectors in which they insert themselves may be among the first victims of this new normal in China as traditional forms of irregular abode are rendered impossible.
Time will tell if COVID-19 spells the end of this phase of global migration as we have known it since the early-20th century. But at the very least, it is likely to provide another nail in the coffin of an already declining African population in Guangzhou.
African diplomats have threatened to shut down their consulates following the racist attacks and maltreatment of Nigerians and other Africans by Chinese officials in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.
The African Consuls-General in a protest letter to the Chinese Government noted that Africans were being denied hotel accommodation upon arrival in Guangzhou, adding that they were also subjected to an additional 14-day quarantine at various isolation centres after being cleared and issued an appropriate certificate of release by the Centralised Quarantine and Medical Observation.
They warned Beijing that their home countries might retaliate against Chinese nationals if the stigmatisation of Nigerians and other Africans was not speedily resolved.
A viral video had shown some Nigerians in Guangzhou being evicted from their homes and hotels and chased down the streets by Chinese policemen.
The Nigerians complained that they were placed under compulsory 14-day quarantine, adding that despite testing negative for COVID-19, the authorities insisted that the quarantine period would be extended by another two weeks, a directive they resisted.
The Chinese officials were also said to have confiscated the passports of the Nigerians.
A video of Mr Razaq Lawal, head of the Nigerian consulate in Guangzhou, tackling a Chinese official for seizing the passports of some Nigerians later surfaced on the Internet.
Following the incident, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, had summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Zhou Pingjian, twice in a week to express the displeasure of the Federal Government on the development.
The minister said the government would hasten the evacuation of Nigerians in China and also demand compensation from the Chinese authorities.
But taking up the matter with Beijing, the African diplomats accused China of discriminating against their nationals, warning that the situation could degenerate if not properly handled.
In line with Article 5 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963, they called on the Chinese Foreign Affairs Office to intervene and address the complaints.
The Consuls demanded a prompt reversal of Guangdong’s policy on “the selective attack on Africans as well as unannounced visits to homes after the working hours.”
They also asked the Chinese authorities to direct hotels to accommodate Africans and stop forcible eviction of the nationals from their apartments.
The diplomats stated, “In the consequence that the issues are not properly resolved promptly, the African Consulates-General will be left with no option but to communicate to our home country the racial bias and discrimination against Africans in China.
“We would also bring the same to the attention of the international community-United Nations, International Criminal Court, International Court of Arbitration, World Health Organisation, Amnesty International, African Union, among others.
“We would have no option but to retaliate the same ill-treatment meted out on our nationals to the Chinese nationals in our various countries; close all the African Consulates in Guangzhou until further notice and engage in general street protest by the African Consulates-General and nationals,” the diplomats warned.
Videos showing the recent mistreatment of Africans living in the Chinese city of Guangzhou have ricocheted around African broadcast and social media in recent days.
Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province in southern China, is closely linked to Hong Kong and Macau, and has the largest African community in Asia. The majority are from the West African countries of Nigeria, Ghana and Mali. As a pioneering city at the heart of China’s economic reform, Guangzhou is the hub of the country’s export-driven manufacturing sector, an industry which has always been considered open, tolerant and progressive.
But amid fear of imported coronavirus cases and a second wave of the pandemic in China, the local government implemented surveillance and mandatory testing and an additional 14-day quarantine for all African nationals in the city, regardless of whether they tested positive for COVID-19. These measures paid no regard to whether people had recently travelled out of China, or how they would be mistreated by landlords, hotel managers and shopkeepers.
As a result, many Africans in Guangzhou, including Nigerians, Ugandans and Ghanaians, have been subject to unfair treatment. Some have being evicted by landlords or rejected by hotels, and some even left homeless.
The city, and the government in Beijing, are now facing a full-blown diplomatic crisis and PR disaster amid accusations of racism. A group of African ambassadors in Beijing wrote a letter of complaint to the Chinese government about the “stigmatisation and discrimination” being faced by Africans. Other African diplomats, facing domestic pressure, have held discussions with representatives from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Many African countries will be particularly disappointed given how much their diplomats have spoken up for China on the international stage. African governments have supported China on issues including its membership of the UN in the 1970s, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
In recent weeks, China has been working hard on its “coronavirus diplomacy” to show it is on the path to recovery from the pandemic. Such incidents threaten its propaganda battle. In Kenya, the hashtag #DeportRacistChinese was trending on Twitter in mid April after Kenyan internet users saw reports of Kenyans and other Africans being treated unfairly. Moses Kuria, an MP from Kenya’s ruling party, even advocated Chinese people in Kenya should go back to China with immediate effect.
Xenophobia and racism online
Previous research has shown how comments with characteristics of right-wing populism and supremacism of ethnically Han Chinese people, xenophobia and racism have increased in Chinese cyberspace in the past decade, with little public criticism.
After reports in early April that a Nigerian coronavirus patient had attacked and bitten the face of a Chinese nurse in a bid to escape quarantine, Chinese social media platform Weibo erupted with xenophobic and racist sentiment.
China’s official discourse on the China-Africa relationship has always been portrayed as either a “win-win” or an “all-weather” friendship. Public sensitivity in China to racism, particularly to Africans, has been low and China’s censorship department appears to tolerate racism online.
Little effort has been made to educate the Chinese public against racism, or to emphasise the importance of political correctness. So it’s not surprising the past few years have seen racist tropes appear in a Chinese detergent advert and on China’s biggest lunar new year television show.
Many Chinese believe that foreigners have been given extra benefits, leading to concerns about unfairness and inequality. In late February, when the government published draft regulations to ease conditions for foreigners to get permanent residency in China, it was met with strong opposition online amid rising nationalist sentiment. Africans in Guangzhou were frequently mentioned by Chinese internet users as an example of why foreigners should not be welcomed in the country.
Local and central government agendas
The recent mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou shows the different priorities of local and central politics in China. The Guangzhou municipal government faces unprecedented pressure to stop a second wave of coronavirus. If the local government can successfully avoid a second outbreak, it might determine the future promotion of some senior officials.
China’s central government is concerned with containing the virus and restoring economic growth. As countries such as the US have begun to use China as a scapegoat for their own slow response to the pandemic, the party-state is more concerned than ever about its global image.
But there’s a big gap between the central government in control of foreign policy and the local agencies that enforce immigration. So when local governments like those in Guangzhou make decisions in a crisis, they won’t prioritise national and diplomatic interests until they receive pressure and guidance from Beijing.
Beijing has now begun to repair the diplomatic damage. On April 13, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would adjust its coronavirus restrictions on African nationals, provide them with health services without discrimination and adjust accommodation prices for those in financial difficulties. Chinese Weibo also closed 180 accounts for “inciting discrimination” and is discouraging its users from sharing news involving foreigners and foreign countries.
Officials and community leaders in Guangzhou have also began to realise the importance of treating Africans decently and started to send them flowers and gifts, according to people I’ve spoken to in the city in recent days. Civil society groups are also making an effort, with volunteers offering supplies and psychological support to people in need.
It’s possible this may be too little too late. Many African hearts have been broken, but it’s still possible to make amends.
Yetunde Oluyide has run a gift shop in bustling Lagos for nearly a decade, but with coronavirus curtailing imports of Chinese goods, she is losing more than 2 million naira ($5,555) a month.
Oluyide’s reliance on China to fill the shelves of Yetty-Jewel Ventures reflects the close ties between the world’s second largest economy and Africa’s most populous country.
“For the past two months, we have not been able to ship in anything,” Oluyide said. “I’m anxious.”
China accounts for around a quarter of Nigerian imports, greasing much of the country’s supply chain, and is funding and building much-needed infrastructure.
China’s economic health is also crucial for oil prices, which make up more than half of government revenues for Africa’s top producer, and have tumbled more than 20% since January.
At close to $30 per barrel, oil prices are below the $57 per barrel budget benchmark. And on Thursday, OPEC backed the biggest cut to oil supplies since the 2008 crisis, meaning Nigeria could have to reduce output.
Combined with disrupted supply chains and the threat of coronavirus spreading within Nigeria, this threatens to torpedo growth in its economy and boost borrowing costs just as the country plans to return to the Eurobond market.
Nigeria’s Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed expressed concern this week at the drop, saying that if it is sustained, the record 10.59 trillion naira budget could become unsustainable.
“We will do the mid-term review and if the revenues are so significantly affected we will have to do some revisions by way of budget adjustment,” she said.
Nigeria confirmed its first coronavirus case last week, wiping some 300 billion naira ($980 million) off the value of the local stock market. If the virus spreads, and workers and shoppers stay home, much-needed revenue from a higher VAT rate passed last year will evaporate.
Economies across Sub-Saharan Africa, with just a handful of cases, are all at risk. Angola exports the bulk of its oil to China, while Kenya relies on Beijing for billions in infrastructure funding.
Kevin Daly of asset manager Aberdeen Standard Investments, who holds Nigerian debt, said China’s broken supply chain, and the hit to oil, represent a double whammy.
“We have seen the IMF (International Monetary Fund) revise growth down from 2.5% to 2%, but I think it will be closer to 1%,” he said.
Nigeria’s depleted buffers and shaky exit from a 2016 recession, with growth around 2%, could make this setback harder for it to weather.
Moody’s, which downgraded Nigeria’s outlook in December, has warned that its debt, which has ballooned to 26 trillion naira ($85.5 billion), quadruple the 2008 level, made it particularly vulnerable to external shocks.
Last week, S&P also downgraded Nigeria, citing declining external reserves.
This could increase Nigeria’s borrowing costs as it plans $3 billion in new Eurobond offerings. Aberdeen’s Daly said he expected Nigeria would have to pay an extra 25 basis points over the current curve if it sold fresh debt now.
The yield of Nigeria’s 2049 dollar bond rose by one percentage point from mid-February to end-February.
“Nigeria is getting even more vulnerable – quite significantly so,” said Charles Robertson of Renaissance Capital.
For Oluyide, few vendors outside China can offer the products she wants at the right price. But she is committed to keeping her customers happy.
“We are hopeful that the virus will clear,” she said. “But if not, we are already looking at other alternatives.”