The Chinese authorities’ actions triggered protests from African governments — an embarrassment for Beijing as it seeks to woo African states with promises of loans and investment — and prompted U.S. diplomats over the weekend to warn African Americans to avoid the Guangzhou area.
“People are not happy because they’re being forced out of their apartments and into hotels where they have to pay [$30] a night for 28 days,” said Maximus Ogbonna, the president of a Nigerian community group in Guangzhou.
Ogbonna is in quarantine — for a second time — in his apartment, with a camera installed over the door so police can monitor him. He completed a 14-day quarantine in March after returning from Nigeria but was told by local officials on April 8 that he had to do another 14 days in isolation, although he had tested negative for the virus and had not traveled elsewhere.
The focus on African residents comes amid broader restrictions on foreigners in China as officials, having curtailed the coronavirus outbreak that began in the central city of Wuhan in November, grow concerned about a second wave of infections from abroad.
China last month banned entry to all foreigners, although some 90 percent of new cases had been Chinese citizens returning from places such as Italy, Iran and the United States. Among the 98 new infections from abroad reported Monday, all but a few were Chinese nationals arriving from Russia.
In Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital, 183 people have returned from abroad with the virus since it began spreading outside China. Twenty-two were from Africa, according to official figures. Some 30,000 foreigners live in Guangzhou, including about 4,500 Africans.
The Chinese government appears conscious of the need to be acting against a second wave, analysts say, and foreigners are an easy target.
Residents in Beijing and Shanghai have reported incidents of bars and restaurants refusing entry to foreigners. But in Guangzhou, home to the largest African diaspora in Asia, it appears to be wider and more systematic.
Photos and videos posted on social media over the weekend showed Africans sleeping on sidewalks or waiting under shop awnings after being ordered out of their apartments and hotel rooms. Others showed Nigerian diplomats delivering food in the pouring rain to evicted compatriots, and Chinese police in riot gear herding African men along a street.
One widely shared video showed a McDonald’s employee holding a sign stating that “from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant.”
“If this is about the virus, then why aren’t all foreigners being treated the same?” Ogbonna said.
A McDonald’s China spokeswoman confirmed that black people were refused entry to a Guangzhou restaurant on Saturday evening. “McDonald’s China apologizes unreservedly to the individual and our customers,” said the spokeswoman, Regina Hui, adding that the restaurant had been ordered to stop such actions.
These incidents prompted the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to warn African Americans about discrimination. Police had ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin, it wrote in an advisory to Americans in China. Local officials were implementing mandatory coronavirus tests followed by mandatory self-quarantine “for anyone with ‘African contacts,’ regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine completion,” the consulate wrote.
Recent developments appear to have inflamed anti-foreigner sentiment in China.
Five Nigerians reportedly tested positive in Guangzhou last week and, according to Chinese state media, they broke their quarantine and infected the owner of a local restaurant and his eight-year-old daughter. A Nigerian man who tested positive for coronavirus after arriving in Guangzhou was accused of assaulting a nurse while trying to escape from quarantine at a hospital.
Governments across Africa, as well as the African Union, have been summoning Chinese ambassadors for remonstrations about the treatment of their citizens.
“As a government, we will not allow Chinese or other nationals to be maltreated just as we will not allow Nigerians to be maltreated in other countries,” the speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, wrote on Twitter after complaining to the Chinese ambassador in Abuja, Zhou Pingjian.
Ghana’s Foreign Minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, condemned the “ill-treatment and racial discrimination” against Ghanaians and other Africans in China.
In Beijing, Chinese officials said that the actions were motivated by concern for “the life and health of foreign nationals in China.”
“We treat all foreigners in China equally and we reject discrimination,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday. “In response to the African side’s concerns regarding their citizens in Guangdong, provincial authorities have rolled out new measures and we believe that by working together, we can resolve this properly.”
While Zhao talked about China and Africa as “brothers and friends,” this view is not shared by many in Africa.
“Kenya and the rest of Africa feel deeply betrayed by China,” the country’s Daily Nation newspaper wrote in an editorial, saying that Africa supported China during the coronavirus outbreak yet Chinese people had “turned against Africans in their midst.”
“This is the height of treachery and defies social relations and human rights, let alone international protocols. It is racist and objectionable,” the paper wrote.
China’s ruling Communist Party has been courting African nations as part of its global effort to win political influence and commercial contracts. In addition to promoting its Belt and Road infrastructure projects on the continent, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced $60 billion in aid and loans for Africa during a summit in Beijing in 2018.
Hit by the coronavirus outbreak, African nations are now pushing China to forgive some of the debt they have built up in recent decades. Beijing is likely to endorse a temporary freeze on debt payments by African countries as part of an expected agreement by the Group of 20 major economies this week, Reuters reported Monday.