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Beating Around the Bush: Some Reflections on the Crisis of “Imported Cases” of Africans in Guangzhou

20 June 2020


On April 15th, four days after the CNN coverage of the eviction of Africans in Guangzhou [1], a message from a WeChat group [2] rang an alarm on my phone. Some Chinese volunteers helping the Africans’ in Guangzhou were just tipped off by a microblogger (the Chinese equivalent of Tweeter), who tagged the microblog of the Bureau of Guangzhou Public Security. The blogger asserted that those volunteers were calling for ordinary Chinese to help Africans, which would inevitably expand the pool of contacts [of asymptomatic carriers], during a crucial time when the Guangzhou authority was screening the population for epidemiological purposes and when nobody would know who had contracted the virus. “Are they [the volunteers] spreading [the COVID-19] intentionally?” the blogger asked rhetorically.

Indignant at the blogger’s unfair charge against volunteers who aimed to address the clear and present threats, including displacement, the risk of contracting virus, panic, financial loss and hunger, I sent him a private message, intending to forestall his report. “Can you imagine the xenophobia in African societies would cause another wave of ‘imported cases’ of returning Chinese expats if the Africans in Guangzhou were not treated well?” I meant that there are millions of Chinese working and living in Africa, far outnumbered the Africans in China. In this deeply interwoven world, a flapping of a butterfly would not only trigger a tornado far away, but the tornado would backlash and engulf the butterfly in no time. The reply: “where are you from, idiot?”. And I was unfriended by him in a second.

The blogger’s report seemed to have taken effect. The next day, several volunteers were summoned by the local policemen, and their actions were called to halt. The intervention dampened the volunteers’ enthusiasm and disrupted their charity work. Several WeChat groups initiated by volunteers to provide correct information, organise food delivery and translation services, were dismissed one by one.

Though unfriended, I was still able to browse the microblogger’s webpage. I discovered that the screenshot of my short-lived conversation with him was posted atop. It was liked by hundreds and followed by many derisive mocks. Scrolling down the page, I found that he constantly hunts the misconducts of African students and passes his evidence to public authorities and other microbloggers. Likewise, the posts of the latter are teemed with anti-black, anti-Muslim, and even anti-feminism remarks. No wonder the volunteers fell prey — any assistance they offered to the evicted Africans would be reckoned as a collaboration with unwelcomed foreigners. But where does such hatred come from? How does it relate to the reality in Guangzhou? Like scientists who are able to determine the genetic composition of any life form, let me start by examining the emergence of this social phenomenon the same way.


DNA sequencing of the Microbloggers’ narrative

Scholars have recently noticed the right-wing populism emerging on Chinese social media and the jargons netizens have coined. The so-called White-Leftist (baizuo), repeatedly used in netizen’s vilifying their enemies, is key to the understanding of the ideological genesis. Cheng Yinghong (2018) argues that the neologism reflects the identification of some Chinese with their imagined western (white) world, as well as their vicarious lamentation on the decline of western civilization, which they blame on the leftists’ advocating multiculturalism, feminism, and immigrants’ rights. Just as the Western ‘White Left’ is the internal enemy to the Western civilization, the Chinese liberals are both ‘White Left’ and traitors of the Han Chinese [3], the majority of Chinese people. Han-traitor (hanjian) and White-leftist are thus used interchangeably. [4] Zhang Chenchen (2020) reaches a similar conclusion through qualitative analysis of more than 1,000 postings from a popular online community zhihu, a Quora-like forum, offering a portrayal of the political stances of well-educated and well-informed Chinese internet users. They criticise Western hegemony on one hand, and construct China’s ethno-racial and political identities through downplaying the ‘inferior’ non-Western groups, namely the immigrants, Muslims, and feminists, on the other. [5]

While Cheng and Zhang’s discussion help us to explore the way some Chinese netizens make sense of and place themselves in the world’s hierarchy, my aim is to look into other factors that contribute to the identity making of the microbloggers as well as a few new trends. Forging a coherent identity nonetheless involves contradiction. Many microbloggers involved in the anti- discourses see themselves as rather victims. The threat is from the alleged high birth rate of immigrants and domestic Muslims. They quote the high birth rates of sub-Saharan countries moving to Europe and that of Chinese Muslims, believing that the birth control policy on Han Chinese would only shrink the relative size of the Han people and undermine the nation’s future. Their misgivings have theoretical ground, though, from an influential book titled Big Country of an Empty Nest. The book was forbidden in mainland China in 2007 for its criticism of the one-child policy. It argues that if couples are not allowed to give birth to more than two children, the population would inevitably decline, and the aging parents in their empty ‘nests’ would have no children to take care of them. The ban of the book was not lifted until 2013 when China’s stringent birth control policy loosened. Yet the anxiety passed on to cyberspace, this time projecting to the growing presence of domestic Muslims and Africans in Chinese cities, quite similar to the Great Replacement theory [6] upheld by their western counterparts.

Feminism, which embraces liberty on marriage among other political and social equalities, becomes the antithesis of the defenders of the nation, too, because any Chinese women who marry out to other races would be the loss of the assets of the civilization. Perhaps what runs deep is kind of misogyny: men desired women; but owing to a sense of deprivation they instead grow hostility towards their potential, marriageable nationals who turn to other nationals or races. And this misogynist sentiment takes place at the level of civilization which at some points is criticizing the state, which I shall discuss later. Of course, it is not new, for the hatred towards some African students has its precedent in the 1980s. [7] Back then, the Chinese students conflicted with African students who played loud music and dated Chinese girls. [8] Thirty years later, thanks to the expansion of Chinese education system and the Belt and Road Initiative, the African students now make up 1/7 of the total overseas students by 2016, [9] and the trope of “taking our girls ” comes back on cyberspace, this time fuelled by a new charge. The African students are imagined as receiving decent scholarships and other “super-national treatments” by the Chinese government and lead a carefree life, in contrast to many poor Chinese families who cannot afford university tuition. Of course, this charge is unfounded, because the self-funded African students have surpassed the Chinese scholarship holders since 2005 and made up 83% of the total population in 2015. [10]

In the meantime, xenophobia seems to have spilled over to Whites as well, whose prestige has been declining in the past decade, partly from the widening chances of Chinese’ everyday exposure to them. One of the racial epithets of the white is “white monkey”. Many Caucasian expats are hired in business promotions such as real estate sales in China’s cities in order to create an “international” image. The effect of the commercial ruse is paradoxical, for it presupposes the association of business success with Caucasian faces for the Chinese, but in the meantime damage the reputation of some serious businessmen, because the hired performances of Caucasian expats are seen as monkey shows in the zoo. [11] To the extent that the change of attitude draws on the employment relations and economic status, the perception of expats through the prism of race is laced with snobbery pinpointed by an assertion of Chinese identity thanks to China’s economic ascending. As a consequence, being a Chinese and ‘yellow’ is no longer something embarrassing but worthy championing. This may explain the emergence of a new racial epithet “yellow left” from some microbloggers. The “yellow left”, as Zhang Chenchen (2020) quotes from the answers from zhihu, are “a growing number of elite youngsters in the more developed regions who are out of touch with reality and overflowing with sympathy.” Instead of “white left”, the use of “yellow left” seems to reflect a nuanced identity shift by which the “yellow race” moved up the rung of the racial ladder. And, calling a Chinese compatriot who endorses liberal values as such implies a fiercer denouncement of the latter’s disloyalty despite common racial ground, quintessentially represented by the skin colour.

Just as David Gilmore (2009) reveals that any misogynist attitudes entail a tension-ridden state of men, [12] we can see that the coexistence of the repressed “feminine” weakness and a promotion of masculine, martial valour in the usernames of some popular microbloggers (often with 100,000 followers) promoting the anti- narratives. There are usernames stating more explicit political agendas or targeting more specifically at certain groups, such as “anti-black/green spokesman” (green symbolizes Muslims), “Removing multiculturalism”, “Society of Jokes of the Black”, and so on. But the username of the microblogger who reported the volunteering to the police is “helpless benevolence”. Other usernames valorise the ancient military glory of Han Chinese, such as “Han’s battle tiger”, “Heart of the Han’s soul”, “Guangdong governorate-general adjutant”, a military rank of Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and “Yang the sixth”, a legendary marshal of Song dynasty (960-1279) who led his entire clan fighting the Liao (916-1125) army in the northern China.

Besides the cultural frenzy and xenophobic rhetoric, the commercialization of the China’s Internet industry cannot be neglected. The topics (hashtags) of some microbloggers are called super-topic (chaohua), which is more than an ‘ordinary topic’ that any netizen is free to join and leave his or her comments. One needs to be a member (fan) of a community run by a moderator of the super-topic so that her or his comments of the super-topic is seen by others joining the same super-topic. The moderator, or the microblogger of the super-topic, has to keep the community size stable or expand it by cultivating a consensus and eliminating any disharmony among the community members, for any discordance among members would cause some to leave the community/super-topic. According to the regulation of the platform, the microblogger has to “clock in” and renew their posts daily. Bigger the community, the higher the network flow, more valuable the super-topic community for advertisers, and more the microbloggers can earn. In other words, cyber-politics is driven by profitability. This, of course, leads to enclosures in the public sphere. Just as my conversation with the blogger only ‘feeds the troll’, the troll preys on external dissidents to grow bigger. With the growth of the community of homogeneous minds, even a single word can elicit huge repercussion among its members, such as the black, blue, white, yellow as well as binaries such as left/right, female/male. In this regard, the growth of the hatred narratives just resembles the replication of a single stranded RNA with a number of nucleic acid sequence.


Who are the Africans in Guangzhou?

If the blacks are encapsulated in a single Chinese character by the microbloggers, then, to what extent does it represent reality? Is it able to account for the complexities of the ‘blacks’ in Guangzhou?

Tong Tong market at Sanyuanli. The stores open until 6:30 p.m.


In fact, the majority of dark-skinned people in Guangzhou are mainly traders from the continent of Africa, who buy from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan, and other cities in China. But it is useful to point out that not all Africans are black if we consider people from Maghreb countries and the European descents, and that ‘black’ peoples, as outsiders would foist the colour off on them, may refer to one another as red, coffee, or white on relative basis. African scholar Adams Bodomo traces the exodus of African businessmen to Hongkong and China to the financial crisis in the 1990s. [13] With the passage of time, the African sojourners have gradually transformed the city landscape, to the extent that the business hub they frequent is labelled as ‘chocolate city’. [14] At Sanyuanli, Xiaobei and Taojin (literally Goldrush, I should point out) of Guangzhou, where the metro lines highways converge and make transportation very convenient, Africans gravitate to wholesale malls and a warren of retail shopfronts of clothes, shoes, watches, mobile phones, curtains, ceramic tiles and so on.

At the Tong Tong market at Sanyuanli Road (Fig. 1), for instance, an African woman can bargain the price and pick twenty shoes from one stall, and another twenty from the second stall. Then, she can have all the shoes packed and her name marked on the package at the back of the mall. Outside of the mall, a line of trolley men and taxi drivers are waiting, who would pull the packages to storage houses of cargo companies or drive directly to the airport. If she is hungry, she can find several African restaurants run by a few Africans’ Chinese wives serving fufu, the typical staple food made of banana in western African countries, or nsima, the thick, white porridge of corn, to the very palate of Malawian or Eastern Africa nationals. Of course she can go to the MacDonald’s next door, the symbol of globalization, for a quick meal. She can get a local phone number from a counter in the mall, having WeChat and VPN installed by the young man behind the counter in addition to WhatsApp and Facebook on her phone. The young man typically comes from a hinterland province and has worked in an electrical company in the Pearl River Delta or so. The WeChat and VPN, restaurants, hotels, plus money exchange services run by Chinese Muslims, and cargo services and custom companies in the airport laid out the localized business infrastructure for the African traders.

Haussa people from Nigerian roaming the streets of Xiaobei, the market opens until midnight.


Yet businessmen and women need to build connections and trust. Anyone who does business needs to face many uncertainties, so are the Africans in Guangzhou. Gordon Mathew et al (2017) has offered an all-embracing account of the trade activities of the Africans. One of the common complaints of African is that what they get from the supplier is different from or inferior to what they had ordered, so that it is “better to cry in China than to cry back in Africa”, that is, a careful check of the goods before shipment to Africa. [15] Owing to the language barrier and unmatched expectations, many Chinese consider their African clients “troublesome”. This catch phrase, mafan in Chinese, is readily parroted by Africans in their everyday English. “Too many mafan”, several businesswomen have complained about their relationship with the Chinese to me. Nevertheless, some Africans and Chinese are wise enough to reduce mafan by binding their business partnership. The story of Namazzi, a Uganda lady is exemplar in this regard. [16]

Unlike her home country where foreigners, including Chinese, find business expediency thanks to the “colonial system”, Namazzi tells me that Guangzhou is not an easy place to set up a cargo company because it requires so long a process and so much paperwork. Instead, she hired a Chinese young man from hinterland province to register the company and do the paperwork. She pays the ‘dummy boss’ one thousand dollars a month, and helps him buy a car, so that the boy can run some side business such as driving people to the airport in the evening. “If you work with someone, you must help them also grow”, said Namazzi.

Namazzi even makes Chinese friends of the same age set in Guangzhou and hosts their visit to her country. There, she has her countrymen, who lack capital, buy goods on credit from the Chinese shop owners by referring to her name. The Chinese would first call Namazzi to confirm that the Uganda customers know Namazzi in person and say to the customers that if they get the goods on credit, they must ship the goods from China with Namazzi’s cargo. If someone in Uganda does mafan for the Chinese, she or he would just call Namazzi. And Namazzi has many of her mafan solved by Chinese friends in Guangzhou. 

The business network even takes deeper roots in the Guangzhou soil. Numerous scholarly works have shed light on the interracial marriage, the Igbo men from Nigeria and their Chinese wives in particular, whose unions stabilize the trans-continental business. [17] In the similar vein, religious activities of both African Muslims and Christians in Guangzhou have been localised to some extent.

Close to the Guangzhou railway station, the Saad bin Abi Waqas Mosque, a sacred place where the Prophet’s legendary maternal uncle Waqas was buried, becomes a pilgrim to African Muslims. It does not host special service for the participating Africans, but sometimes delivers preaching to its Chinese followers (Hui and Uyghur ethnicities) on keeping good faith and conducting good business with foreigners. The main hall, solemn and tidy, is open for both Chinese, African, Arabs, Pakistanis, and Indian Muslims for meditation. [18] In another mosque, a Malian Muslim leads the worship for both African and Chinese on behalf of the Imam thanks to the Malian’s mastery of Chinese, Arabic, English, and French. Besides his business, he also helped his mosque mates with visa formalities. Indeed, to some extent the churches and mosques serve as the asylums for overstayers, who have long been a headache for Guangzhou Immigration and police. The Malian as a religious broker indeed play a role here, in addition to the Mosque’s provision of food and accommodation to Muslim sojourners, making it a caravanserai in the Guangzhou city.

For Christians, one of the now renowned city spectacles is the Sacred Heart Cathedral’s African congregation. Established in 1863, the church’s Sunday mass now offers English service for Africans, mostly Igbo Nigerians. The church used to be open to non-believers, but when I was about to enter the mass, two Nigerians standing at the entrance checked if everyone was Christian, and those who did not give a positive answer were denied access. In the courtyard next to the main hall, a white shelter hosts another mass. Inside it the whole membership is dancing and singing the name of the Lord and Jesus– the effervescent Pentecostal spirit [19] sometimes is eye-opening to the Chinese onlookers. Yet many African Pentecostals told me that the Sacred Heart Cathedral is not their first option, or simply not “their religion”.

I joined several Pentecostal congregations through the invitation of my Caribbean and African friends. The first church I attended was run by a Congolese pastor and attended by twenty-plus Africans. When the soundproof door closed behind me and the thick curtain on it was drawn—the room seemed to have adapted from a music studio—the thunderous preaching and the breathless translation by a Ghanaian sitting next to him split one’s ears. One of the gospels of the rhythmised sermon was that with one dollar one deposits in God’s place, he will get three, five, and even twenty in return. But at the end of the service, the pastor said that the conference room rent of 1200 yuan was due. Since the donation he collected from this service was not enough, he would have his assistant call each participant for 100 yuan after the service.

The second one, presided by a Kenyan pastor and on a different floor of the same building, was more cordial and homely. Women, including a Chinese lady, were sitting in the front with their children. I remember one of the babies untended by her mom started crawling under people’s legs. She was grabbed by a man sitting at the side of the room when she was too close to the auditorium, and the man gave me an apologizing smile. He turned out to be the baby’s father, who had run a business in Guangzhou for years. The intervals of preaching and dancing were for men to exchange business information, mostly outside of the chamber. Each time the participants are offered food prepared by women, such as curry rice with barbecue drumsticks, and occasionally birthday cakes of the kids of the church members.

Later, I attended a third church, which was operated by a Nigerian pastor and his wife. Like the Kenyan pastor, he often used a handkerchief to wipe off the sweat off his brow during his passionate preaching, gesticulation, and gyration back and forth among members. The congregation was asked to read selected passages from the bible, and our souls often awakened by the interrogative shout of the pastor at the face. “Do you understand?!” Besides the pastor’s arduous preaching, there were the collective prayers. I remember that we laid hands for those who kneel down before the pastor in order to lift them up from suffering or weakness of faith, for the enveloped red notes with Chairman Mao’s figure on them in a shining aluminium basket, and for the newly wed. The couple, a Nigerian husband and his Tanzanian wife, nervous yet joyful, received the blessings from the pastor, their parents, and several guest bishops coming from as far as the United States.

Heidi Hauge (2013) notes that a ‘reversed evangelism’ prevails in Pentecostal churches in Guangzhou. As Europeans are seen to have abandoned their mission, Africans are given responsibility for evangelizing the Gospel, and China is soon to be won over for God. In light of this creed, China’s prosperity and progress is only the achievement of a worldly nation, and the ordinary Chinese patriotism is merely a display of pomp and pageantry. “Ten more years, and we will no longer remember this place because there will be such a mighty change and shaking.” One pastor in his sermon claimed during China’s sixtieth anniversary in 2009 (ibid).

I haven’t heard about the contents alike when I joined these Pentecostal churches. My presence as a Chinese may have impeded pastors to claim so, or that the stringent visa policies have dampened their ambitions over the years. Several Nigerians grudged to me about the 30-day business visa which tight-jacketed their business activities. It takes about 45 days to browse shops and goods, place the order, and wait for the production and then check the quality and design of the goods before shipping them to Africa. The year 2009, they recalled, was a turning point when the local police chased one illegal stayer or two, who jumped out of one building and died of heart attack. [20] The Nigerians and African protested, resulting in only stricter visa policy and the local government’s control over the immigration through discouraging landlords in downtown districts from leasing houses to them.

This policy, however, contributes to the scattering of African traders to neighbouring cities, and perhaps putting them in direct contacts with manufacturers. Still, the population of Nigerian community has dropped from some four thousand to five or six hundred, according to the estimate of an Igbo businessman. More illegal entries are under the radar, he tells me, and the mores of Nigerians are corrupted because of transgressions of overstayers or from overstaying itself. Facing such community plight, the pastor warns church attendants to refrain from any illegal activities such as drug trafficking, because the Pentecostal church, where people are bathed in the Holy Spirit, does not allow any evil nor any witchcraft which had been practiced among Igbos. The pastor himself was in a precarious situation, too. He had to renew his visa on an annual basis for the past nineteen years, another Nigerian told me, and he began to seriously consider the option of leaving China for good to America.


Beating the bush, and around the Bush

Regardless of the levels of interactions of the Africans with locals in Guangzhou, the pastor’s prophecy came brutally true. After the end of 2019, the pandemic hit Wuhan city hard, and then the entire China and the world.

A sharp turn of the post-Wuhan pandemic, from domestic view, was the ‘imported cases’ at the border cities and metropolises of China, after the government had implemented aggressive measures to contain the virus. Not only the epicentre Wuhan (from Jan 23 to April 8), other major cities had been locked down for quite a while. Faced the ever-changing situations, local people’s adrenaline roller-coastered. When they just became desensitized, the Guangzhou public security reported an incident on 1st April. A Nigerian businessman, tested positive, bit a nurse’s face when he forced his way from the hospital. Prior to this incident, the Guangzhou CDC [21] announced on 22nd March that immigrants entered Guangzhou after 8thMarch, regardless of their nationality, should self-quarantine for 14 days. The Nigerian entered Guangzhou on 20th March and was tested positive on 23rd March and hospitalized. The CDC traced his contact history, discovering on 2nd April that the hostess of the restaurant he frequented was positive by Nucleic test, so was her husband, and their daughter who had travelled home and a boyfriend of hers were tested positive on 4thApril, too. In that afternoon, all the shops (except pharmacy’s) in that area were ordered to close for 14 days. The next day, the two downtown districts of Guangzhou, Yuexiu and Baiyun, and the Huilai county, where the daughter stayed, escalated to medium-risk areas. [22]

Residential distribution of Africans in Guangzhou. This map draws on a survey of a small number of African population in 2018 and shows that they tended to cluster in Guangyuanxi area (upper left) and Xiaobei area (lower right). Blue/brown colours indicate female and male respondents and the signs of moon and cross represent Muslims and Christians respectively.


The sifting of African population in Guangzhou began no later than 6th April, when African residents were asked to show their passports, registration forms, and their travel history. Owing to the so-called asymptomatic transmission [23], all of the people with contact history should be collectively isolated for 14 days in designated facilities and tested at least twice during the isolation. Since the malls in Xiaobei and Sanyuanli were frequented by African buyers, those who reported to have shown up there were ordered to implement collective quarantine, too. Those without contact history with confirmed cases and the marketplaces are ordered to self-quarantine at home. The people who knocked African’s doors involved health workers, translators, and local police with the assistance of sub-district government and neighbourhood community (shequ), the grassroots administration assigned with the mission of residential registration and population control. It was less obvious whether the local government used one stone to kill two birds, namely the disease monitoring and the immigration control over illegal entrees and overstayers. [24] But the ways they handle the issue proved clumsily hashed and the consequence disruptive. [25]

On April 7th, some Africans became displaced, because they were denied access to their residential community, as evidenced by posts at the entrance of a neighbourhood community. Later news coverage revealed that it started in a hotel, where the Africans refused to stay for another 14-day quarantine because their visa would expire and despite that officials believed that they had stepped out of the hotel. They finally were let out, but ordered by the officials that they should not go back in. [26] Part of the Africans were made homeless, according to a local social worker, because they refused home quarantine as this would ‘limit their freedom’. Agitated, one of them even jumped off his balcony on the third floor. Many more dragged their suitcases, wandering in the city, only to find that malls, restaurants, and buses were closed to them. The homeless Africans video-called home countries, and upon receiving many video clips and messages, a Kenyan independent media wode maya (literally ‘my mom!’, a common Chinese exclamation) with 366,000 subscribers reported this, which followed by thousands of angry comments on boycotting Chinese and Chinese goods in Africa. [27] On the same day, a Guangzhou local was investigated by the police because he spread a rumour which went viral on WeChat a day earlier. He averred that a field hospital would be in place to host the “300,000 black people”, and the entire Guangzhou population would contract the virus shortly.

The evicted and those who were ordered to isolate themselves were indignant, questioning why the whites, South Americans, African descents holding US and UK passports or the Chinese wives and children cohabited with them had not been tested nor quarantined; why long-time African residents in Guangzhou had to do nucleic acid test; and why some of them were tested many times without knowing the result, contrary to the promises of the testers. It must be racist, targeting Africans from Africa only, many of my African friends concluded. Yet, upon scrutiny in a month later, I believe the sweeping action was less intentioned than an institutional blunder.

The measures meted out by local government through neighbourhood control is key to the understanding of institutional efforts. China used to have a district, sub-district (jiedao), and neighbourhood community (shequ) in its urban governance administrative hierarchy. Now the grid was introduced below the neighbourhood community since the 2000s. A grid is a cluster of households, ranging from 50 in the countryside to 1000 in cities. The grid manager and workers assume jobs assigned from above. During the outbreak of SARS, for instance, Biao Xiang (2020) finds grid managers “visit door to door to check everyone’s temperature, hand out passes which allow one person per household to leave home twice a week and, in the case of collective quarantine, deliver food to the doorstep of all families three times a day… Once the central government declared the war on virus, in no time the entire nation put itself under gridlock.” [28]

Starting from April 6th, the local authorities operated in a similar fashion as Xiang portrays. At first there was the banning of Africans entering into their neighbourhood community, followed by the hasty arrangement of collective quarantine in hotels. One of my African friends reported that policemen drove her countrymen at night to quarantine hotels just to avoid public attention. For home-quarantined Africans, neighbourhood community staff began to take care of their daily life, such as ordering food and scheduling the test. The involvement of the police was noticeable in addition to the control from neighbourhood communities. Some policemen were from the Bureau of Public Security in charge of domestic issues. When the eviction took place, a few kind-hearted landlords were willing to offer home-quarantine for Africans, but they were pressured to give up by the policeman, who warned that asymptomatic carriers would put the entire neighbourhood at stake. Other policemen are actually border security enforcement under the newly established Immigration Bureau, whose functions were just separated from the Ministry of Public Security in 2019. Wearing the same uniform as common policemen, these immigration officers hold the power to check visa status and detain overstayers for repatriation. The displaced Africans in the headlines of international media, regardless of their volition to conform or resist, were in fact the ones missed out by the grid work and who, when roaming the street, were captured by patrolling police and sent to hotels for collective quarantine. In other words, the police and neighbourhood community/grid acted together to put Africans in grids according to their respective epidemiological conditions. While eviction was not among their goals, it served as necessary means to control the disease through a combination of handy apparatuses by the government.

There was perhaps the institutional embolism. The Public Security or the police system seems less coordinated with the diplomatic line. As revealed by later news coverages, especially a Nigerian reporter’s detailed report, the joint action meted out to African nationals was done without adequate communication with African consulates. The tension culminated at the night of April 9th, when the Acting Consul General of the Nigerian consulate ranted at the Director General of Guangzhou Foreign Affairs Office in front of a hotel, after patrolling van took eleven African nationals (including eight Nigerians, two Cote d’Ivoire nationals and one Benin Republic citizen) whose passports were ‘seized’ by the Chinese at the reception. While whose fault was it is left to the good judgment of the readers, my emphasis is that the scenario was occasioned by confused tongues: when the Nigerian charged that Guangzhou police “harassed” African residents, the Chinese official denied that no one was “arrested”. When the recorded scenario was uploaded to YouTube, many cheered the Nigerian diplomat because he spoke on behalf of all African people and, according to some, should be elected “our president”. The arm crossing of the Chinese and his efforts to calm down his interlocutor, on the contrary, was interpreted as signs of covering up and not responsive to the issue.

The day followed witnessed whopping escalation of diplomatic tension, and inhuman became the catchphrase of the diatribe. African ambassadors in Beijing demanded “the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments”, and that “threats of revocation of visas, arrest, detention and deportation of African legal migrants for no cogent reason which infringes on their human rights.” The next day, the Nigerian Speaker of the House of Representatives, laying his mobile phone showing the video of the confrontation between officials in Guangzhou on the table, expressed displeasure over the inhuman treatment when he summoned the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria. [29] The video of the meeting soon appeared on Chinese independent media, and was interpreted by the audience as the ambassador bowing to the Nigerian congressman, a sheer humiliation by the latter, before it was deleted by the webmasters. The charge of China’s inhuman treatment of Africans continued in both the Nigerian media and Twitter of another spokesman of the House of Representative. In a television debate, the guests evoked an image (work) from one of China’s museums, where a picture of a chimpanzee is juxtaposed next to an African (again an dehumanizing action), [30] and suggested a number of retaliations, including sending the illegal Chinese home, the nationalization of Chinese investments, cutting off Chinese loan, and bringing China to the court for causing damage to Nigeria for spreading the virus.


These events all happened in a time when I joined the volunteers to moderate the impacts of local decrees on the Africans in Guangzhou from mid-April to May. Earlier than that, as I got to know later, two Chinese students who had conducted research related to the African diaspora took the initiative of the aid, and many more volunteers, particularly who versed in English and French joined the group. In the meantime, I was bombarded by messages, news, outcries, accusations, debates, from several research networks including both Chinese and African scholars, while texting and calling my previous informants to check on them since I was away in Australia. Some replied, some didn’t. No one had the whole picture, even the number of African expats in Guangzhou, i.e. 4,553 reported by the Guangzhou authority in a briefing on April 12. The number was too exact to be trusted because it varied dramatically from different sources in the past decade, [31] and I know some were hiding in their friend’s places because of the fear for deportation after testing.

Some Africans residing in other cities of China and African descents in Guangzhou were acting in the meantime, delivering food and sending money to those forced to quarantine in hotels. The Chinese volunteers had better cooperate with these Africans and possibly African students studying in China, because the two groups are ideal mediators between Chinese authorities and their countrymen. The Africans in quarantine were less likely to be well informed as they relied heavily on their own network. It was the harsh epidemiological control that exposed them to head-on encounters with local police and grassroots government staff who do not speak good English. Even the notice for quarantine was in Chinese. But trust between Chinese and African volunteers was hard to win in such a short notice, especially when the diplomatic tension was already in place. I have no clue how Africans were helping Africans. My best guess is that the Africans and Chinese were digging the tunnel from opposite sides of the hill.

Once dismissed Chinese volunteers reassembled, continuing fighting fake news by providing correct information, helping with accommodation and ordering food for the Africans (sometimes from their own pockets) as well as preparing the brochures for the installation of health monitoring code on the mobile phones of the quarantined. Without the code one could not travel to other cities by train or by plane. I joined a group of twenty volunteers, whose leader managed to secure from the local government a list of 200 plus Africans and several Indians and Pakistani collectively quarantined in several hotels. We were each assigned 10 people, making sure that they take the nucleic acid test on the 7th day and the 14th day and report their body temperature daily, as well as addressing their immediate needs and listening to their complaints.

Their difficulties vary. A common complaint was locals’ running away in front of them, which was very embarrassing and even traumatic for them. An Ethiopian gentleman’s response was admirable in this regard, for he would stay all day in the hotel room in order not to scare the pedestrians, even though he had a habit of walking after dinner and was suffering from diabetes. An Eastern African businessman complained that no taxi would take him for a test in the designated hospital. Taking for granted that I was in Guangzhou, he texted me that “please come and taste me in my hotel”, a typo which really made us laugh. A Senegalese declined my call in the beginning but sent me his test report upon my request. It was not until I received a phone call from Guangzhou police that I realized that he was suspicious of my identity. Many more are running out of money because the hotel fares were on them, and two women could only afford a meal a day. Sending some money through my WeChat wallet was what I could offer only.

Several scholars who had researched the Africans in Guangzhou also worked together in drafting possible solutions to local government to ameliorate the consequences on the Africans, including the provision of humanitarian remedies to those short of money or food regardless of their visa statuses. The government may have underestimated the difficulties in handling the African expats in their jurisdiction, which backfired and triggered diplomatic protests against China when the incident unfolded. However, given that the border is closed and only a few international flights are operating, and that the international NGOs are beyond reach, practically, the local government has to take care of the African expats at the end of the day, and the localization of humanitarian assistance seemed inevitable. [32] We know our proposal has reached a certain level of officials and the government did take some positive steps, but we were not able to get direct feedback because of the bureaucratic procedures. This is how things work in China, to my understanding.

Nevertheless, as a Chinese national I was struck by the whopping of Nigerian media and politicians in denouncing China. In the past few years, the country came across to me for conferring noble titles to a few Chinese expats. [33] Though often portrayed as the glory of overseas Chinese by Chinese media, such attainments could not have been achieved without the openness of Nigeria’s society. Besides, to the extent that the Igbo and Hausa in Guangzhou hardly mixed with one another (owing to the entrenched ethnic tension and hatred, a schism may go back to the Nigerian civil war in 1966-1970), how come the whole nation now turns against China? In fact, Nigerian nationals and netizens also mentioned the hospitality of their country towards Chinese as opposed to the maltreatment in Guangzhou. But I discovered the antagonism drew on other anecdotal accounts. On, a popular national forum, a thread stated that the Nigerians had been clean before their departure to China, and that they were tested positive only through injection of virus by Chinese doctors. Another had it that blood tests were made to Nigerians in Guangzhou because Chinese doctors were curious about why the Nigerian genes were so strong to survive Ebola. There is fake news, too. A screenshot of a WeChat dialogue between a Chinese an African was taken as evidence of racial eviction. However, apparently the broken Chinese from the dialogue was awkwardly translated from English. [34] The confidence on Nigerian’s national hygiene capacity and the nation’s genetical robustness crept in, precluding the possibility that Guangzhou authority may have had any justifiable epidemiological considerations. Retaliation at country level is a must, so is the in-time evacuation of suffering nationals caught in Guangzhou. On 31 May, 268 Nigerian nationals were evacuated “over virus and racism” by a flight and from arranged by the Nigerian authority, and all the evacuees will be proceeding on another 14 days quarantine. [35]

China’s spokesman of foreign ministry has tried to harmonize the diplomatic relations with African countries by reiterating the principle of “all foreigners are treated equally”, “reject all racist and discriminatory remarks” because “the Chinese people always see in African people partners and brothers through thick and thin”, without specifying who promotes the racism, racial thinking, or racialized domestic and immigrants’ issues. [36] African independent media and politicians and the narrative of English media highlighted China’s eviction, mistreating and dehumanizing of African expats without referring to either the epidemiological situations or the illegal visa status of Africans. The matter of illegality only surfaced when Nigeria brought to the fore the illegality of Chinese expats. Both narratives seem to beat around the bush, while the enforcement of each country were beating the bush where expats were inhabiting. At the end of the day, one’s home country is believed to be the safest and cleanest, while another country is always a hell. Now the Chinese expats in several African countries are appealing for evacuation arranged by the Chinese government, particularly after the murder of three Chinese in Zambia on 24th May, a tragedy which is allegedly associated with the Mayor of Lusaka’s crusade of a number of downtown Chinese businesses who denied access to locals and were labelled as discriminatory. [37]

To quote the Indian scholar Arundhati Roy writing on the pandemic, “the lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things.” [38] But in the case of African expats in Guangzhou and its aftermath, the pandemic is illuminating and shadowing at the same time. The local authority’s harsh measures and the immigrants’ suffering are exposed to the spotlight of the media. In contrast, both discourses of the nation-states portraying themselves as the ardent protectors of their citizens, and the cyberspace narratives celebrating unadulterated ethno-racial identity, have concealed the everyday experience of the African businessmen and their interactions with local Chinese. It was a blend of painstakingness, liveliness and entrepreneurship despite many restraints.  If there is any “wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years”, [39] it is the fragility embedded in the low-end globalization [40] which has never gained legitimacy in the globalizing fad before the pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic has just reversed the flow of globalization, leaving international immigrants stranded, who are still struggling hard to gain the protection from their respective countries and securing a ticket of return flight.

Berhanu is an anthropologist in African Studies.
[1] Jenni Marsh, Shawn Deng and Nectar Gan. 2020. “Africans in Guangzhou are on edge, after many are left homeless amid rising xenophobia as China fights a second wave of coronavirus”. April 11 (updated on April 13). CNN news. Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020]
[4] Cheng Yinghong. 2018. “White-lefties and the traitor of the Han: The Other within the Nation-state.” Available at: [Accessed: 10 June 2020].
[5] Zhang Chenchen. 2020. “Right-wing populism with Chinese characteristics? Identity, otherness and global imaginaries in debating world politics online.” European Journal of International Relations vol. 26(1): pp. 88-115.
[7] The earliest account of the African students’ experience in China see Immanuel Hevi, 1963. An African Student in China. London: Pall Mall Press.
[8] Winslow Robertson. 2020. “A brief history of anti-black violence in China.” Available at: Also Barry Sautman. 1994. Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China. The China Quarterly. vol 138. pp. 413-437.
[9] Li, Anshan. 2018. “African Students in China: Research, Reality, and Reflection.” African Studies Quarterly. vol. 17(4). pp. 5-44. There were 61,594 African students out of 442,773 international students in 2016.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Alice Yan. 2017. “White people wanted: a peek into China’s booming ‘rent a foreigner’ industry.” June 10. South China Morning Post. Available at:
[12] Gilmore, David D. 2009. Misogyny: The Male Malady: University of Pennsylvania Press.
[13] Adams Bodomo. 2012. Africans in China. Cambria Press: Amherst, New York. 
[14] Bill Schiller. 2009. Big Trouble in China’s Chocolate City. The Star. 1 Aug. Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020]. See also Pan, Chinglin and Ding Yuan. 2013. “Chocolate City as a Concept and as Visible African Space of Change and Diversity.” In Z. Huang and J. Zhang (eds.) Discussions on Socio-economic Transition: Urbanisation, Industrialization and Cultural Survival in China. Intellectual Property Publishing House, pp. 47-78.
[15] Mathews Gordon, Linessa Dan Lin, Yang Yang. 2017. The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. p.88.
[16] I used pseudonyms to protect the identity of interviewees. I am grateful to Ms. Genis for her kind assistance with the access and interviews and many discussions.
[17] Qiu, Yu. 2016. Cleanliness and Danger: Destigmatisation and Identity Politics in Nigerian-Chinese Intimate Relationships in South China. Open times. vol. 4. pp. 88-107.
[18] Mathews Gordon, Linessa Dan Lin, Yang Yang. 2017. The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. p. 167.
[20] Bill Schiller. 2009. Big Trouble in China’s Chocolate City. The Star. 1 Aug. Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020].
[22] Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission. 2020. “Updates on the Risk levels of the Epidemiological Conditions of Guangzhou Districts.” April 6. Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission webpage.  Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020]
[23] Xinhua News Agency. 2020. “What is asymptomatic carriers, and how to discover them?” April 1. Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020]
[24] Police raid see Mathews Gordon, Linessa Dan Lin, Yang Yang. 2017. The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. pp. 124-125.
[25] I establish the timeline of the incident from a number of sources including my African friends, local social worker, several volunteers, and both Chinese and English news reports.
[26] Ikenna Emewu. 2020. “Guangzhou: Exclusive full report of the face-off, maltreatment allegation of Africans in China.” Africa China Press Centre. April 24. Available at: [Accessed: 6 June 2020]
[27] Mr Ghanababy. 2020. “Chinese Discriminate Africans Because Of Covid-19?”. April 7. Available at:
[28] Xiang, Biao. 2020. “From Chain Reaction to Grid Reaction: Mobilities & Restrictions during SARS & Coronavirus” Available at:
[29] Chukwunanuekpere. 2020. “Video: Gbajabiamila attacks Chinese Ambassador over treatment of Nigerians in China.” iBrandTV. April 11. Available at:
[30] Plus TV Africa. 2020. “House of Rep Seeks Investigation on Validity Of Chinese Nationals In Nigeria.” May 1. Available at:
[31] Pan, Chinglin and Ding Yuan. 2013. “Chocolate City as a Concept and as Visible African Space of Change and Diversity.” In Z. Huang and J. Zhang (eds.) Discussions on Socio-economic Transition: Urbanisation, Industrialization and Cultural Survival in China. Intellectual Property Publishing House, pp. 47-78.
[32] I draw the concept from Alexander Betts, Evan Easton-Calabria and Kate Pincock. 2020.“The Localisation of Humanitarian Assistance as a Response to COVID-19.” Available at:  [Accessed: 10 June 2020]
[33] BBC Africa. 2019. “Chinese trader gets Nigerian title.” April 29. Available at:
[34] Available at: 
[35] Felix Tih. 2020. “China: 260+ Nigerians evacuated over virus, racism.” May 31. Available at:
[36] China Foreign Ministry. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Remarks on Guangdong’s Anti-epidemic Measures Concerning African Citizens in China.” April 12. Available at:
[37] “Chinese businessmen murders stir tensions in Zambia.” May 28. The Strait Times. Available at:
[38] Arundhati Roy. 2020. “The pandemic is a portal”. Financial Times. April 4. Available at:
[39] Ibid.
[40] Mathews Gordon, Linessa Dan Lin, Yang Yang. The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
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