When the Chinese city of Wuhan was thrust into the global spotlight for being the first epicentre of the coronavirus, Chinese people were the butt of racist jokes. And as the coronavirus evolved into a full-blown pandemic, Chinese people became victims of ugly racism. The latest global health crisis provided an excuse for racists to justify stereotypes about China and Chinese people. It wasn’t a good sight.
But now, it seems like the victim has become the aggressor.
Over the past week, social media mushroomed with disturbing news about the plight of Africans in China amid the coronavirus pandemic — they’ve been evicted from their apartments or hotel rooms, herded by police along the street like cattle, and refused service at restaurants like McDonald’s.
When the blatant mistreatment could no longer be ignored, African ambassadors in Beijing confronted the Chinese Foreign Ministry. But these claims were dismissed by the Ministry, which cited the imperative of handling coronavirus infections over racial sensitivities.
It’s frankly impossible to ignore the irony that China, having bore the brunt of discrimination due to the coronavirus, is now using the same narrative to justify racism within its borders.
Guangzhou is home to the largest African migrant population in Asia, with many long-term African residents seeking business opportunities or tertiary education. Yet more travel to the city frequently to do business. In the time of coronavirus, Guangzhou also bears witness to blatant racism against its Black population.
VICE spoke to an African resident in China about what it’s like to be a Black person in China during the time of coronavirus.
VICE: Hi Leo*! So you’ve been in China for several years. What has your experience living in China been like?
Leo: What can I say, you never really feel at home. Because some people here don’t understand how to behave with foreigners. Like sometimes in buses or on the metro, people don’t want to sit next to you. Sometimes you don’t feel at home but it’s okay, they don’t understand us but we try to understand them.
China is a good place to live actually, when everything is okay. If not for the coronavirus situation we’re having now, China is a really good place to live and to study.
But since the pandemic started, I can say that I’ve experienced some racism.
What has your experience in China been like since the pandemic started?
Some people here, their landlord told them to move out of their house without prior notice. The landlord can come and say, “Move out of my house,” and they have to move the same day. Some people came here for business and got trapped in China because of the coronavirus. They have to stay here and they can’t stay in a hotel because the hotel doesn’t want them anymore. Some people are living in the streets. Some people want to go to restaurants, but they can’t buy food because the restaurants tell them, “We’re not selling you food because you are Black.” That’s the problem.
I think there is a miscommunication about the whole situation. The authorities say there are some imported cases, that some people have brought the virus to China. But I don’t think they tell them clearly what’s happening, because most of the people who are coming back to China are Chinese citizens who were living in other countries. When the coronavirus started in Europe and America, they tried to come back home.
But the thing we can’t understand is why they’re saying that Black people are the ones bringing them the coronavirus. That’s what we’re trying to understand. In some buildings, they ask Black people to be quarantined but other foreigners are free to go anywhere they want.
Tell me about your quarantine situation.
We all tested negative. And now they’re asking all of us to be quarantined, so we’re under quarantine for 14 days. But there are some people living here in my city, they are foreigners but they are free to go anywhere they want. That’s what we’re trying to understand, but we don’t know why. They only asked us, people from Africa, to be quarantined.
Why do you think they’re only discriminating against people from Africa?
I think the government has to tell them that not only Africans are bringing the virus to China. I don’t really know what’s going on, but we noticed that only Africans have to be quarantined and people from Europe and America, they’re free to do whatever they want. That’s the situation. I don’t know why they’re doing this. Because the coronavirus isn’t about race. It’s about all of us. If there are rules, the rules have to be for all of us. Not only for people from Africa. It’s okay that we have to be in quarantine, but why only people from Africa? That is the main question.
How do you feel when you see social media posts of discrimination against Black people in China?
It hurts a lot because it doesn’t make sense to treat people like that. For me, I’m okay, but what about other people? Some people have money but why can’t the city sell them food? Some people don’t know where to live because of the situation. It hurts a lot because it doesn’t have to be like this. We’re all humans. Africa and China have a win-win relationship, so we all hope we can go through this situation very soon.
Are you nervous about going back outside after your quarantine, about how people will treat you?
No, I’m not nervous. I think I’m used to it. It’s a bad situation, but I just try not to pay attention when someone tries to behave badly towards me. If I pay attention, it will hurt me and it will affect me. There are a lot of people who behave well, who are nice. There are a few who do not behave well, but you can’t take the actions of a few to blame all the Chinese people. We have to be honest. There are some people who do not behave well, while most of the people behave well.
What would you like people outside China to know about what’s happening there?
I just want to tell people outside that for us Black people, and Africans in general, it’s a bad situation. We can’t accept that our brothers, that we Africans, have to experience this again. It’s a bad situation but I want to tell my fellow Africans to not be mad at all. It hurts but we can go through it.
*Name has been changed for the student’s protection