For Andrew, a black American living in China and teaching English for the past two years, life had been pretty good.
“As a black foreigner, because China was closed for so long, there is a novelty about seeing foreigners,” he said. “It’s part of life that you just get used to here, and it’s never been malicious.”
But about two weeks ago, that all changed, he said.
As COVID-19 cases originating in China appeared to decrease, and cases that the government said were brought into the country from abroad increased, being foreign in China, and especially being black, meant feeling unwelcome in certain places.
“In the past couple of weeks, things have changed drastically,” Andrew, who has been teaching in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, told ABC News. He asked that ABC use only his first name, as he and his employer are wary of the risk of retaliation from Chinese authorities.
American authorities appear to be well-aware of the issue. In an April 13 health alert, the U.S. Consulate General warned about discrimination against African Americans in Guangzhou. “As part of this campaign, police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin. Moreover, local officials launched a round of mandatory tests for COVID-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with ‘African contacts,’ regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine completion. African-Americans have also reported that some businesses and hotels refuse to do business with them,” the bulletin read.
The consulate general said it “advises African-Americans or those who believe Chinese officials may suspect them of having contact with nationals of African countries to avoid the Guangzhou metropolitan area until further notice.”
“At a moment when the international community urgently needs to work together to fight the pandemic, the US side is making unwarranted allegations in an attempt to sow discords and stoke troubles,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on April 13. “This is neither moral nor responsible. We suggest that the US had better focus on domestic efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Attempts to use the pandemic to drive a wedge between China and Africa are bound to fail.”
Lijian also said that “new measures” were adopted in Guangzhou to address “the concerns of some African citizens.”
ABC News reached out and placed an official request to comment with the information department of the Foreign Ministry as well as the one in Guangzhou but has not heard back at time of publication.
By mid-March, Chinese propaganda had shifted, from praising the country’s quick action dealing with the virus, to worrying about its reintroduction from abroad. It was around this time that Keenan Chen, a researcher and reporter with First Draft, an organization that tracks misinformation online, told ABC News he began to see unconfirmed speculation that community transmission in China was not as serious as cases coming in from the outside.
“China is very concerned about a second wave coming from abroad,” Evanna Hu, a partner and an expert on China at Omelas, a Washington-based firm that tracks online extremism and information manipulation, told ABC News.
Despite many of the new imported cases in China coming from Chinese students returning from studying overseas, state and social media more often than not simply say the new cases are brought into the country coupled with images of the coronavirus ravaging the United States and Europe, leaving the impression that foreigners were the ones infected.
A reported attack and a swift crackdown
Guangzhou has one of the largest African populations in China (400,000-500,000 by some estimates) and reports in early April showed discrimination against those residents, some of whom were left homeless or subject to arbitrary COVID-19 testing after authorities said that five Nigerians had tested positive for the virus. Significantly, the People’s Government of Guangzhou Province announced that a Nigerian man at a COVID ward had attacked and wounded a female nurse while allegedly attempting to flee, Chen told ABC. This news circulated widely on social media, he said, but it was not clear if the original report was true.
Andrew said a taxi driver drive off when he saw him, and has also had issues with the authorities when riding on the metro.
For no apparent reason, Andrew said he was asked by local police to produce his passport as he was trying to get the metro. When he asked why, he was told there was a new rule in place, and was given no explanation. Eventually he ceded to their demands: “I realized I was standing there, frustrating a group of people who did not create this rule,” he said. Now he mostly stays at home.
“The narrative that I have seen about foreigners is that foreigners are spreading the virus because they’re irresponsible,” Andrew told ABC News. “So if you have a population doing their very best to take care of themselves and they’re told that some are not, that explains why it happens so quickly.”
Matt Slack, a white man from New Jersey who has run a chain of pizza restaurants in Guangzhou for the past four years, said the change in the disposition towards foreigners “was like a light switch.”
“I’m privileged to say that that I’ve gone 36 years of my life without experiencing racism,” he told ABC News. Now, he’s been refused entrance to restaurants, other people won’t get in the elevator with him. “People won’t sit beside you in the subway,” he said.
Chen said that the Chinese people know the information they get online is unreliable. In the past 10 years the censorship machine has become so sophisticated that it’s hard to access the internet seen by the outside world.
“There’s absolutely tons of racism and xenophobia online,” he said. “[But] racist content and xenophobic content is rarely censored online, unlike comments against the government.”
Slack said he recalls how, on April 6, his businesses were visited by the local city management. He said he was never given an official note, but his store managers reported to him that they were given a blue sign that they were instructed to show to customers. It was written in English and said that their pizza restaurants were only offering take-away. The message was meant for foreigners, Slack said his manager reported to him, “especially [for] black people.”
Slack also said he was not allowed to eat in a restaurant in a different neighborhood one day recently, even though he saw Chinese people eating there. Andrew said his foreign friends don’t want to dine out because of concerns they’d be denied.
Both expats painted a picture of a shifting information landscape in which it’s difficult to determine where directives are coming from. Andrew said his fear is that “they could show up at your door and tell you you’re under quarantine.” “And we don’t know who ‘they’ is. It’s inconsistent,” he added.
Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China in December, controlling the epidemic block by block has fallen on the most grass-roots level of the Chinese civil-service: the neighborhood committee. Under immense pressure to deliver results to their supervisors, some overeager neighborhood controllers have resorted to sometimes sweepingly extreme measures like welding families inside their home in Jiangsu Province back in early February. Provincial officials later found out and forbade the practice. What is happening in certain areas of Guangzhou may be part of the same phenomenon of overzealous low-level leaders taking matters into their own hands.
“The signs that I’ve seen are not on letterheads,” said Hu. “Which the reason why I think it might be very low level CCP officials, but it probably wasn’t sanctioned from the top.”
Last week, the authorities in Guanghzou published a multi-lingual statement, addressed to everyone in the province, to say that the government has “zero tolerance over discriminatory language or acts.”
But reports of racism have drawn international condemnation from senior politicians in both Africa and the United States.
Some of this appears to have stemmed from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) putting forth “many contradictory stories” about the origins of coronavirus, including alleging that the U.S. Army and Italy were the true sources, and not Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have begun, according to Dr. Matthew Kroenig, associate professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University,
“There is longstanding and well-documented racism, especially against black people, in China,” he said. “The state has seized on this sentiment in recent days to find a scapegoat.”
Some of the apparent increase in racism will likely have a political rationale, he said.
“Most CCP actions are driven by its two foremost goals of domestic stability and increased international leadership,” Kroenig continued. “Similarly, China’s disinformation campaign is driven by a desire to deflect blame, so the regime can appear competent both at home and abroad.”
However, this has become an economic and foreign policy problem for China, as the country’s economic interests in Africa means they have been keen to play down accusations of racism, according to Hu. “The Chinese propaganda machine has gone into overdrive since April 12th to dispel rumors of Africans being targeted,” she said. “The Chinese Communist Party is trying their hardest right now to dispel those rumors, which I’ve never seen before as part of their foreign policy.”
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Hope for the future
Slack has refused to follow the local authority’s direction not to allow foreigners into his restaurants and doesn’t know if his business will survive.
His restaurants normally employ about 45 people, around 20 of whom are currently working given the COVID-19 restrictions still in place.
Slack says there are a hundred ways to shut a business down in China, but that he can’t keep quiet right now. “We just won’t operate anywhere in which our business is encouraged to discriminate even if we get shut down for it,” he wrote in a public LinkedIn post.
In an email sent on April 24 and reviewed by ABC News, the U.S. embassy in Beijing assured American citizens stated that: “In response to reports of discrimination against foreign citizens the Chinese government has reiterated that all public health measures, including mandatory testing and quarantine policies, apply equally to both Chinese citizens and foreigners.” The embassy has urged US citizens to report cases of discrimination to the police and, after reporting, asked them to inform the nearest American Citizens Services Unit of the incident.
Andrew, however, is more hopeful for his future. He has the support of his employer and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances both foreign and Chinese. He says he has been touched by shows of solidarity – local Chinese volunteers have stepped up to support Africans evicted from their homes. On the other hand, he wouldn’t recommend foreigners to move to China right now.
“I don’t think that this is a permanent thing,” he said. “I don’t think it reflects on the people of China. I think it reflects on the fear that people are living in, and the desire that anyone has to explain away this situation that is fraught for literally everyone.”