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Op-Ed Series – Vol.4 Issue: 2

July 10, 2020

Covid-19, ‘Sinophobia’ and African Citizens’ Voice in China-Africa Relations

Alexandra Lukamba*, Kundai Mtasa** and Nyawira Wahito***

In Summary

COVID-19 is indeed a global ‘game-changer’ in that it has transformed social interactions, economic fundamentals and political processes. Africa is no exception; COVID-19 and the mitigation strategies adopted by governments have diluted or even threatened social capital and communal living in Africa. National lockdowns, quarantine measures, social distancing and bans on large gatherings have vitiated social bonds. Epidemiological measures requiring people to retreat to their inner homes and increased individualism have impacted intra- and inter-group relations, including across national and international boundaries. Reports of COVID-19 suspicions, stereotyping, stigmatisation and alleged racism are commonplace, not least Chinese-Africans reciprocal recriminations. Clearly, COVID-19 with or without pre-existing tensions, exposes the tenuous underbelly of China-Africa relations; the acrimony at the level of citizen-to-citizen relations, versus the cosy government-to-government interactions.

Most reports have tended to paint Africans as victims of these recriminations, however, COVID-19 has brought to the fore, the duality of the stigmatisation; Chinese nationals are as well on the receiving end of discrimination from Africans in different parts of the continent. The complex relationship between Chinese and Africans which is usually marred by discrimination and racism can be traced back in history. China’s re-emergence and expansion in Africa has added to the complexities of these relationships and the origination of COVID-19 in Wuhan China further complicated things. Here, we acknowledge how Covid-19 has exacerbated racial prejudice against Chinese nationals among Africans in certain parts of the continent, but this has to be seen as part of a broader manifestation of resistance and the expression of grievances by Africans against their governments and their collaborators, in the systematic exploitation of natural and human resources.   

Previous pandemics and epidemics such as HIV, Malaria and Ebola Virus have drawn pejorative innuendos and sometimes overt slurs about Africa and Africans. Epithets such as ‘The Dark Continent’ and ‘The Cursed Continent’ are few instances of this warped logic. This has sustained and reinforced historical racial prejudice and discrimination against Africans. However, COVID-19 has changed the narrative of attaching pandemics to Africa and Africans (the African body). Despite the virus having originated from Wuhan, China, Africans who are resident in China have not escaped this perverted narrative entirely, as witnessed in the Guangzhou incidents. The Guangzhou incidents fuelled the disgruntlement of Africans on the continent. In addition to viewing Chinese bodies as representations of the virus, these events and other issues discussed herein have resulted to a surge in Sinophobia in Africa.

The extant mutuality between Africa and Chinese state leaders has meant heavy presence of Chinese nationals in Africa, working on different infrastructure projects which do not necessarily translate into tangible benefits for African citizens. Many of these projects are perceived as ‘White Elephant’, the so-called ‘Legacy’ projects dictated largely by the whims of political elites in Africa. By default, China becomes a ‘willing’ collaborator in the questionable choices of African leaders. This opens and complicates the schisms between government and citizens in many African countries. China and Chinese nationals become inserted into the complex relations between African governments (leaders) and their citizens, often marked by tensions, resistance, and crackdowns. The increased spate of violent protests, riots, and demonstrations in many African states over the past decade is a manifestation of this situation.

Clearly, official government-to-government relations are diametrically at variance with suspicions and acrimonies of Africans towards Chinese nationals on the continent. Chinese nationals are perceived rightly or wrongly, as  part of the grand theft and exploitation of natural resources and business opportunities belonging to Africans. This has amplified the frustrations African citizens endure towards their governments on what may be perceived as preferential treatment of Chinese nationals. Coupled with the fear and stigma of Chinese bodies owing to Covid-19, these have resulted in hostility, violence, and discrimination of Chinese nationals in Africa.

Two events can be used to show the impact that COVID-19 has on the dynamics of Africa-China realtions. First, in February 2020, a video circulated in the media showed a Chinese worker assaulting his colleague, a Kenyan national, in Nairobi for not working as instructed. This amplified pre-existing suspicions and animosities toward Chinese nationals living in Kenya. It also represents one of many cases of violence meted by Chinese nationals against Kenyans (Africans) because of the power they hold. The power is seen as derived from the cosy official relations, as well as ostensible Chinese claim of racial superiority – the power to physically beat an African employee, and worse still, in Africa. It is not impossible that Chinese monopoly of development projects such as infrastructures and technology, in Africa imbues some Chinese nationals, quite wrongly, with a sense of a ‘Civilization Mission’ in Africa.

Second, in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases began to rise significantly, there was a simultaneous rise of ‘Sinophobia’ worldwide. Different incidents showed African nationals threatening foreigners, mostly Asians, because they are perceived as a common health threat. This is linked to the perception among Africans that COVID-19 is an ‘Imported Disease’, the externalisation of existential threats. In Kenya, a video circulated in the Media showed a crowd of Kenyans threatening two Asian nationals yelling at them that they have Corona. In Zambia, the event took an even worse turn as three Chinese citizens were killed in their textile warehouse by Zambian nationals. However, prior to this event, a video of the Lusaka mayor was posted on social media voicing that many of the Chinese citizens continue what he calls ‘slavery reloaded’. Although the murder is not directly linked to COVID-19, it still shows how the continuous lack of mutuality between the Zambian nationals and the Chinese living in Zambia has been emphasised in times of crisis. 

COVID-19 has provided the possibility for a change of circumstances, a power shift creating a new situation where the power is in the hands of new actors, the local citizens. The Kenyan and Zambian nationals took matters in their own hands by using violence toward Asian nationals as a mechanism to protect themselves from a perceived external threat. Africans ensured their security by using their position as nationals as a form of power to ensure that what was perceived as a threat, remained outside. Furthermore, they are using verbal and physical violence, and coercive power to ensure that their needs are respected. The responses from Africans are emphasized due to the existing lack of mutuality between the nationals, the governments, and the foreigners. When voices of the locals are being overlooked, violence becomes the inevitable.

The two cases stipulated within this paper are effective illustrations of how COVID-19 provides a breeding ground for intolerant behaviour across cultures, regions, and countries, including those of some Africans towards Chinese resident in Africa. Although the virus has intensified and weakened the health systems around the world, racism and discrimination have increased and continue to exacerbate tensions and weaken society. The ‘Sinophobia’ in some parts of Africa signpost underlying discontent of African nationals towards their national governments and their perceived Chinese collaborators. Crucially, the widespread dissatisfaction of Africans towards their governments and China predate COVID-19. The ‘Guangzhou incidents’ are a microscopic template that conveys the treatment that many Africans have experienced among Chinese for decades. Moreover, even on their own continent, numerous African nationals have been side-lined by their states and various companies who have often prioritised ventures with Chinese, at the expense of the African citizens within those countries. Thus, COVID-19 has added fuel to a burgeoning fire. It has given Africans a platform to use their agency and express their grievances against the status quo that has never truly favoured them.

Although ‘friendly’ relations at the state level have often resulted in numerous economic investments in Africa, the salience of African citizens remain important, and their silence cannot be bought. Whilst China-Africa relations continue to develop between states, ‘Sinophobia’ has proven to be a physical, emotional, and psychological reminder of the frustrations and lack of mutuality that exists between the African nationals and Chinese resident in Africa, and vice versa. The emergence of COVID-19 poses great risks and challenges to the functionality of health systems across the globe, it has challenged the structures of society too. The rise of ‘Sinophobia’ should therefore be used as a tool of reflection for African leaders. The pandemic has elevated the voices of citizens in these two African countries and the continent, and it will possibly create a ripple effect for China-Africa relations in the long run.

*Alexandra Lukamba is a dual Masters student in Leadership and Development at King’s College London & Sciences Po Paris and an Associate Fellow at the African Leadership Centre.

**Kundai Mtasa is a Masters student in Leadership and Development at King’s College London & an Associate Fellow of the African Leadership Centre. 

***Nyawira Wahito is a Masters student in Security, Leadership and Society at King’s College London & an MSC fellow of the African Leadership Centre.

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