China, COVID-19 and African Anger

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Following a meeting in Beijing last Thursday, the ‘Group of African Ambassadors’ wrote a joint letter to Chinese authorities to express their displeasure with the growing “discrimination and stigmatization” of people from the continent. Without a single report that African nationals have violated Chinese government anti-pandemic regulations, the ambassadors said, “we have received disquieting reports of inhuman treatments meted out to Africans particularly in Guangdong Province.”

The diplomats, representing Nigeria and other African countries, listed grievances, including the ejection of Togolese, Nigerian and Beninese nationals from their hotels in the middle of the night; forceful administration of nucleic acid tests on a group of African students in Sun-Yat Sen University in Guangzhou even though they had no travel history within the stated period; discriminatory COVID-19 tests on African men married to Chinese women; forceful evictions of Africans from their various apartments; seizure of passports of African nationals in violation of international practices and conventions; persistent subjection of nationals of African countries to unwarranted medical examinations even after testing negative for COVID-19; threats of revocation of visas as well as detention and deportation of legal migrants for no cogent reasons.

To buttress the position of the diplomats, numerous video clips now trend on social media depicting the way African people are being ill-treated by Chinese officials; though, in one, a Nigerian official stands up to Chinese officials in defence of our nationals which makes me very proud. But before I deal with the substantive issue, let me make a disclosure. Beginning from October 2000 when I covered the first Sino-African conference in Beijing at the instance of the Chinese embassy in Nigeria, I have been to China several times, and in recent years, I have had an association with the country.

It all began in 2016 when I received an invitation from Beijing to speak on the theme “Advancing China-Africa people-to-people exchanges and media cooperation to achieve development” at the China-Africa Public Diplomacy Forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A year later, I was nominated as the African voice at the September 2017 Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road, in Dunhuang, Gansu Province of Western China. The following year in Boao, Hainan Province on 30th October 2018, I was again one of the speakers. And in April last year in Beijing, I was inaugurated, along with journalists from 25 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Eurasia, into the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN) Council. Coordinated by ‘Peoples Daily’, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), with membership from 182 media organisations in 86 countries, the objective of the BRNN is to promote “mutual assistance, collaboration and exchanges among members.”

Although there are no financial benefits for this role, it has given me access to people who matter within the media in China. And in all my interventions I have highlighted the precarious nature of the relationship between their country and Africa. My 2018 speech, “Of China, Africa and ‘Colonial Master’”, emphasized that given the enormous financial investment China has made in Africa “it is in her interest that the relationship is seen as one based on shared humanity and prosperity, not as a new colonial master coming under the guise of loans and lopsided trade.” I referenced projects funded with Chinese loans in Nigeria, made a distinction between the colonialism of physical occupation and exploitative extraction of resources that we had in the past and the indirect control or neo-colonialism that the Chinese are accused of here. “The latter is not physically controlling and more supportive of trade and infrastructural development on the continent but it is nonetheless viewed with distrust and apprehension,” I said on that occasion.

While I have in recent days spoken with some people in Beijing on the unfortunate developments in Guangzhou, it is obvious from the video clips in circulation that, whatever may have been the justifications—and I will come to that—people from African countries, including Nigeria, were not treated with dignity. Living in denial about this problem or making excuses will not help. China must accept responsibility and begin to deal with it. But it is also true that the problem appears limited to Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong, one of 26 provinces in China. A problem in just one city, some of my Chinese friends have argued, cannot be used to tar the image of a whole country. Besides, I was offered explanations as to what exactly transpired in Guangzhou.

The problem faced by African migrants in the city reportedly started at a period China was close to putting down the pandemic but new cases were continuing to come from abroad. In Guangzhou, 111 imported cases of infection were reported last week Tuesday (7th April). Among them, 25 are foreign nationals, with nine from Nigeria, three from Angola and two each from DRC and Niger. There were also one each from Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Madagascar as well as from France, Brazil, UK, Australia and Russia. So 19 of the 25 cases involving foreign nationals were from African countries.

What has allegedly put the focus on our continent is that many immigrants share small apartments in squalid conditions that constitute health hazards. And among the Nigerians who recently arrived in China, not everyone was strictly following quarantine regulations, according to Chinese officials. There was the case of a Nigerian man, 47 (name withheld), who tested positive and was isolated for medical treatment. On 1st April, he was said to have attacked a nurse at the hospital. The incident was a big story in the Global Times (official Chinese newspaper published in English) edition of the next day with the headline, ‘Nigerian man tested positive for COVID-19 beats nurse to escape quarantine in Guangzhou’. The case, according to the report, “has caused a great uproar on the Chinese internet, with many calling for the man to be deported” for assaulting “a nurse who tried to stop him, pushing her to the ground, beating her…A forensic examination found that she sustained injuries to her face, neck and waist.”

On Tuesday in Abuja, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama blamed poor communication between Chinese authorities and African consulates in Guangzhou for the current crisis. Onyeama, who referred to a new video which has a different narrative from those in circulation, explained that Chinese officials were trying to contain some Africans, including a Nigerian restaurant owner, who came into China and tested positive for the virus. “And so, (the Chinese) automatically demanded and insisted that they all be quarantined; with nobody allowed to come out in 14 days…So, they put in very strict measures to try to contain this outbreak which to them at that time seemed to have been within that community. Now, it was misinterpreted by some of the Nigerians and Africans, who could not understand why it seemed to be selective and targeting only themselves,” Onyeama said.

While the Nigerian embassy has corroborated that narrative, according to Onyeama, “what our officials in China made clear was that the communication could and should have been better. If the authorities in Guangzhou had informed the African Consulates in Guangzhou that this was the situation and this was the measure they were putting in place, it could have become a joint effort. That mutual suspicion would not be there. That was not done and it led to counter-narrative and it exacerbated the situation,” said Onyeama, who confirmed that both the Nigerian and Chinese authorities were working closely to resolve the issue.

I commend the intervention of Onyeama who has displayed both maturity and leadership in the management of this crisis. But I am also aware that there are larger issues here. Guangzhou is the city with the highest concentration of African people, including Nigerians. Many of them are irregular immigrants so there has always been a tension between them and Chinese officials, with numerous accusations of human rights violations. This is what Chinese authorities should look into. But it is equally important that we do not allow this episode to damage our existing relationship with China, especially at a time we are dealing with a serious pandemic.

I am a firm supporter of the underappreciated Nigerian doctors who labour under impossible conditions. But to deal with COVID-19, we need all the help we can get. And there is a reason why many countries are turning to China for assistance. Between 16 to 24 February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a team of 25 international experts to China. They include nationals of the United States, Germany, Japan, Korea, Russia, Singapore and Nigeria, (represented by the Director-General of the Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu). “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” they stated in their highly revealing 40-page report.

The world, according to these experts, “urgently needs access to China’s experience in responding to COVID-19, as well as the material goods it brings to the global response. It is even more urgent now, with escalating COVID-19 outbreaks outside of China”. Some of these assets, according to the WHO experts, include “the remarkable speed with which Chinese scientists and public health experts isolated the causative virus, established diagnostic tools, and determined key transmission parameters, such as the route of spread and incubation period”, as well as the “uncompromising and rigorous use of non-pharmaceutical measures to contain transmission of the COVID-19 virus in multiple settings.”

The ANAP Foundation COVID-19 Think Tank, a group established to respond to the coronavirus disease, has also underscored the need to accept the kind of support offered by China if Nigeria is to beat the virus. “Strategic alignment of purpose, transparent communication, close collaboration and collective accountability is essential to the successful delivery in times of stability, and even more so in times of crisis such as now,” the group said in a statement signed by Atedo Peterside and Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, chairman and vice-chairman respectively.

At a time like this, anti-China misinformation, including that 5G is somehow connected to coronavirus, is unhelpful and so is the animosity that some of our leaders are fuelling. The Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Zhou Pingjian was invited by the House of Representatives Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila last week. In the course of the meeting, he was asked to watch video clips of Nigerians being maltreated in Guangzhou. The mobile phone showing the video clip was placed on a tea table in deference to social distancing. In stooping to watch, the ambassador was directly in front of the seated speaker. In the photograph sent out by Gbajabiamila, the handset and the table were cropped out and the photograph was made to appear as if the ambassador was trying to prostrate before him. Members were even circulating the photograph with the caption, ‘Mr Speaker reads the riot act to the Chinese ambassador.’ These same ‘patriotic’ members were laughing hysterically while debating the plight of Nigerians in Wuhan in January this year. On Sunday, the Chinese embassy had to state that “any other interpretation of the scene” in the photograph is a distortion of what transpired at the meeting. What Gbajabiamila did is both disgraceful and cheap. China is not only a global superpower, but it is also too strategic to Nigeria for its ambassador to be treated with such disrespect.

Now to the conduct of some of our people in China. This is an area where sentiments must be tossed and a rational cap donned. Irregular migrants from the continent too often disregard the laws of their host countries, putting many of them in trouble.

The account of Zara Gift Onyinye, a trader who claimed to have witnessed the incident in one of the videos that went viral, corroborates this. She narrated how some of those who arrived China shortly before the borders were closed defied the lockdown and the unfortunate drama that occurred when two out of three cases turned out to be malaria and typhoid – though one was positive for coronavirus.

This was the man who reportedly assaulted a health worker, which led to the siege on black people. In the process, a Chinese woman married to a Nigerian who runs a restaurant patronised mostly by her husband’s compatriots tested positive. The Chinese woman had reportedly visited her village where she caught the virus but had not self-isolated for 14 days upon return to Guangzhou. That prompted the Chinese police to move in to shut everywhere, according to Onyinye. “They (the Chinese) rationalised that if it was black people who patronised the woman, and she had been serving them for days, some black people would have contracted the virus from her. Because of that, they asked those people who had been in isolation to remain indoors until they sort out the issue of this Chinese wife of a Nigerian and the people she came in contact with. Health workers moved from house to house to check people and run tests. They do the tests, ask you to wait for 24 hours, and if you test negative, they give you a card to be able to go out. Now that card is what you would use to go to the markets and different places. So these people were asked to stay indoors until the tests had been done for everybody so that they could figure out those who had it and those who didn’t have it, but they refused…”

However, there are also underlining issues that we should not gloss over. While I commend the efforts of the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria for trying to douse the fire generated by this crisis, the fact also is that this problem did not start today nor is it restricted to Guangzhou. That explains why China should also be careful. Every ascendant power or civilization soon acquires a certain messianic arrogance that defines reality in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. This is more so when the ascendant power is in the envious economic position of the apparent benefactor as is the case between China and Africa. Often, the racial factor creeps in if the recipient happens to be coloured differently. I scan the Chinese media online almost daily and I can see growing xenophobia on which their government must begin to engage their citizens. A Washington Post report on Tuesday, which claims that U.S. diplomats have already warned African Americans to avoid the Guangzhou area, states that “an intensifying nationalist climate within China has also led to reports of foreigners, especially Africans, being refused entry at bars and restaurants or forcibly quarantined in their apartments, even if they haven’t travelled anywhere where they would have contracted the virus.” As an emergent global power, China has much to lose from any hint of racism in its policy towards people from other continents.

It is, however, gratifying to note that appropriate lessons are being learnt as a result of this crisis. The Guangdong authorities, according to a statement on Monday, “attach great importance to some African countries’ concerns and are working promptly to improve their working method.” These measures, according to the Chinese, including providing health management services without discrimination, designating hotels for accommodating foreigners required to undergo medical observation and adopting price adjustment for those in financial difficulties; setting up effective communication mechanism with foreign consulates-general in Guangzhou; and rejecting all racist and discriminatory remarks. “The Chinese people always see in the African people partners and brothers through thick and thin. African friends can count on getting fair, just, cordial and friendly reception in China. The foreign ministry will stay in close communication with the Guangdong authorities and continue responding to the African side’s reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals. The virus knows no borders. The pandemic, a challenge to all mankind, can only be defeated through concerted international efforts. With mutual understanding, mutual support and cooperation, we are ready to continue working with African friends to achieve the final victory,” the statement said.

On the whole, what most African countries are yet to recognize is the ongoing contest for global pre-eminence between the United States and China. To that extent, African countries like Nigeria ought to adopt a more strategic approach to managing relations with China. No one knows if Nigeria has a China policy yet and if any, what precisely that policy is. At the level of the African countries themselves, there is a need to adopt a mixture of self-esteem and pragmatism in relating to China’s new influence and presence on the continent. We can accept aid and concessionary loans without compromising our dignity. Our leaders should also not sacrifice their self-respect nor continue to cheapen their countries before China. Besides, African countries need to manage their Chinese relations with tact, especially in the context of this virus and its geopolitical dimensions. Pragmatism, reasonableness and clear-headedness are advised on both sides of the Africa-China spectrum.

One last word: While the Chinese authorities continue working with African governments, they will be wise to ensure that they do not in the process create enemies of African people.

Sex for Grades

Working with the MAX team, as I explained two weeks ago, we built an online store to enable readers to purchase my book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ and get it delivered to their doors. Sales will commence on Monday but for now, deliveries are active only in Lagos and Abuja. To make a purchase, readers can visit MAX.ng/NakedAbuse and complete their purchase on the due date. The online book sales will go live just after midnight on Monday, April 20, 2020.

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and www.olusegunadeniyi.com

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