For Andrew, a black American living in China and teaching English for two years, life had been pretty good.
“As a black foreigner, because China has been closed for so long, there is something new to seeing foreigners,” he said. “It is part of the life you have just gotten used to, and it has never been malicious. “
But about two weeks ago, everything changed, he said.
As the cases of COVID-19 from China appeared to be decreasing, and the cases which the government said had been imported into the country from abroad were increasing, being foreign to China, and especially being black, meant feeling unwelcome. in some places.
“In the past two weeks, things have changed radically,” Andrew Andrew, who teaches in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, told ABC News. He asked ABC to use his first name only, as he and his employer are wary of the risk of reprisals from the Chinese authorities.
The American authorities seem well aware of the problem. In a April 13 health alert, the U.S. Consulate General warned against discrimination against African Americans in Guangzhou. “As part of this campaign, police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve customers who appear to be of African descent. In addition, local officials have launched a series of mandatory tests for COVID-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with ‘African contacts,” regardless of recent travel history or previous quarantine. African Americans have also reported that some businesses and hotels refuse to do business with them, “said the bulletin.
The consulate general said it “advises African-Americans or those who think the Chinese authorities may suspect them of having contacts with nationals of African countries to avoid the metropolitan area of Guangzhou until further notice” .
“At a time when the international community urgently needs to work together to fight the pandemic, the American side makes unjustified allegations with the aim of sowing discord and stirring up unrest,” the spokesman said on April 13. speech by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian. neither moral nor responsible. We suggest that the United States should better focus on national efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Attempts to use the pandemic to widen the gap between China and Africa are doomed to failure. “
Lijian also said that “new measures” had been adopted in Guangzhou to address “the concerns of some African citizens”.
ABC News contacted and made an official request for comment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ information department as well as that of Guangzhou, but had no response at the time of publication.
By mid-March, Chinese propaganda had shifted from praise for the country’s rapid action against the virus to concern for its reintroduction from abroad. It was around this time that Keenan Chen, a researcher and journalist at First Draft, an organization that tracks online disinformation, told ABC News that he was beginning to see unconfirmed speculation that community transmission in China was not happening. was not as serious as the cases from outside.
“China is very concerned about a second wave from abroad,” Evanna Hu, associate and China expert with Omelas, a Washington-based company that tracks online extremism and manipulation, told ABC News. information.
Despite most new cases imported to China from Chinese students returning to study abroad, state and social media most often say that new cases are brought into the country coupled with images of the devastating coronavirus the United States and Europe, leaving the impression that the aliens were those infected.
Reported attack and rapid crackdown
Guangzhou has one of the largest African populations in China (400,000 to 500,000 according to some estimates) and reports in early April showed discrimination against these residents, some of whom were left homeless or tested COVID-19 arbitrary after authorities said five Nigerians had tested positive for the virus. Significantly, the People’s Government of Guangzhou Province announced that a Nigerian in a COVID neighborhood attacked and injured a nurse while trying to flee, Chen told ABC. This news was widely circulated on social media, he said, but it was unclear if the original report was true.
Andrew said that a taxi driver left when he saw him and that he also had problems with the authorities while driving on the subway.
For no apparent reason, Andrew said that local police asked him to present his passport when he attempted to take the subway. When he asked why, he was told there was a new rule in place and received no explanation. Finally, he agreed to their demands: “I realized that I was there, frustrating a group of people who did not create this rule,” he said. Now he mainly stays at home.
“The story I saw about strangers is that strangers spread the virus because they are irresponsible,” Andrew told ABC News. “So if you have a population that does its best to take care of itself and is told that some are not, that explains why it happens so quickly. “
Matt Slack, a white man from New Jersey who has run a pizza chain in Guangzhou for four years, said the change in disposition toward strangers “was like a light switch.”
“I am privileged to say that I have lived 36 years of my life without experiencing racism,” he told ABC News. Now, he has been refused entry to restaurants, others will not ride with him in the elevator. “People will not sit next to you on the subway,” he said.
Chen said the Chinese know that the information they get online is not reliable. Over the past 10 years, the censorship machine has become so sophisticated that it is difficult to access the Internet from the outside world.
“There are absolutely tons of racism and xenophobia online,” he said. ” [But] racist and xenophobic content is rarely censored online, unlike comments against the government. “
Slack said he remembers how, on April 6, its leaders were visited by local city officials. He said he never received an official note, but his store managers told him that they had received a blue sign that they should show customers. It was written in English and said that their pizzerias only offered takeaways. The message was aimed at strangers, said Slack, his manager told him, “in particular [for] black people. “
Slack also said that he was not allowed to eat at a restaurant in a different area one day recently, even though he had seen Chinese people eating there. Andrew said that his foreign friends did not want to have dinner because of concerns they would be denied.
The two expatriates painted a picture of a changing information landscape in which it is difficult to determine where the guidelines come from. Andrew said his fear was “they might show up at your door and tell you you’re in quarantine.” “And we don’t know who” they “are. It’s inconsistent, ”he added.
Since the emergence of the new coronavirus in China in December, block-by-block control of the epidemic has fallen to the most popular level in the Chinese public service: the neighborhood committee. Under immense pressure to deliver results to their supervisors, some exaggerated neighborhood controllers resorted to sometimes drastically extreme measures such as the welding of families inside their homes in Jiangsu Province in early February. Provincial authorities later discovered and prohibited the practice.
What is happening in certain areas of Guangzhou may be part of the same phenomenon of overzealous and overzealous leaders who take matters into their own hands.
“The signs I saw were not on letterhead,” said Hu. “This is why I think it could be very low-level CCP officials, but it was probably not punished from the top. “
Authorities in Guanghzou last week issued a multilingual statement to everyone in the province, saying the government has “zero tolerance for discriminatory words or acts.”
But reports of racism have attracted international condemnation from top politicians in Africa and the United States.
Some of this information appears to come from the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presented “many conflicting stories” about the origins of the coronavirus, including alleging that the US military and Italy were the real sources, not Wuhan. , where the epidemic is believed to have started, according to Dr. Matthew Kroenig, associate professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University,
“There is a long-standing and well-documented racism, especially against blacks, in China,” he said. “The state has used this feeling in recent days to find a scapegoat. “
Part of the apparent increase in racism will likely have political justification, he said.
“Most of the CCP’s actions are motivated by its two main goals of internal stability and increased international leadership,” said Kroenig. “Likewise, China’s disinformation campaign is motivated by the desire to divert blame, so that the regime may 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 mean that they have been keen to minimize accusations of racism, according to Hu. “The Chinese propaganda machine has been ramping up since April 12 to dispel rumors that Africans are being targeted,” she said. “The Chinese Communist Party is doing its best to dispel these rumors, which I have never seen before in connection with its foreign policy. “
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Hope for the future
Slack has refused to follow local authorities’ instructions not to allow strangers to enter his restaurants and does not know if his business will survive.
Its restaurants normally employ around 45 people, of which about 20 are currently working under the COVID-19 restrictions still in force.
Slack says there are a hundred ways to close a business in China, but he can’t shut up right now. “We simply will not operate anywhere where our business is encouraged to discriminate even if we close it,” he wrote in a public article on LinkedIn.
In an email sent on April 24 and reviewed by ABC News, the United States Embassy in Beijing assured American citizens that: “In response to reports of discrimination against foreign citizens, the Chinese government has reiterated that all public health measures, including compulsory testing and quarantine also apply to Chinese citizens and foreigners. The embassy urged American citizens to report cases of discrimination to the police and, after the report, asked them to report to the United States Citizen Services Unit closest to the incident.
Andrew, however, is more optimistic about his future. He has the support of his employer and a large circle of friends and acquaintances from abroad and Chinese. He said he was touched by solidarity demonstrations – local Chinese volunteers mobilized to support Africans evicted from their homes. On the other hand, he would not recommend foreigners to settle in China at the moment.
“I don’t think it’s a permanent thing,” he said. “I don’t think it affects the Chinese people. I think it reflects the fear that people live in and the desire of anyone to explain this situation which is meaningful to everyone. “