China moves to smooth relations with African students

Videos showing minorities being targeted in Guangzhou’s coronavirus crackdown have caused a diplomatic row  

April 20, 2020
Source: iStock

Actions targeting Africans and African Americans, allegedly in the name of disease control, have shaken the foreign student community in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city that is home to more than a dozen universities with diverse student bodies.

Numerous social media posts − some showing racial minorities being left homeless after sudden evictions, forced into home quarantine or barred from buying essentials from local businesses − have made the news worldwide. One student told NBS Television, a Ugandan broadcaster, that she faced “racism” including Africans being barred from equally accessing hospital care and public transport. Another student, from Botswana, told CNN that she and fellow Africans had been taken for coronavirus testing, when students from other countries had not.

African ambassadors wrote a joint letter to China’s foreign ministry voicing concerns about “stigmatisation and discrimination”, while the US Embassy in Guangzhou issued an alert advising African Americans “to avoid the Guangzhou metropolitan area until further notice”.

The Chinese government, which has used generous scholarships and other programmes to attract more than 80,000 African students to the country, acted quickly. A Chinese foreign affairs official met on 13 April with African ambassadors about the issue, and state media was quickly filled with reports on China’s fair treatment of foreigners.

Adams Bodomo, an African studies professor at the University of Vienna, told Times Higher Education the incidents could affect China-Africa relations. “In a way, Beijing, which has worked very hard to build and sustain excellent Africa-China relations for the last 15 to 20 years…is shooting itself in the foot through the actions of anti-African authorities in Guangzhou,” he said.

He warned that “permanent damage in Africa-China relations could occur if Beijing fails to stem the periodic racist and xenophobic attacks against Africans in China”.

Roberto Castillo, an assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and founder of the Africans in China website, told THE that some African students had been stranded in China because of travel restrictions. “For many weeks, Chinese ambassadors in Africa have been talking to concerned parents and reassuring them that their children would be OK. Many parents trusted this,” he said.

Benjamin Mulvey, a PhD student at the Education University of Hong Kong who recently published a study on Ugandan students in China, told THE that “it’s hard to understate what a PR disaster this has been for China in Africa, and how upset current students are about it.

“There was a lot of support and solidarity from African students in China towards their hosts, and now I think a lot of them really feel betrayed, and like they aren’t respected.”

Travel bans and campus closures have stopped the flow of international students worldwide, so it is too early to tell whether events in Guangzhou will impact African student migration to China in general.

Professor Castillo felt that the “peak” of these incidents has likely passed, now that the national government has addressed the situation. However, the disturbing videos and photos have already gone viral.

“Media images, especially social media images, amplify these incidences,” Professor Castillo said. “They will have an impact on viewers, especially young people.”

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