(New York) – The Chinese government should end the discriminatory treatment of Africans related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also protect Africans and people of African descent throughout China from discrimination in employment, housing, and other realms.
In early April 2020, Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, which has China’s largest African community, began a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or to quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords then evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, and hotels, shops, and restaurants refused African customers. Other foreign groups have generally not been subjected to similar treatment.
“Chinese authorities claim ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, but what they are doing to Africans in Guangzhou is a textbook case of just that,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing should immediately investigate and hold accountable all officials and others responsible for discriminatory treatment.”
On April 12, Guangdong authorities announced that all foreigners in the province must accept “Covid-19 prevention and containment measures” including “testing, sampling and quarantine.” In practice, the authorities just targeted Africans for forced testing and quarantine. They visited homes of African residents, testing them on the spot or instructing them to take a test at a hospital. Some were ordered to self-isolate at home with surveillance cameras or alarms installed outside of their apartments.
There was no evident scientific basis for the policy. Most imported cases of Covid-19 to the province were Chinese nationals returning from abroad. Many Africans had already tested negative for coronavirus, had no recent travel history, or had not been in contact with known Covid-19 patients.
Elsewhere in China, some Africans reported police and local officials had harassed them, and hospitals and restaurants turned them away.
The Chinese government denied discriminating against Africans in Guangzhou, saying that it “reject[s] differential treatment” and has “zero tolerance for discrimination.” Chinese state media also ran stories seeking to refute criticism that Chinese authorities had mistreated African nationals and blamed “Western media” for “provok[ing] the problems between China and African countries.”
Official figures show that about 14,000 African nationals live in Guangzhou, but researchers estimate thousands more are there without documentation. Because of virus-related mistreatment, many Africans in China have urged their governments to call on the Chinese government to cease all forms of discrimination against Africans, and some want their governments to evacuate them from China. The Kenyan government announced it would fly out Kenyans stranded in China on May 1.
Reports of discrimination against Africans in China sparked outrage among African communities around the world, Human Rights Watch said. Several African governments, including Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana, summoned Chinese ambassadors in their countries to protest. Ambassadors from several African countries in China wrote to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling for the Chinese government to cease “forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatment meted out to Africans.”
More than 300 human rights groups and nearly 1,800 activists in Africa sent an open letter to the African Union calling for “immediate remedial action” over the “xenophobic, racist and inhumane treatment of Africans in China.”
In the past two decades, China has become Africa’s most important economic partner. China’s investment in Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure stretching across some 70 countries, has boosted Africa’s economy, but also lent the Chinese government considerable influence on the continent. African governments have rarely criticized Chinese authorities for mistreatment of Africans in China, or for human rights violations against people across China.
Africans in China have long experienced racial discrimination. Police frequently target Africans, often linked on Chinese social media with violent crimes and overstaying their visas, for immigration enforcement. Some job advertisements specifically exclude “heiren,” or blacks, or set a lower salary for African applicants. Some Africans report being paid less than their white colleagues for the same job. Many also said they have experienced of being turned away by taxis, restaurants, or shops. In 2018, a sketch aired during the annual Lunar New Year Gala on state TV featured a Chinese actress in blackface saying things such as “China has done so much for Africa,” and “I love Chinese people! I love China!” A Chinese laundry detergent brand advertisement showed a black man being pushed into a washing machine, getting “cleaned,” and emerging as a lighter skinned Asian.
“African governments together should unequivocally call on the Chinese government to cease all discrimination against Africans in China, and carry out prompt and transparent investigations to hold to account all those responsible for discriminatory practices,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “African governments should also press China to enforce measures to prevent discrimination in the future.”
Details and Accounts of Abuses in Guangzhou
Enforced Testing, Quarantine in Guangzhou
On April 2, the state news agency Xinhua reported a Nigerian man with Covid-19 attacked a Chinese nurse who tried to stop him from leaving an isolation ward in a hospital in Guangzhou. The report went viral on Chinese social media, and an online backlash against Africans ensued. On April 7, Guangzhou authorities said five Nigerians living in the city had tested positive for the coronavirus.
On April 20, Guangzhou authorities took David E. (pseudonym), a businessman from Niger, for a coronavirus test and ordered him to self-isolate at home for 14 days, although he had not left Guangzhou since the outbreak nor had any contact with known infected persons. “I have no problem with getting tested,” David told Human Rights Watch. “It is to save lives. But what they are doing is discriminatory. Why is it only us Africans? Why are we Africans treated like we are the virus?”
On the night of April 9, authorities appeared at the home of Micomyiza Jean-Claude from Burundi and took him to a hotel to quarantine for 14 days. Micomyiza said: “I have to pay for the hotel room, 300 yuan (US$50) a night, plus food and beverage. I want to follow the laws, but there is no need for me to continue to stay at the hotel because I have tested negative twice already.”
Upon being released from forced quarantine, Micomyiza was ordered by the police to take two more tests.
James K. (pseudonym), a Kenyan medical student, said that, despite completing a 14-day mandatory quarantine in his dormitory, he was not allowed to go outside of the university campus. He said: “Authorities told us only Africans are to be tested and quarantined. It made no sense. Now after the quarantine, I still can’t go outside the school gate. Why? It’s absurd.”
Forcible Evictions, Refused Services
Informed sources told Human Rights Watch that Guangzhou authorities orally instructed landlords and hotels to evict or turn away Africans, resulting in many effectively becoming homeless. Images and videos showing rows of Africans sleeping on the streets with their luggage next to them have been widely circulated online.
Restaurants, shops, and public facilities in Guangzhou have also barred Africans from entering. In a video filmed at a McDonald’s, a sign stated that black people were not allowed to enter the restaurant. McDonald’s later apologized. In another video, workers at a shopping center told a black woman that she could not enter but allowed the white woman next to her to enter.
David said one of his friends on April 19 was refused entry to his apartment by building security after he completed 14 days of quarantine in a hotel: “You can’t go back to your apartment, you can’t stay in a hotel. What the Guangzhou authorities are saying is: ‘We don’t need you anymore. Just go back to your home country.’”
Michael N. (pseudonym), a black Canadian, said he was denied entry to the subway system for two weeks starting on April 10:
The metro station worker told us, “As of this morning, we’ve been told not to let any black people onto the subway.” Then four or five security guards showed up and questioned me. The subway refused me just because of the color of my skin. They don’t care about any documents, or what my health app said.
Micomyiza said despite three tests that showed negative results, he still faced blatant racism:
Taxi drivers sometimes don’t allow Africans in, the public bus drivers often ask Africans to sit in the back seats because Chinese passengers may be frightened by Africans, and when we walk outside some Chinese people shout at us, run away from us, and others close their noses even when they wear masks. These are horrible racist behaviors, but the Chinese government still denies these facts.
James, the Kenyan medical student, said he had experienced discrimination “on a daily basis” in the six years he has lived in Guangzhou, well before the coronavirus pandemic: “Several times, people turned around when they saw me. As a medical student, I was doing an internship. When I approached patients, the patients didn’t even want me to touch them. You can’t even try to come close to them.”
He said the past and current experiences with discrimination made him want to leave China: “I am waiting for the border to open, then I’m leaving China, immediately.”
On March 29, Kyeyune Derrick, a Ugandan national, and his pregnant wife went to a hospital in Dongguan, Guangdong province, for a pregnancy checkup. They were denied entry at the gate. After the video of the incident went viral, authorities visited their home and took them to another hospital for an exam, but later repeatedly pressured them to make videos thanking the Chinese government and calling the refusal of medical service merely a “misunderstanding” due to “language difficulty.” Kyeyune told Human Right Watch: “I feel unsafe, betrayed and used. … Calling that a misunderstanding is a psychological torture to us.”
International Legal Standards
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which China ratified in 1981, obligates governments to “undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law.”
The United Nations expert committee that monitors state compliance with the ICERD has specifically called on governments to “[f]ully implement legislation and other measures already in place to ensure that people of African descent are not discriminated against.” Furthermore, government should “[r]eview, adopt and implement national strategies and programmes with a view to improving the situation of people of African descent and protecting them against discrimination by State agencies and public officials, as well as by any persons, group or organization.”
Africans in China Urge Stronger African Government Response
African residents in Guangzhou told Human Rights Watch that Chinese authorities started to lift restrictions on Africans in late April, but they believed the discrimination and racism would persist after the pandemic. Michael said:
You can’t just tell people one day that the blacks have the virus, and the second day that black people are not that bad. You can’t expect people to suddenly embrace that. Literally, people are running away from me on the street. It is so absurd. You have to laugh.
Even after the isolation, people will shout and bully us, and call us “virus.” Life will be different even after the pandemic.… I am very tired of being humiliated every day and African leaders keep quiet on racism going on in Guangzhou because they don’t want to spoil business they are doing together. The leaders give more value to business and close their eyes on humanity.
John F. (pseudonym), a Cameroonian national living in Wuhan, said the school where he taught had not paid him since the coronavirus outbreak but that he knew at least two white teachers at the school who continued to receive their monthly salary: “African teachers feel discriminated against. We don’t know what to do, we don’t know where to go to, we have no money, nobody wants to talk about it. We want African governments to take up the issues with the Chinese government.”
David, the businessman from Niger, said lack of action from African governments had left Africans in China vulnerable: “Our leaders don’t care about us. If the Chinese treat us like animals, we can’t be angry, because even our country leaders don’t care about us.”