In the wake of numerous videos, photos, and accounts of the maltreatment of African residents in the southern Chinese megacity, feelings on all sides have hardened.
It’s true that, to some extent, things have returned to normal.
Traders are back in the markets, African students are preparing to return to class, and with flights now starting to resume, some families are finally able to reunite.
But that sense of normalcy masks tension that lurks close to the surface.
To many Chinese, accusations of racism and discrimination against black people in Guangzhou seemed exaggerated.
In the weeks and months after those first accounts of African residents being evicted from their homes, the central government framed the issue as a “wedge driving attempt” by western governments and media. China, according to the party line, does not discriminate against anyone.
The Chinese government is in close communication with our African brothers to ensure proper handling of the individual case. China-African friendship will never be shaken by wedge-driving attempt.
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) April 12, 2020
That message filtered down to provincial and local levels, where authorities moved quickly to repair relations with African communities in the city, reassuring everyone that all of the messiness that happened back in April was simply due to “poor communication.”
For a lot of Chinese stakeholders, that settled the issue.
But for many Africans, a gnawing sense of betrayal still lingers.
After all, China presents itself as a “brother” to Africa, a fellow developing country who also suffered the horrors of European imperialism and that posits itself as a place devoid of the anti-black racial hierarchies that are deeply embedded in U.S. and European societies.
“Although China has no racist colonial past in Africa, the experience of Africans in Guangzhou during the Covid-19 outbreak there does not bode well for our long-term relationship”, says W. Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in the Mail & Guardian.
While Chinese officials expressed remorse to African elites, they didn’t speak directly to African publics. Chinese officials never said the simple words “we’re sorry for what happened.”
Of course, China’s an indispensable trading partner, a frequent diplomatic ally and a key source of investment.
Those are all important, but they’re all transactional. But when it comes to respect, or “face” (面子）as the Chinese would put it, there’s a growing perception, particularly among young people, that the Chinese really aren’t that different than other foreigners who came before them.
This article first appeared on The China Africa Project
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