How discrimination towards Africans and China’s surveillance state will reset a migration trend

Africans in Guangzhou, China
Africans in Guangzhou, China
Image: REUTERS/James Pomfret
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Over the last fortnight, an ongoing number of incidents have emerged through social media where black people have been mistreated, persecuted and evicted from their houses and hotel rooms (without prior notice which has effectively left many of them homeless). They’ve also been denied entrance into commercial venues (such as restaurants) in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province.

These incidents were triggered by Guangzhou’s local government decision to implement a strict surveillance and testing program and impose a 14-day quarantine on all African nationals, regardless of travel history or testing results, in an attempt to prevent a potential outbreak in this foreign community.

The deluge of evidence shared through social media prompted a strong response in Africa, where many governments summoned Chinese ambassadors to answer for the incidents. A great deal of the indignation on the African side was compounded by the fact that many in the continent saw Africa’s role in the early days of the pandemic as strongly supportive of China.

So, the images of Africans sleeping under bridges, families with children being evicted from their legally rented places of abode, as well as entrance and service denial to black people, were seen by many as Chinese racism and as a Chinese betrayal of African solidarity in these difficult times. Africa’s strong diplomatic response forced China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the issue. Unsurprisingly, China’s response was to deflect and spin the narrative as yet another situation distorted by Western media and fake news, and to point out that China does not discriminate against any foreigners.

A crucial element in the attempt to spin the narrative has been to amplify a couple of Covid-19 related incidents: the first around a Nigerian patient who after testing positive for the virus attempted to escape confinement and violently attacked medical personnel. The second incident relates to a group of Nigerians who, while infected, were roaming around the city and patronizing restaurants and shopping centers. China’s state media apparatus presented what is happening in Guangzhou as a response to these incidents.

Fear of foreigners

In 2014, in the context of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and to allay fears of a potential spread in China, Guangzhou’s government reported that some 16,000 Africans were legally residing in the city. Last week, in the midst of the controversy, local authorities reported that the whole African population, consisting of some 4,500 individuals, had been tested. A sharp decline in the population in only six years.

However, these figures describe the legal residents, not the overstayers. It is well known that visa overstayers account for a significant portion of the African population in the city. A great deal of the intense commercial activity that takes place between Guangzhou and places like Addis Ababa, Mombasa or Lagos is organized by them.

As in many other parts of the world, one of the paths that these illegal residents take is that of hiding (or “losing”) their passports. By doing so, they “voluntarily” become undocumented, and effectively set themselves down a highly precarious path where the main aim is to be untraceable if caught overstaying. Being untraceable, however, does not bode well in a pandemics scenario where asymptomatic individuals shed the virus, and where one of the main strategies is to “test and trace” in order to mitigate. Accordingly, Guangzhou’s longstanding overstayer population is cast in a new light in the wake of Covid-19. Local authorities fear an outbreak among the city’s foreign communities especially amongst a group of foreigners without clear, stable and documented identities. But the local authorities also fear a central government crackdown/purge if Guangzhou’s foreign community becomes a virus hotbed. The impossibility of fully managing and/or controlling the overstayer population exacerbates these pandemic-related fears and anxieties.

Covid-19 is proving to be a landmark in terms of the relation between technology, mass surveillance and mobility control in the country. It is not unthinkable that special mobility and access measures could remain in place even after Covid-19 ceases to be a threat. In a post-pandemics China, undocumented individuals will have a hard time trying to circumvent these new technological hurdles.

For example, without a legal abode, it is impossible to apply for Health Code, a government-backed system that assigns a color code to users indicating their health status, and determining their access to public spaces such as malls, subways and airports. In this context, African overstayers and the thriving commercial sectors in which they insert themselves may be among the first ‘victims’ of the new normal in China. This may well be the last nail in the coffin of an already declining African population in Guangzhou.

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