Diplomatic backlash follows alleged Chinese ill-treatment of Africans

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Huddled under a highway bridge with a small bag of belongings, a 19-year old Ivory Coast student desperately dials his few contacts in China.

The student arrived in Guangzhou last week after completing quarantine in another city, during a coronavirus clampdown some African countries and Africans in Guangzhou said unfairly targeted them.

“I need help. I don’t want to sleep on the streets again,” he said, asking not to be identified by name.

He came to China to study language but his university closed because of coronavirus. Hotels turned him away but he later found one.

Several African ambassadors wrote to China’s foreign minister last week, calling for “cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans”.

Ghana’s foreign minister called in China’s ambassador to convey government concern.

China’s foreign ministry said all foreigners are treated equally. It also said virus controls on Africans would be lifted, apart from confirmed cases and those with close contact.

“African friends will be treated fairly, justly and amicably in China,” the ministry said.

Foreigners in China say they faced suspicion as the country brought its own outbreak under control, only to see new cases brought from other countries. China barred entry to most foreigners and the majority of imported cases of the disease are Chinese nationals returning.

In Guangzhou, a hub for African traders, authorities said 111 Africans tested positive for the coronavirus, while 4 553 Africans had undergone testing since April 4, state media reported.

African residents said the black community was unfairly targeted for stricter checks.

“If they do this to all foreigners, it’s not a problem, but it’s only black people,” Soumana Toudou, a garment trader from Niger, told Reuters. He was undergoing his second 14-day quarantine because authorities did not believe he completed the first.

Decisions like this are made at local level and Reuters could not independently confirm this.

Scrutiny from authorities triggered hostility from Chinese residents, a student said.

“Selective testing set Guangzhou locals into panic, thinking black people carry the virus,” he said. He declined to be identified.

A Communist Party social worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters black people were made to enter a quarantine period.

Last week, authorities announced two neighbourhoods popular with Africans would be locked down to curb coronavirus after five Nigerians tested positive.

The US consulate general in Guangzhou advised African-Americans or those who believe Chinese officials suspect them of contact with African nationals, to avoid the city.

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China stepped up  engagement with Africa in recent years, with state-owned companies building infrastructure and signing deals across the continent.

Guangzhou was home to 13 652 Africans in 2019 and about 351 000 Africans entered the city last year, official figures show.

Videos on social media show what appear to be Africans sleeping on Guangzhou streets after being evicted from apartments. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

Property agents near Guangzhou’s Sanyuanli trading hub said evictions of foreigners, including Africans, contributed to a glut of empty apartments.

“For a white person, you can’t rent here now because of the virus, but you’ll be welcome in a few months,” said an agent, referring to when the pandemic passes. She declined to give her name.

“Black people, no one will accept them.”

A spokeswoman for McDonald’s China apologised after staff at a Guangzhou branch forced black customers to leave.

The fast-food chain temporarily closed the outlet while staff completed “diversity and inclusion” training, spokeswoman Regina Hui said in a statement.

Chinese authorities seem to be taking a more conciliatory stance. On Tuesday, media showed hazmat-clad personnel delivering food and flowers to Africans in home quarantine.

Chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was receptive, saying on Twitter he spoke to Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“He reassured me of measures underway in Guangzhou to improve the situation of Africans, in line with the strong and brotherly partnership between Africa and China.”