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The 'Little Africa' district in Guangzhou, the capital of southern China's Guangdong province, on March 2, 2018. Africans in southern China's largest city say they have become targets of suspicion and subjected to forced evictions, arbitrary quarantines and mass coronavirus testing as the country steps up its fight against imported infections.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

African governments are protesting against the inhumane treatment of Africans in China who have been evicted from their homes, barred from restaurants and forced to sleep in the streets under Chinese anti-virus measures.

The incidents, documented in videos and eyewitness accounts that circulated widely this weekend, have been condemned by some African diplomats as evidence of “racial discrimination” and “unfair” treatment.

The video clips showed a number of evicted Africans sleeping under a bridge in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, an African shoved against a wall by a policeman, another African locked into his home and told to call the government if he wants water, and a fast-food restaurant with a laminated notice reading: “Black people are not allowed to enter.”

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The backlash is threatening to inflict heavy damage on China’s reputation in Africa, reversing the rising influence that Beijing had gained during weeks of positive publicity for its donations of millions of masks and other medical equipment to African countries to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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For years, Africa has been a key focus for Chinese diplomacy and investment, especially as the United States lost influence in the continent, but the controversy over the treatment of African migrants will jeopardize those efforts.

“Kenyans in China: Rescue Us from Hell,” said a huge front-page headline this weekend in The Nation, one of Kenya’s biggest daily newspapers.

The U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, in a security alert on Saturday, said the local police had “ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin.”

African-Americans have also reported that some businesses and hotels are refusing to do business with them, the alert said.

On Sunday night, the Chinese Foreign Ministry tried to placate the African governments by promising to “attach great importance” to their concerns and to improve the “working method” of officials in Guangzhou.

A statement by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said the local authorities will provide health services “without differentiation” and will designate hotels for foreigners who need medical observation. They will also “reject all racist and discriminatory remarks,” the statement said.

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“African friends can count on getting fair, just, cordial and friendly reception in China,” it said. “The Foreign Ministry will stay in close communication with the Guangdong authorities and continue responding to the African side’s reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals.” (Guangzhou is located in Guangdong province in southern China.)

Chinese authorities, after quelling the original COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan, have been focusing on cases suspected of being imported by travellers from abroad. In the city of Guangzhou, a major trading hub with a large African community, Chinese media said five Nigerians broke a mandatory quarantine and visited restaurants and other public places, forcing nearly 2,000 people to be tested for the virus or placed under quarantine. The reports led to widespread public anger and a perception that African migrants were a threat.

China has reported 983 imported cases of the virus so far, but it has acknowledged that about 90 per cent of the cases are Chinese citizens returning from abroad.

African diplomats in Beijing, in a protest note on the weekend, complained of “stigmatization and discrimination” suffered by Africans in Guangzhou, who have reported being evicted from their apartments or hotels in the middle of the night, being threatened with arrest or deportation, or forcefully subjected to coronavirus testing.

“The Group of African Ambassadors in Beijing immediately demands the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans,” the note said.

The governments of several countries – including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda – summoned Chinese ambassadors to receive formal protests about the incidents, sometimes asking the ambassadors to watch videos of the incidents.

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The governments, along with the African Union, expressed their “extreme concern” at the alleged mistreatment of Africans in China.

Ghana’s Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey issued a statement in which she condemned the “inhumane treatment” and “racial discrimination” suffered by Ghanaians and other Africans in China, and demanded that the Chinese government “bring their officials to order.”

The Kenyan government complained of “unfair responses” against Africans in Guangzhou, while the Ugandan government alleged that its citizens had suffered “harassment and mistreatment.”

The South African government, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, said it was “deeply concerned” about the reported ill-treatment of Africans.

It said it welcomed the decision by the AU Commission’s chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to summon the Chinese ambassador in Ethiopia to seek an explanation.

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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