Posted on April 28, 2020

How China Shut Down African Protests over Racial Discrimination in Guangzhou

David Gilbert, Vice, April 26, 2020

On April 10, Femi Gbajabiamila, the speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria, summoned the Chinese Ambassador Zhou Pingjian to a meeting in Abuja.

The purpose? To give him a dressing-down over the racist treatment of Africans during the coronavirus pandemic in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. It was an unprecedented move for an African politician, usually cast in a subservient role to China, which has become the continent’s biggest donor and investor. But Gbajabiamila wanted the world to see it, so he posted a video of the meeting on Twitter.

The video shows Gbajabiamila dominating the meeting, and showing the Chinese ambassador viral video clips of Chinese authorities discriminating against the sizable African population in Guangzhou, evicting them from their homes, and forcing them into quarantine at their own cost even. {snip}

Africans across the continent saw the meeting as a turning point in the history of China-Africa relations, and a rallying cry for all of Africa.

But it didn’t last. Within days, Beijing’s powerful propaganda machine had clicked into gear and that sense of hope was quickly erased, replaced with the familiar sense that Africa’s leaders were simply falling in line with China’s efforts to whitewash the controversy.

It all began with viral videos showing landlords evicting African tenants, bars, restaurants and stores refusing entry and even hospitals refusing to treat Africans. The viral videos quickly spread on social media in Africa and sparked a rare uprising against China.

“The anger is still palpable,” Arnold Tsunga, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists, told VICE News. “The reactions from the African Union and Chinese leaders are being seen as merely diplomatic reactions, a containment and damage control strategy. People want to see more than diplomatic language but actual measurable action.”


Diplomats, ministers, and officials from across the continent — including the African Union — lashed out at Beijing over reports and videos, some of which showed Africans physically attacked by Chinese nationals. {snip}


On social media and messaging apps, millions of ordinary citizens felt for the first time like their leaders were finally representing them. For the millions of people who felt African governments have continually failed to stand up to their Chinese counterparts, they felt hopeful that this marked a turning point.


China, initially blindsided by the reaction from Africa, had dismissed the situation as a “misunderstanding.” When that didn’t work, the government rolled out their big guns, sending their ambassadors in Africa to foreign ministries across the continent to quell the dissent and assure the leaders that everything was fine.

At the same time, back in China, a meeting of 20 African envoys was convened to convey a similar message. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi added his weight to the PR push by calling the African Union leadership to discuss the issue.

Then Beijing claimed that it was in fact all Washington’s fault for hyping up the situation as part of its effort to disrupt the relationship between Africa and China.

Within hours, the sense of outrage and revolt coming from Africa’s leaders had changed dramatically.

“However unfortunate this situation has been, we shouldn’t allow it to be used to drive a wedge between Africa and China and out of this problem, if properly managed, we can have a stronger relationship with China,” Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Kwesi Quartey, told China’s state-run English language TV station CGTN.

Beijing has built deep relationships with governments and rulers across the continent as well as close links to much of the main media organizations in Africa. This allows them to push the narratives they want to tell without much push back.


Africa is far-and-away China’s biggest trading partner and has built road, rail and telecommunications networks across the continent for the last two decades. African governments also owe a huge amount of debt to the Chinese government.


While China has spoken about the relationship being one of equals, that is clearly not the case.