A protest letter prepared by the African Group of Ambassadors in Beijing has cast a disturbing spotlight on how Africans are treated in China. Presented to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Communist Party, the letter details concerns about reports of degrading treatment of Africans in the city of Guangzhou, including forced eviction of African nationals from their hotels and apartments, selective testing of African students, arbitrary quarantines, illegal seizure of passports and threats of withdrawal of visas.
If not addressed, these reports threaten not only to damage relations between China and the African continent, they also risk hurting China’s assiduously cultivated global image. They could also fuel a backlash against China and Chinese interests on the continent. The Chinese government has stated that it is not the country’s policy to discriminate against Africans. That may be the case, but it does not dispel the perceptions many Africans harbour about the country, which will be compounded by the latest incidents in Guangzhou.
A number of public opinion surveys of African perceptions of China have revealed that although Africans believe that their countries have benefited from the relationship with China – through, for example, expanded trade and investment, and infrastructure development – they have also pointed to negative experiences, which include the country’s labour and environmental practices, opaque procurement processes, marginalisation of local firms, use of Chinese labour, low quality of products, co-option of local political and military elites, and encouragement of corruption.
Tied to this is a pervasive perception that China is the “new colonial power” in Africa, extracting resources for its own benefit with little value-addition or return for Africa.
Zambia provides a clear example of Africa’s unpleasant experience with China. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch drew attention to persistently abusive health, safety and labour conditions at Chinese-owned mines, which violated national and international standards.
This followed the charging the previous year of two Chinese supervisors at Collum coal mine with attempted murder following the shooting of 13 miners in a pay dispute. Significantly, former Zambian president Michael Sata contested and won the highest office in the 2011 elections campaigning on an anti-China ticket.
China is mindful of how it is perceived abroad and, as part of its Grand Strategy, has sought to pursue its strategic interests through co-option, cooperation, and inducements. This is what President Xi Jinping has described as “soft power with Chinese characteristics.” Beijing’s Grand Strategy is designed to restore the country as a great power through growing its economy, asserting its regional and global leadership, and expanding its financial reach beyond its borders.
Africa is vital to the realisation of China’s goals and Beijing has used its nascent soft power to cultivate African countries through engaging governments, the private sector, professional bodies and civil society with a view to influencing policymaking. China’s projection of soft power in Africa has also manifested in the country’s funding (to the tune of $200-million) of the construction of the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, creation of Confucius institutes, investment in the BRICS Bank, and granting of scholarships to students and government leaders.
Although significant, these soft power initiatives cannot disguise the underlying, yet unspoken, tensions in relations between China and the African continent. The denigrating experience suffered by Africans in China could aggravate negative sentiments on the continent against China. China has prided itself of being Africa’s true friend, and has always boasted that, unlike Western countries, it has never colonised the continent. Yet the mistreatment of Africans by the Chinese has debunked this cloak. It has revealed Chinese society as being intolerant of foreigners, and African immigrants in particular. This is especially rife in Guangzhou, which reportedly hosts nearly 300,000 Africans.
The inhumane treatment of African immigrants in China lends weight to longstanding criticisms of the country’s appalling human rights record and raises questions about how China will exercise its global leadership when it becomes a fully-fledged superpower.
Despite the relationship between Africa and China being disproportionately skewed in favour of the latter, there are several aspects of China’s political, social, and economic structure that make the country a logical partner for Africa’s development. These include the state-led developmental model, pro-poor economic policies, and comparable cultural norms. Bilateral ties have grown significantly in recent decades and are typified by strong political, diplomatic and economic engagements.
In 2009, China replaced the US as Africa’s largest trade partner. China enjoys untrammeled access to African markets for its exports, while it has also counted on the unstinting support of several African countries for its diplomatic goals in international fora such as the United Nations Security Council. For their part, African nations have benefited from sourcing much-needed capital from China, preferential access to the world’s largest market, investment in infrastructure development, and debt relief.
The harassment and stigmatisation of Africans in China threatens to jeopardise the burgeoning two-way relations. Many African countries have welcomed the Chinese with open arms. It is not just the large state-owned enterprises that are sprawling across the continent, but also Chinese traders, micro-enterprises, informal businesses, and individuals. They are not treated the way Africans are victimised in China. China has previously suffered a century of humiliation at the hands of Britain, Japan, and other Western countries, so it is reasonable to expect the country to treat foreign nationals with respect and empathy.
At the Davos summit in 2017, President Xi gave a widely acclaimed speech that touted China as a champion of globalisation and an open global order in the face of growing isolationism and nationalistic retreat of the US and other Western countries. Xi also punted China’s values and models as alternatives to Western norms, although it is not clear what kind of norms and ideas the country seeks to project to the world. Given that there is very little that the world knows about China’s intellectual and normative commitments on human rights, it can be surmised that these can only be observed from how the country treats its citizens, immigrant communities and its neighbours.
As China rises as a global power, it needs to act as a responsible actor that demonstrates humanistic values. And African leaders must stand up to China and enjoin the country to exercise a greater sense of responsibility as a fledgling world power. DM
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