Reactions to racial discrimination against the African community in Guangzhou

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

The African community in Guangzhou (China) suffered from increasing incidents of racial discrimination in April 2020. Many Africans were banned from certain locations as restaurants or hotels or even forced to leave their apartments (Tang, 2020; Burke, Akinwotu, & Kuo, 2020; Mules, 2020). Pictures of evicted Africans sleeping on streets were shared on social media platforms and started attracting considerable attention (Burke, Akinwotu, & Kuo, 2020). How did this come about and what were its implications?

Some Background information about the African community in Guangzhou

In the course of China’s Silk Road initiative, migration flows from Africa to China increased. The African diaspora in China grows continuously. As Guangzhou is a strategic place for international trade, the city attracted many African traders (Vandenberg, 2019). The African community is accordingly very large. There are officially about 14,000 people from African descent, the actual number might, however, be higher as there are many Africans without documentation (Human Rights Watch, 2020). African traders have been moving to Guangzhou since the 1990s (Vandenburg, 2019). The existence of the African community is, thus, not new to the Chinese population.

Corona fuelled pre-existing racial tensions

According to Human Rights Watch (2020), there have already been incidents of discriminatory practice in the past. Africans suffered, for instance, from unequal payment and employment discrimination (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Racial discrimination was also visible in advertisements and on television (Human Rights Watch, 2020). In 2016, for instance, a washing powder advertisement showed a Chinese woman who “shoves a black man into a washing machine only for him to emerge as a shiny, clean, Asian man” (Castillo, 2016). When the rate of COVID-19 infections increased in Guangzhou, “fear and misinformation” dominated the situation (Mules, 2020). Corona exacerbated pre-existing racial tensions and thus fuelled discriminatory practices (Mules, 2020).

Wide-spread international criticism

The implications of the increase in discriminatory practices in Guangzhou were far-reaching. Hashtags like “#ChinaMustExplain and #DeportRacistChinese” were increasingly shared on twitter (Albert, 2020). Politicians from various African countries started expressing their anger and criticizing the Chinese government (Albert, 2020; Burke, Akinwotu, & Kuo, 2020). Even the United States criticized the Chinese government. Two US diplomats also warned “African-Americans to stay away from the Guangzhou metropolitan area” (Mules, 2020). This reaction, however, is somewhat ironic as the US itself has a problem with structural racism (Sieren, 2020). Reactions also came from NGOs as Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch reminded China of having ratified the ICER (the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) in 1981 (Human Rights Watch, 2020). The reactions from African governments, however, seemed to have the most important effect.

China’s reaction

Chinese investments in Africa strengthened not only economic, but also social and political ties. The reactions from African governments represented a threat the Sino-African relationship. At first, the Chinese government was “denying any form of discrimination against ‘African brothers’” (Mules, 2020). However, China “moved quickly to deal with the initial accusations of discrimination” by ensuring African countries to “take immediate action to safeguard the legitimate rights of Africans concerned” (Burke, Akinwotu, & Kuo, 2020). Chinese authorities then made efforts to calm the situation my adopting new measures against discriminatory practices in Guangzhou (Mules, 2020). This shows that China is interested in maintaining a stable, well-functioning relationship with African countries. China’s engagement in Africa thus has implications for China’s domestic policy options in terms of the treatment of the African diaspora in China.


In conclusion, the cascade of reactions to the discriminatory practices in Guangzhou not only unveiled pre-existing racial tensions, but also showed that the increasing interconnectedness between China and Africa has implications for China’s domestic policy options with regard to the African diaspora.

black car
Photo by Sean Foley published on Unsplashed


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