By IKENNA EMEWU
So much have been said, reported, watched, heard and read about the skirmishes in Guangzhou involving Chinese authorities and their enforcement of the rules and order for the control of the spread of the coronavirus in the city of Guangzhou.
The city has the reputation of housing most Africans in China and reports have it that some 320,000 Africans live in or enter China through the large commercial city.
From many perspectives, including frenzy and panic, the incident has been relayed to the reading netizens audience worldwide and each reader walking away with personal interpretations.
In the melee, Afri-China Media Centre (ACMC) decided to reach out to the parties in the drama from the various divides and possibly tell the full story for the first time and leave the conclusion to our readers. But most of all, a balanced report would help to mend the cracks and move on again in peaceful coexistence.
Of the whole incident One of the first Chinese to give us an account after hearing and reading from African sources was Mr. Luo Jun, the Deputy Director General of the Foreign Affairs office of the Guangdong Province which Guangzhou is its capital city.
He recalled in his written response that â€œGuangzhou is still faced with major risks arising from imported COVID-19 cases. On April 5, 2020, Yuexiu and Baiyun Districts of the city were elevated to medium-risk areas. There is still the risk of transmission caused by scattered locally transmitted and imported cases.
To reduce the risk of transmission, protect lives and health of all people including foreigners, ensure public security in Guangzhou, and to realize the objective of early detection, early reporting, early isolation and early treatment , the city carried out a community health screening and monitoring scheme.
Tracing African covid-19 cases
Under this scheme, on April 9 Liwan District found eight African nationals straying in a place outside a clothing and shoes market, and learnt that they didn’t have places to stay in. At around 7.30 pm, staff from Liwan convinced them to get on the district’s van to designated hotel by the authorities called Maohua Hotel. They were calm and cooperative in providing their information. When the van arrived in the second place where three more people in similar conditions were found, the three persons were emotional but got on the van after staffers’ persuasion. There were eleven African nationals on board. One of them told others to listen to him and not to check in at the hotel. Liwan staff on board and an English interpreter talked to him and asked him to calm down. He made a phone call and in the meantime kept asking the interpreter to repeat the address of Maohua and raised different questions which got answered.
The group refused to get off the van when they arrived at the hotel at 9.30 pm. The interpreter explained to them the importance of centralized medical observation, policies on people entering the province, and tried to calm them down. One from the group said that he had to take down information of every one of the group before getting off and checking in. Staff in field agreed.
They checked in one by one, handing their passports to hotel staff for check-in. When five finished checking-in at 10.30 pm, with three in rooms and two still at the lobby, a man stormed in and stopped others from checking in. He requested the five persons who checked in to gather at the hotel entrance quickly and that their passports be returned. He claimed to be the Acting Consul General of Nigeria in Guangzhou. An assistant escorted him.
Facing that, staff and officials on field had a discussion and retrieved the passports which were being used for check-in, explaining that it was a routine for check-in and passports would be returned after the procedure. He suddenly flew into more rage and seized passports from working staff. He rejected further communication and asked for the presence of foreign affairs office. Another African man appeared and joined the group when ACG was shouting at local staff.
Mr. Liu Baochun, Director General of Guangzhou Foreign Affairs Office arrived at 10.30 pm and identified the man as Mr. Lawal Dayo Razaq, Acting Consul General of Nigeria in Guangzhou. ACG Razaq questioned DG Liu the decision to quarantine African people, blaming that local staff took Nigerian people from their homes and labeling it as harassment and discrimination.
DG Liu listened patiently and explained that the government treated Chinese and foreigners equally. With the number of local confirmed cases dropping, there was an increase of imported cases, as a responsible move, Guangzhou decided to test foreigners in the city and did find certain number of foreign cases. It was to protect foreigners from the virus. Schools were about to reopen and the city had the responsibility to ensure a good environment. Chinese people made a lot of sacrifices, with joint efforts from both China and foreigners. Chinese people coming back to the province form Hubei were also required to quarantine for 14 days.
ACG Razaq wasn’t convinced, saying the exercise was discrimination. He proposed lockdown of the whole city with everyone both Chinese and foreigners staying at home and no activities for 14 days. He requested that his nationals should go home and refused DG Liu’s request to talk to Nigerian people in field to check whether they had places to go, saying that DG Liu could only talk to him. When DG Liu agreed to let them go, ACG Lawal refused and pointing at his watch saying it was too late to go home.
DG Liu explained that some people didn’t have places to go and hope they can stay at the hotel for one night. Local government helped negotiate for discounted charges for hotel. There were 13 African people in addition to two Consulate officials.
DG Liu explained and negotiated, at 1.30 am after which ACG Lawal agreed to let the 13 people stay at Maohua hotel for only one night, and passports should be kept in their possession.
After Guangzhou Foreign Affairs Office officials left, ACG Lawal asked for the English interpreter’s company in checking the hotel rooms. The English interpreter was a young lady and it was her first time to the hotel, so she asked for the presence of one hotel staffers, a request that was rejected by Lawal.
When they arrived on the floor where the 13 persons were lodged, the ACG found some protective equipment and daily necessities on the chair at the entrance of each room and was raged. He kicked off the supplies and accused local authority of treating his people as criminals. Interpreter was shocked and scared, but managed to explain that all people living there were treated equally, and it was for the sake of health and safety.
Eventually, 10 of the 13 persons checked into the hotel had Nigerian passports, two Cote d’Ivoire nationals and one Benin Republic citizen.
As of 24:00 April 18, there were 16 confirmed cases covid-19 who are Nigerians and 61 asymptomatic cases of Nigerians in Guangdong Province. Total number is 77.
First, Acting Consul General Lawal wasn’t right in stating that local staff had no right in handling the passports of Nigerians.
According to Security Administration Punishment Act in China, when an officer of a public security organ is dealing with public security cases, he may detain objects that could be used as evidence of the case.
This incident falls within the scope of social security management work of COVID-19 prevention and control.
Even in Nigeria, in Item 2, Article 3 of the Immigration Act, an immigration officer may examine according, and may detain for such time as he thinks proper for the purposes of examination (not exceeding seven days), any document produced pursuant to or found on a search under this section.
So the ACG’s argument won’t stand on the allegation of error on the part of the Chinese authorities seizure of passports, even though they didn’t.
Secondly, it was an irresponsible move to stop people from cooperating with control and prevention work of COVID-19.
A consulate official was supposed to explain to his nationals about local policies and measures of COVID-19 containment efforts, dispel their worries, and ask for their cooperation, rather than misleading them into refusing to work with local staff.
Thirdly, ACG’s seemingly protective act of his nationals will hurt their health instead.
Liwan District was proved right to ask these people to designated hotel. Taking them to hotel where there were medical staff and providing separate rooms for them is a way of preventing gathering and identifying potential patients who will get treated later. As a responsible city, Guangzhou was doing its best to ensure health of all people living in the city, Chinese and foreigners alike.
Two Nigerians speak
It was tougher getting Nigerians to talk to us as the two contacts we had were not sure why they were being interviewed. It was on the last day of gathering this information we found out that one was actually in isolation in one of the facilities of the government.
Also, the two had applied for evacuation by the Nigerian government and separately feared an interview may jeopardise their chances of leaving China through the assistance of the Consulate. They also expressed the concern that from the experiences of law enforcement that brought them to where they were and not yet sure of their health status since they had not completed the 14 days quarantine to be issued a paper for a clean bill of health or otherwise if they test positive, they were not in a
After assurances of safeguarding their interest and identity, one of them later sent a written account of what he encountered via email two days after.
But in a very brief chat with him on voice call, he had admitted in line with the information we had that some 300 Nigerians had applied to be evacuated. We heard the figure was a little less than 300, but he confirmed that since his name is also on the list, he saw a number far more than 300.
Responding to our question on reason that large number wanted to exit China and how harsh the situation from the government had been, he said most of the people on the list have issues with the legality of their stay in the country as their immigration documents were either irregular from the beginning or had expired for those that entered the country with valid documents and had not renewed their stay. He said the renewed onslaught occasioned by the coronavirus control measures has made it much more difficult to even retain their rented apartments or live in hotels. With the tougher measures to pick out people from places who have not got clean health certification, living in China presents a lot of uncertainties that make them prefer to return home. And to some of them, the opportunity of evacuation is long awaited and was embraced to create an easier channel for them to leave the country where they had been somehow stuck.
Another good percentage of the applicants for evacuation outside the stranded Nigerians are genuine businesspeople who arrived China on business and got caught up in the lockdown. They came with the right immigration documents but the unexpected situation they got into made them live in hotels longer than necessary and stretched their budget even when there are no businesses open to do any business or return to Nigeria due to the global travel restrictions.
His narration partly agreed with an earlier version by a Nigerian that circulated on the social media on how the clampdown started after a spot in the city’s Yuexiu district populated heavily by Africans was detected as hotspot for the spread of coronavirus infection and how many people were rounded up for testing after which some were found positive. But those that tested negative were given certification to go about their businesses.
On April 3, two other sources had earlier confirmed, including one of the leaders of the Nigerian community that a Nigerian who tested positive and undergoing treatment in hospital flew into rage and allegedly assaulted a Chinese medical officer even with a bite to her face and making attempt to force his way out of the hospital. This incident angered them and some citizens found that an avenue to racially balkanize and victimize other Africans in the city, even those that committed no offence.
Luo Jun, the Deputy Director General admitted the office got reports and complaints of racist attacks and victimizations, but said it was not a government ordered position and therefore since such behaviours exist everywhere, they should not be visited on the government of China. To show their stand against it, he said all reported cases by either individuals, companies and others met sanctions. For instance, we asked him about the particular case where a MacDonald Restaurant in Guangzhou posted a sign at the entrance that blacks were not allowed in which he admitted he was aware of and was brought to the attention of the city office. He said the enforcement team invited owners of the restaurant and ordered that the sign be removed and apology tendered for embarrassing the government. He said the council recommended sanctions against the MacDonald outlet but although he is not in the discipline team was sure the team wonâ€™t fail to carry out sanctions already decreed against the culprit restaurant.
Luo said the city authorities regret any discrimination allegations and asked for the understanding of Africans insisting that whatever racism on display was an individual behaviour. He cited an instance where the Sina Weibo social media platform, China’s equivalent of the tweeter blocked over 180 accounts of Chinese users that sent racial massages against Africans and the black people.
Through his office, he said citizens, especially hotel and apartment owners are reached and constantly sensitized on the need to avoid discriminatory services and also the consequences if caught. He said the private property owners have been better at compliance while its tougher with companies due to management policies over payments that make them cold about admitting any client that would likely be in default due to financial incapacity but not based on racial segregation or bias.
According to him, right now, he said there are measures in place to assist foreigners with low liquidity to get cheaper hotels and homes. Some hours after our online interview, we read a message he sent a Nigerian on wechat congratulating him on the completion of his quarantine and his clean health status. But the man raised an issue with him about his financial inability, to which he directed him to an office of the Guangdong Province where he would get assistance in cheaper services, asking him if he wanted to be in the Liwan district of Guangzhou or at Dongguan, an industrial town very close to Guangzhou on the highway to Shenzhen. The Nigerian replied him that he preferred to be in Liwan and he asked him to proceed there and get back to him if he had any issues.
However, no matter the insistence of no policy of discrimination, the Chinese authorities in the city would not give any ready answer to why Africans in mixed race families were isolated for covid-19 tests. There were reported instances where some Chinese wives of African men were left out of test while the African husbands were singled out for test.
Eviction from homes, hotels
Regarding the eviction from homes, most of them arose from the immigration issues and when it started, it was a hotel where some Africans that had arrived China and were caught up in the lockdown had completed their quarantine and insisted on leaving on the last day before the authorities that put them there arrived. Because they stepped out contrary to the instruction of waiting for the officers to come and certify them fit, the same officers insisted there was violation and since they mixed with the outsiders, they weren’t sure of their fitness and must complete another 14 days. The altercation made them insist they won’t take another 14 days at which point the authorities instructed the hotel management not to allow them back in.
On the 6th of April 2020, I went to my (Nigerian) consulate office to see how or when we would go back after filling the form for evacuation online. I was opportune to get the head of Consular’s phone number. On my way back to find a place to sleep because I didn’t have a place to stay due to what happened, the city policemen pulled up beside me and took three of us who were walking along the road into a bus where other blacks were already inside and took us to a hotel. I really do not know what they wanted from us so I called my consulate and sent the hotel address. The Head of Consul came later in response to my call and was angry why we were taken away without the government informing the Nigeria Consulate.
When the Consulate officer I called arrived, we reported that our passports were taken and handed over to the hotel management at the reception at the point of admitting us to stay at the hotel. We told him the passports were given to the hotel receptionist for booking of room where we would be isolated. As he asked for our passports, they were shown to him and he took them back from the hotel reception.
In the whole of this, I later learnt that the misunderstanding between the people whose passports were taken and the Chinese officials started at the point that we were not clear about reason for taking our passports which was part of the process for booking us into the hotel. So because we reported that our passports were seized, the consulate chief acted based on the information. Although the Chinese officials had an English interpreter, but there was the gap in communication, and because we were not sufficiently informed, we acted on our understanding of what we felt was going on.
The tension came from our apprehension that we being checked into the hotel was to quarantine us coupled with pst experiences of some days earlier.
Because most the officers are not English speaking persons, it was difficult for them to say why they took our passports.
So the whole issue was misunderstood because of communication barrier between the Chinese officials and our people who were involved.
Summoning a full house
To the online chatroom for detailed responses, Luo brought:
Amb. Liu Biwei
Vice President China Public Diplomacy Association
Amb. Kuang Weilin, former head of Chinese mission to the African Union
Mr. Luo Jun, Deputy Director General, Guangdong Foreign Affairs Office
Mr. Li Tiegang, epidemiologist and member of the Guangdong covid-19 prevention and control team who was a member of the Chinese medical team in Ghana that worked at the Ebola outbreak intervention in 2014
Mr. Doucoure Abdoulaye, president of Mali-China Business Council
Mr. Virginio Bibang Ndong, from Equatorial Guinea and medical student in Guangzhou Southern Medical University
Five African journalists, including yours sincerely, were on this team chat and asked a lot of questions on the issues involved. The other journalists were from Kenya, Uganda and Burkina Faso.Â
Two hours on the online chatroom
Luo Jun had worked in the Chinese foreign mission in Abuja at the visa office before his present appointment and relates somehow with the Nigerian or African situation in the city. Our questions made him summon the team and schedule a meeting online to discuss the issues. After his side of the story as a participant at the city where the issues arose, he said they were questions that he was not the right person to answer and therefore the need to marshal up a team. We had to wait from Monday till Thursday to get the full information.
In a written statement by the Director General of the Foreign office, Liu Baochun made available to us, he stated in reaction to allegations of bias against Africans that: â€˜China and Guangdong highly value the traditional friendship between China and Africa. Chinese people and African people are brothers who can go through thick and thin together. Guangzhouâ€™s prevention measures never aim at any discrimination against African people or turning them away. They only aim at early detection of the disease so that the source of infection could be controlled on the earliest date. Those improper behaviors of some individuals are by no means universal. Instead, they are just individual cases.
Guangdong and Guangzhou have already taken measures, including establishing communication mechanism between governments and consulates general so as to promptly brief on our latest epidemic control policies and measures, address the reasonable requests of African nationals in Guangdong concerning epidemic prevention, and protect their legitimate rights and interests.
As of 24:00 on April 22, Guangdong had reported 64 confirmed cases of foreigners, including 35 Africans. There were 167 cases of asymptomatic infections, including 142 Africans.”
Other Africans speak
Ugandan journalist, Mubarak Mugabo, who had also lived in China and now back home said he is also in touch with Ugandans in Guangzhou, and also got a lot information from them of maltreatment and racist attacks. He noted that part of the issues that started the misunderstanding is that many of the Ugandans complained that the hotels chosen by the authorities for their quarantine were expensive and beyond their reach to pay. As a result, they could not stay there that long and revolt ensued because if some of them manage to pay, they would be stranded after the 14 days quarantine. But after the complaints by African ambassadors to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and interventions over payment by the government of China, the tension calmed.
Regarding racism, Mugabo said â€œthat is a global thing and you know countries don’t decree segregation or racism, but the people live with it, even in our countries there are biases of one ethnic group against the other. It wouldn’t convince anybody if the Guangzhou authorities deny that it happened because the individuals are into it and showed it even on their social media posts and comments. But you also know it is difficult to hold that against the government.
What happened should be a lesson to China especially that while it pursues good diplomatic relationship with the entire Africa, the individual citizens should be educated on how harmful their biases could be to the larger efforts and policies of the country before the outer world. Here in Africa we should do the same to our citizens because there are also our people that have deep biases against the Chinese in the countries. Racism is a destroyer the world and entire humanity should collectively fight against.”
Ndong, the Equatorial Guinean medical student however said he lives on campus and was not involved in the fracas but had his ears filled with what happened. On whether the situations have improved after the diplomatic interventions, he said it is too early to say until the pandemic lockdown is over and normal life returns.
In his intervention, Abdoulaye, the Malian businessman admitted there were issues that frayed nerves between the host community and the Africans but believes it was mainly from the tension coming from the covid-19 pandemic. He is appreciative of the diplomatic interventions from his country; and for the results? It’s too early to assess until the lockdown eases and life returns to normal. But he is sure the old friendly relationship in the city between the natives and Africans would be revived.
Nigeria Foreign Ministry speaks
To get a complete report, it was necessary to talk to the Nigerian Consulate in Guangzhou, especially the Acting Consul General, Mr. Razaq Lawal who was in the middle of it for his countrymen. But Lawal could not bulge. To our inquiry to speak with him, he simply replied: “Good evening from China. Many thanks for the support always. Please and please you can invite the Hon. Minister for Foreign Affairs for the interview on the matter. I am just an obedient servant. Best regards.”
So we had to turn to Abuja to clear the issues. The spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Ferdinand Nwonye picked his call at the first ring and gave the position of the ministry.
Regarding the cases of covid-19 positive patients in Guangzhou he said the ministry is aware, but what he couldn’t ascertain is the number, as according to him a lot of numbers are pushed out to the public. But even from the official figures, it keeps changing with every test result. Nwonye also confirmed some 300 Nigerians in China, including some that have overstayed have applied to the ministry to be evacuated. He said such compilations are going on in many other countries.
I don’t know if you heard the case of two Nigerian covid-19 patients who were hospitalized and one of them allegedly involved in assault of a health officer. For instance it happened in Nigeria and a Chinese did that to a Nigerian lady nurse, would Nigerians feel happy about it? And if eventually the Chinese authorities decide to prosecute such act, would they be wrong?
The spokesman assured that after the discussions between the two sides which are still ongoing on how to make peace return, that it will be difficult to conclude there is improvement because every country is at war over the coronavirus pandemic. It is when the war is over that normalcy returns. The pandemic itself is an abnormal situation and many countries find diverse ways to tackle it, including China and Nigeria and I have to admit some of the measures would involve infringing on rights though temporarily until the challenge is taken care of. So we have to bear with certain things now and get out of the crises before we return to normal life, it is then we will know if there is a difference, and let’s not forget that before this pandemic outbreak, we didn’t get reports from our people in that city alleging maltreatments.
The pandemic itself is an abnormal situation and many countries find diverse ways to tackle it, including China and Nigeria and I have to admit some of the measures would involve infringing on rights though temporarily until the challenge is taken care of. So we have to bear with certain things now and get out of the crises before we return to normal life,
Every country and people are under pressure but so far, the two countries “ Nigeria and China don’t have issues that would lead to such a big misunderstanding and we are handling it the best we can bearing in mind the comfort and interest of our citizens. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the government of Nigeria have always vowed their resolve and obligation to protect the interest of all Nigerians everywhere and that still remains.”
Emewu is the editor in chief of Afri-China Media Centre