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In China's 'Little Africa,' a struggle to get back to business after lockdown

Mohammed has spent several weeks sleeping in his cramped trading booth in one of Guangzhou's export centres after being kicked out of his apartment and forced into quarantine in April, but the Tanzanian trader says he is content to be in China. As Africans in the Chinese metropolis were targeted that month in a coronavirus clampdown that sparked a diplomatic backlash, Guangzhou's Xiaobei neighbourhood - known as "Little Africa" - went into lockdown.

Reuters | Beijing | Updated: 26-06-2020 10:12 IST | Created: 26-06-2020 09:31 IST
In China's 'Little Africa,' a struggle to get back to business after lockdown
Representative image Image Credit: ANI

Mohammed has spent several weeks sleeping in his cramped trading booth in one of Guangzhou's export centers after being kicked out of his apartment and forced into quarantine in April, but the Tanzanian trader says he is content to be in China.

As Africans in the Chinese metropolis were targeted that month in a coronavirus clampdown that sparked a diplomatic backlash, Guangzhou's Xiaobei neighborhood known as "Little Africa" went into lockdown. Like many in the community, including those who were evicted from their dwellings, Mohammed said he is trying to return to normal life now that the lockdown has eased.

"It happened, it was bad, but I just want to move on," said Mohammed, who trades garments and shoes and like most people Reuters interviewed did not want to provide his full name given the sensitivity of the situation. Guangzhou is the hub for Africans engaged in trade in China, often small-scale business owners dealing in garments and other consumer goods, and is also a center for students from the continent.

While Black Africans living in China say they have long experienced discrimination, several said the targeting of their community during the pandemic was deeply unsettling. When five Nigerians tested positive for coronavirus in April after China had shut its borders to foreigners, local government units in Guangzhou singled out Africans for mandatory tests and quarantines, the U.S. consulate in the city said.

Several African countries complained, and the U.S. consulate advised African-Americans to avoid the city. The outcry prompted a meeting between China's foreign ministry, which denied discrimination, and more than 20 African ambassadors and representatives. The situation eased and the government encouraged foreigners to report instances of discrimination to a 24-hour support hotline. McDonald's apologized after staff at a Guangzhou branch forced Black customers to leave.

'JUST GUESTS' All the 20 Africans Reuters spoke with in Guangzhou said they were strongly supportive of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and elsewhere. Around half said that similar protests were not necessary for China, but six said they would protest if they felt it were possible.

"This is a Communist country and we are just guests here, they would not let us protest," said Chris, a Nigerian trader. With 4,553 registered Africans in Guangzhou in April, the population is one-third its level a year ago, official figures show. About 351,000 Africans entered the city from abroad last year, often traders on short-term visits, but that traffic has almost come to a halt with coronavirus-induced travel bans.

Mercy, a Nigerian working for a small logistics company, said business is one-quarter its normal level. "There are fewer people in town, and there are fewer flights to Africa, so freight prices are too high," she said from her office in a half-lit building where several hair-braiding shops and salons that served the African community were shuttered.

Several traders, however, said they were staying put in China because the current situation means fewer competitors and an advantage when freight fully resumes. "China is good," said Paur, a Nigerian trader. "You cannot find African people making these," he said, gesturing towards bags of clothes in his booth near Xiaobei.

He said he is still resentful after being evicted from his home in April and sleeping on the streets for four days but has no plans to leave. "The sad thing I realized is that they see me and will always think of the virus," said Haman, a student from Niger who said he plans to return home after seven years in China once his course finishes next month.

Many of the Black Africans in the city said they were resigned to racism being part of life outside of Africa. "If you are Black and you hold an African passport you cannot escape racism, so it doesn't matter wherever you go," said Aubrey Tesembatare, a Zimbabwean who works in banking in Guangzhou.


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