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Asian Ethnicity

ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/caet20

Africans in post-COVID-19 pandemic China: is


there a future for China’s ‘new minority’?

Roberto Castillo & Padmore Adusei Amoah

To cite this article: Roberto Castillo & Padmore Adusei Amoah (2020): Africans in post-
COVID-19 pandemic China: is there a future for China’s ‘new minority’?, Asian Ethnicity, DOI:
10.1080/14631369.2020.1773760

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14631369.2020.1773760

Published online: 01 Jun 2020.

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ASIAN ETHNICITY
https://doi.org/10.1080/14631369.2020.1773760

ARTICLE

Africans in post-COVID-19 pandemic China: is there a future


for China’s ‘new minority’?
Roberto Castilloa and Padmore Adusei Amoah b

a
Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong; bSchool of Graduate Studies;
Asia Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies, and Centre for Social Policy and Social Change, Lingnan University,
Tuen Mun, Hong Kong

ABSTRACT ARTICLE HISTORY


In this article, we reflect on critical questions relating to the future Received 17 May 2020
of African migration to China in the post-COVID-19 world at the Accepted 20 May 2020
backdrop of the mistreatment many Africans received as part of the KEYWORDS
pandemic control in China. These questions include: Is this the end COVID-19; China; Africans;
of African migration to China as we know it? Will COVID-19 funda­ migration; social identity;
mentally change how we think about migration, mobility and well­ wellbeing; surveillance
being in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? What will be the
effect of the post-COVID-19 regime on the social identity and well­
being of the African diaspora in Guangzhou and other Chinese
cities?

Introduction
After COVID-19, migration between Africa and China may never be the same. The
health crisis and its consequences will likely have a severe impact on local, trans-local,
and transnational forms of migration. In the case of migration to China, what will the
implications of this be for the African diasporic communities that have long thrived in
the southern China region? It is not unthinkable that once COVID-19 ceases to be a
threat, African communities in China will face a new regime of mobility and wellbeing as
their activities will draw extra attention from authorities. In this post-pandemic scenario,
there will be little or no room for the irregular forms of migration, mobility and abode
that have made possible the existence of thriving African communities in the Pearl River
Delta region. The reflections that we present here have, at their backdrop, the recent
maltreatment meted out on Africans in Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou, as part of
measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Africans, including students, were
evicted from their houses and hotel rooms (without prior notice which has effectively left
many of them homeless) and denied entrance into commercial venues. These incidents
lead us to address the following critical questions: Is this the end of African migration to
China as we know it? Will COVID-19 fundamentally change how we think about
migration, mobility and wellbeing in the PRC? What will be the effect of the post-

CONTACT Roberto Castillo rocas@LN.edu.hk Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong,
HSH101, Ho Sin Hang Building, 8 Castle Peak Rd, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2 R. CASTILLO AND P. A. AMOAH

COVID-19 regime on the social identity of the African diaspora in Guangzhou and other
Chinese cities?

Fears and anxieties over foreign migrants in Guangzhou


For the last two decades, the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong
province, has been at the forefront of the African presence in China.1 Due to the
overwhelming presence of foreigners, the city’s foreign population management capabil­
ities have been put to the test.2 This has often resulted in tensions between foreign
communities (mostly West African who commonly report harassment and discrimina­
tion) and local police; and between local, provincial, and national policymakers. While
Beijing grants thousands of entry permits to African nationals for diverse political,
cultural and economic reasons, Guangdong’s authorities feel that they are the ones
who have to deal with the urban impacts of Beijing’s policies in relation to African
nationals.3 The practical implication of this governance disjuncture is that throughout
the last decade, Guangzhou has seen a sharp increase in the number of foreigners that
overstay their visas.4
In 2014, in the context of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and to allay fears of a
potential spread in China, Guangzhou’s government reported that some 16,000 Africans
were legally residing in the city. In mid-April 2020, amid the controversy of mistreatment
of Africans, local authorities disclosed the current size of the African population in the
city: some 4,500 individuals. This shows a sharp decline in the population in only six
years.5 However, these figures describe the legal residents, not the overstayers. Although
overstayer figures are unknown, it is well-acknowledged that these individuals (mostly of
West African origin) account for a significant portion of the African population in the
city. A great deal of the intense commercial activity that takes place between Guangzhou
and places like Addis Ababa, Mombasa or Lagos is organised by overstayers.
As in many other parts of the world, one of the paths that these overstayers take is that
of hiding (or ‘losing’) their passports. By doing so, they ‘voluntarily’ become undocu­
mented and effectively set themselves down a highly precarious path where the main aim
is to be untraceable if caught overstaying.6 Untraceability, however, does not bode well in
a pandemics scenario where asymptomatic individuals shed the virus, and where one of
the main strategies is to ‘test and trace’ in order to mitigate or stop the outbreak.
Accordingly, Guangzhou’s longstanding overstayer African population is cast in a new
light under COVID-19. Local authorities not only fear an outbreak among the city’s
foreign communities (especially amongst a group of foreigners without clear, stable and
documented identities), but also a central government crackdown/purge on them (the
local authorities) were Guangzhou’s foreign community to become a virus hotbed.
Castillo has argued that historically, Africans in China have faced difficulties (such as
structural and legal impediments, renewing visas, immobility from overstaying, police
harassment, and the impossibility of permanent residency) that bear a striking resem­
blance to the difficulties experienced by many internal migrants.7 Such difficulties usually
include economic vulnerability, lack of belonging, social exclusion, harassment, ham­
pered residential rights and impaired mobilities. Indeed, the strict visa regulations
affecting Africans could be compared to the hukou system used to control internal
migrants.8
ASIAN ETHNICITY 3

In fact, since 2008, foreigners in China have been categorised as ‘floating population’
(a common designation for internal migrants), and they are supposedly subject to the
rules and regulations pertaining to internal migrants.9 It could then be said that Africans
as a group (or ‘minority’ as Bodomo has called them10) have been informally inserted
into China’s complex systems of population control and, as a result, have been subjected
to the dynamics of surveillance used to police ‘Chinese’ ethnic minorities – dynamics that
are best characterised by erratic but systematic control. In this context, the impossibility
of adequately managing and/or controlling a foreign overstayer population exacerbates
these pandemic-related fears and anxieties among local authorities.

Technology, surveillance and foreign mobility in post-pandemic China


COVID-19 is proving to be a landmark in terms of the relation between technology, mass
surveillance and mobility control in China. From the use of robots and drones to facial
recognition and multiple mobile applications, one of the most widely reported aspects of
the Chinese response to the outbreak has been the country’s reliance on technology,
especially artificial intelligence.11
At this point, it is impossible to ascertain how long we will live with COVID-19, but it
is not unthinkable that current special mobility measures could remain in place even after
COVID-19 ceases to be a threat. In a post-pandemic China, undocumented individuals
will have a hard time trying to circumvent these new technological hurdles. For example,
without a legal abode, foreigners cannot apply for a Health Code, a system that assigns a
colour code to users indicating their health status, and determining their access to public
spaces such as malls, subways and airports. This is already having a significant impact on
the forms of permissible physical mobility in the country.
In the past, foreign migration in China was driven by the traditional logics of trade (e.
g. commercial migrants) and, for those with illegal status, a cat-mouse circumvention
game. Soon, the new regime of foreign mobility in China will be a post-pandemic one
driven by rationales of crisis and emergency. Fear and anxiety will be the logic of this
regime, which will be compounded by surveillance through technology. Indeed, it will be
almost impossible to be an undocumented or a ‘sans papiers’ individuals in this context.
The invisibility and untraceability often associated with undocumented individuals will
be regarded by authorities as ‘high-risk’ (as is being now) in the new massive surveillance
programme in place in China. COVID-19 may well mark the entrance to a new stage in
the process of the construction of a global architecture of control and surveillance.
African overstayers and the thriving commercial sectors in which they insert themselves
may be among the first ‘victims’ of the new normal in China. Indeed, this may well be the
end of traditional forms of irregular abode, at least in China. COVID-19 may, or may not,
be the end of migration as we understood it since the early 20th century, but it may well
be the last nail in the coffin of an already declining African population in Guangzhou.

Post-COVID-19 China: Africans’ identity and wellbeing and implications for Sino-
African relations
Admittedly, not every African will leave China given the lasting economic (e.g. businesses
and investments) and social (e.g. marriage to Chinese citizens) ties many of them have
4 R. CASTILLO AND P. A. AMOAH

cultivated successfully in the country over the years.12 In essence, post-COVID-19 China
will demand a much deeper understanding of the lives of Africans in China to inform
stronger Sino-Africa cooperation and social cohesion in Chinese societies.13 It is undeni­
able that the recent targeting of Africans and other foreign residents in places such as
Guangzhou as part of the COVID-19 pandemic containment measures will imprint a
question of social identity and sense of belonging in the minds of the African nationals in
the ‘new’ China going forward. While reports of racism and discrimination against
Africans in China have been an issue in the past, the recent tensions between city
authorities and African communities have certainly exacerbated the situation.14
Correspondingly, even Africans who have lived in China for extended periods may
begin to revaluate their racial identity, given the recent treatment melted on them. The
social networks that many Africans have established over the years – some of which have
been the foundation of their survival in China – are already suffering as the authorities’
actions have inadvertently created a space for suspicion and enmity between Africans and
Chinese in places such as Guangzhou.15 Evidence suggests that constant doubt about
one’s racial identity and limited social support can be a recipe for poor mental wellbeing,
and particularly among migrants.16 For the undocumented Africans in China, the future
of their survival, and their wellbeing are even now bleaker than ever. They will not only
question how they earn a living at the blindside of the expected technologically-driven
surveillance in China but also their identities as black people in a predominantly Chinese
society. Moreover, for those that are documented, there is also lingering the question of
whether they will be able to access the needed social services to aid their [re]adjustment
to the Chinese society. Indeed, their access to health and other services even before the
pandemic was thought to be inadequate.17
Certainly, more must be done urgently to at least begin to repair the damage caused by
the recent mishap beyond the distribution of basic supplies and reinstating rent
agreements.18 In the short term, the immigration-related challenges of Africans – for
both those on short and long-term stay19 – must be addressed with some level of
flexibility while the world is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. For the long-term
prospects of Sino-Africa relations, the current situation calls for a rethink of the opera­
tional framework of the Forum for Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).20
Perhaps, African leaders and diplomats must be actively involved in policy formulation
and implementation on issues dealing with the lives of Africans in China post-
COVID-19.

Notes
1. Castillo, “Feeling at Home in the Chocolate City,” 235–57.
2. Bork-Huffer and Yuan-Ihle, “The Management of Foreigners in China,” 571–97.
3. Lan, “State Regulation of Undocumented African migrants in China,” 289–304.
4. Haugen, “Nigerians in China,” 65–80.
5. Li, “Mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou,” online.
6. Castillo, “Homing Guangzhou,” 287–306.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. See note 3 above.
10. Bodomo, Africans in China.
ASIAN ETHNICITY 5

11. Qu and Zhang, “How China has Turned to Tech Like Never Before,” online.
12. See note 10 above.
13. see note 5 above.
14. Hall et al., “Africans in South China,” 1291–2.
15. Elmer, “China’s Guangdong Province,” online.
16. Caxaj and Gill, “Belonging and Mental Wellbeing,” 1119–32.
17. Bodomo, “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” 1–16.
18. See note 15 above.
19. Ibid.
20. FOCAC, “About Forum on China-Africa,” online.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors
Roberto Castillo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan
University, Hong Kong. He has been researching African communities in China for a decade.
Padmore Adusei Amoah is a Research Assistant Professor in the School of Graduate Studies; and
Asia Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies of Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His research interest
covers social epidemiology and health aspects of social policy.

ORCID
Padmore Adusei Amoah http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8730-5805

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