“We’ve been informed that from now on, black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant”. This notice, pinned to the door of a McDonalds branch in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, home to Asia’s largest African community, sparked outrage across the world. McDonalds has since been forced to apologise and temporarily close the restaurant’s doors, claiming the sign “not representative of our inclusive values”.
What happened in Guangzhou was not an isolated incident. The US consulate there has warned black people to stay away from the city, after police told bar owners and restaurateurs to turn away any who “appear to be of African origin”. Mandatory testing and quarantine, regardless of results, are being implemented by authorities. Over the last week alone, hundreds of African students and migrant workers were thrown out onto the street by landlords, hotel managers, and the police. “I’ve been sleeping under a bridge for four days with no food to eat”, a Ugandan student told AFP, a news agency.
Sino-African relations are fraught, to say the least. But the diplomatic spat caused by the racist behaviour of ordinary Chinese citizens is symptomatic of a wider issue. China is harming Africa.
Since the turn of the century, China’s Belt and Road Initiative put the African continent in its crosshairs, and over the last 20 years, the country has grown to become Africa’s single biggest trading partner. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) China Global Investment Tracker, the total value of its investments over the last 15 years is nearing $2trn. As the rest of the world shunned Africa as a philanthropic drain, China’s government identified the lucrative opportunities offered by the world’s fastest growing continent.
Its investments have helped transform the image of this once-ailing corner of the world into an exciting financial boon. The Western world is falling over itself, trying to capture the imaginations of its leaders. A proliferation of investment conferences attempting to showcase the brightest and best of their economies saw presidents and prime ministers’ fly all over the world last summer. It is clear that Chinese interest has helped Africa’s image on the international stage immeasurably.
Yet it also plain to see that China does not have Africa’s best interests at heart. Its economic policy has been described as a “Trojan horse”, with some analysts accusing Beijing of laying “debt traps” they know will never be repaid. China is buying soft power through its debtbook, aided by neo-colonial policies that see them sell African goods back to Africa.
In the four years between 2013 and 2017, Kenya’s debt to China increased fivefold, from $1bn to $5.2bn. Conservative claims estimate around 20% of Kenyan debt is owned by China, but some sources put that figure closer to 70%. The country now faces the real risk of losing the Port of Mombasa, after its assets were named as collateral for a $2.5bn loan to the Kenyan Railways Corporation for the landmark Standard Gauge Railway.
But Kenya is not alone in its predicament. According to Muhammed Tandogan, from the University of Istanbul Medeniyet, China owns 88% of Djibouti’s total GDP, amounting to roughly $1.72bn. It was the only creditor that would lend to Uganda and Tanzania, who were only too willing to accept their advances. “The thing that makes you happy about their aid”, Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, said in 2018, “is that it is not tied to any conditions”.
The race row that has arisen in Guangzhou has brought Chinese attitudes towards Africans to the fore. Economic uncertainty brought on by Covid-19 forced officials to appease African outrage, as a spokesperson for the government claimed, “Chinese people always see in the African people partners and brothers through thick and thin”. Just as they concealed information about the spread of Covid-19, they are trying to conceal their racist overtures towards Africa. But when it’s this black and white, it’s there for all to see.