Migrant Futures: Opinion

How COVID-19 exposed China’s anti-Black racism

The draconian measures taken in many Chinese cities to control the pandemic exacerbated the marginalisation of Black people

Xianan Jin
2 March 2021, 11.42am
In April 2020, a compulsory quarantine was reportedly imposed on many African people in Guangzhou
Calvin Chan / Alamy Stock Photo
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

In the past year, COVID-19 prevention measures have been imposed by most countries around the world – many of which have led to increased racial profiling. In the case of China, racism – particularly against Black people of African descent – has resurfaced with the pandemic.

In February 2020, when the virus was beginning to make its presence felt outside China, the Chinese government was unveiling new ‘green card’ regulations to attract more foreign workers. But the news quickly soured, as it ignited a racist and sexist outcry that has exposed the anti-Blackness of Chinese society.

China’s permanent residence permits are among the most difficult to obtain in the world – they are granted to only 1% of foreigners living in the country. The updated regulations allowed four categories of migrants to apply for the permits: investors, employees and students, people with urgently needed skills and expertise, and family members.

The last category, involving intimate relationships, led to an outpouring of racism on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform with 500 million users. Users claimed that “Chinese boys would protect Chinese girls” from migrants, particularly those from Africa.

The backlash on Weibo showcased the underlying racism towards Black people in China, who are often stigmatised with false claims of criminality or “contaminating” the “pure Chinese race” by having relationships with Chinese women.

As a young Chinese feminist woman, I was infuriated when I saw these anti-Black sentiments evolving into a trendy hashtag on Weibo. I thought, ‘Why the heck do you think I need your protection? At any feminist activity I attended in China, I rarely saw any heterosexual Chinese men. Now you are saying you are protecting Chinese women?’

I was utterly mad about this patronising manner of talking about Chinese women as vulnerable sexual victims while dehumanising Black people.

Anti-immigrant sentiment led to some African expats in the city of Guangzhou being forcefully evicted and ending up homeless

It is this rage that pushes me to keep considering the fundamental ideology beneath the anti-Blackness hashtag and its popularity in China. Luckily, I am not the only angry feminist; anger has been a productive tool in radical feminism throughout history. Black feminist Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, “My response to racism is anger… We are not here as women examining racism in a political and social vacuum. We operate in the teeth of a system for which racism and sexism are primary, established, and necessary props of profit.”

I am inspired by Lorde, and I argue that anti-Blackness in China is attributed to conservative nationalism, and toxic masculinity is complicit in this. The interlocked patriarchal and nationalistic structures objectify Chinese women as private property that should be limited to a certain Chinese race, and undermine foreign immigrants, especially Black male diaspora, as a sexualised and thus menacing race.

This marginalisation of Black diasporas was further exacerbated with the escalation of the draconian measures taken in many Chinese cities to control the second wave of the pandemic. At the beginning of April 2020, an allegedly racially motivated compulsory quarantine was imposed on many African people in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province on the southern coast of China. The Chinese government has denied allegations of racism.

The shocking measures were first reported by CNN, which exposed how the anti-immigrant sentiment had led to some African expats in the city being forcefully evicted and ending up homeless.

The news triggered a public outcry on Weibo, where many defended the racist measures. Some argued that African people had not been deliberately discriminated against. They claimed that these racial-profiling measures were for the sake of public health. Others admitted that the measures were xenophobic and singled out Black people, but they still found them justifiable because of the pandemic.

The denial of racism in China disturbed me, especially after witnessing how many of my Chinese/East Asian friends were harassed verbally and physically in the UK during the pandemic. But anti-Asian racism did not originate at the outbreak of COVID-19. It has always been there. So has anti-Black racism in China. Downplaying China as an exception from racism does not help anyone to live in a safe and just society. In fact, denying racism enables racists.

Chinese racism must be understood in the complex Chinese political context. It exists in the nexus between internal migrations and foreign residency, the intersections of gender relations and African/Black racial politics, the nuancing of racism during the pandemic, and the history of African migration in China from African perspectives. Any efforts to build a safe society for everyone are welcome, but beyond boarded up nations and masculine domination.

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