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The new face of China-Africa relations amid COVID-19

December 10th, 2020
topic:Racism
by:Bob Koigi
located in:China
tags:#ChinaMustExplain, Africa, COVID-19, neocolonialism, sinoafrica

In early April, at the height of the Coronavirus outbreak, disturbing images of Africans being forcibly evicted from their hotels, sleeping on the streets and being forced into quarantine for allegedly spreading the virus went viral sparking global furore.

In Africa citizens erupted into fury over the incidents and retaliated by starting a social media campaign dubbed #ChinaMustExplain that advocated for the deportation of Chinese nationals from Africa, closing of Chinese embassies in the continent and urging African governments to recall all ambassadors in China.

And while the those incidents continue to take new shape to date they have exposed the Achilles heels of the Sino-Africa cooperation as African leaders and their citizens appear to be reading from a different script over Beijing’s approach to treatment of Africans in the wake of the novel virus.

The successful forays of China in Africa over the decades has made it the continent’s largest trading partner with the trade between the two running to over $200 billion each year. There are an estimated 10,000 Chinese companies with operations in Africa and more than 1 million Chinese citizens entered Africa between 2001 and 2014 for work and opportunities. With a cocktail of multi-million dollar funding for infrastructure projects, cash and resource backed loans, ranging from a standard gauge railway in Kenya, hydropower investments in Nigeria, billion dollar telecom equipment in Sudan to ports in Namibia, China has been accused of debt trap diplomacy in Africa. However another school of thought has argued that the successful entry of China into Africa has largely been due to its non-interference policy that has been welcomed by African leaders, majority who do not have a clean democratic and human rights record.

But with the outbreak of the coronavirus relations continue to shift. On one hand some African leaders continue to pledge unwavering allegiance to China even as their citizens publicly display disdain over what they perceive as neocolonialism, racial profiling and xenophobia.

In May, following weeks of a campaign by the mayor of Zambia’s capital Lusaka Miles Sampa, highlighting Chinese companies’ mistreatment of black workers and fanning racial divide, the mayor posted a video on his Facebook page claiming "black Zambians did not originate coronavirus. It originated in China." Earlier reports had indicated that Chinese businesses were quarantining Zambian workers, serving only Chinese customers and disregarding the government’s lockdown directives. As tempers flared, three Chinese citizens, a wife of the owner of a textile warehouse business and her two workers were brutally murdered which escalated diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

When billionaire philanthropist Jack Ma donated medical equipment to African countries to aid in the fight against COVID-19, there was uproar across the continent that the donations were defective with other quarters arguing that the equipment were distributed as a way of transmitting the virus from China to Africa.

At one point Kenyan health Minister sounded the alarm over the quality of the personal protective equipment, PPE, originating from China after they failed quality checks. The government banned the importation of the PPEs from China. In a related development, Tanzania President John Magufuli dismissed Chinese COVID-19 kits arguing that tests had revealed that they were faulty and had numerous ‘technical errors.’

But even with such hiccups, China has successfully managed to make inroads by using its financial might to offer African countries technical and labour support in the COVID-19 fight that continues to warm relations between the two trading partners. It has already sent PPEs to over 18 African countries and dispatched more than 1,000 doctors to assist their African counterparts. This support has also been bolstered by donations by Chinese companies and Chinese diaspora.

China has also been vocal about improving its bilateral ties with African countries in the wake of coronavirus by assuring the continent that it would get the vaccine once trials are approved.

In October 50 African diplomats visited the factories of Sinopham, the largest vaccine maker in China for a brief on the progress of the COVID-19 vaccine. The pharmaceutical company has also been running the vaccine trials in Morocco with the North African country volunteering to assist China in production of a vaccine once approved.

Experts now posit that while the Sino-Africa relations have evolved over the years, the coronavirus outbreak is bound to give the bilateral ties a new dimension with China expected to gain as it continues to use its vast resources to penetrate every corner of the continent. “Even the outrage over the mistreatment of Africans in China seems to have been overshadowed by the approach and the charm offensive that the country continues to advance in the continent. African presidents seem to be leaning more towards China for obvious reasons and some have even defended the Chinese government over accusations of harassment of Africans. And as Chinese businesses continue to face restrictions in US and Europe, they are training their eyes on investing in Africa. Coronavirus is giving China another avenue to make more inroads in the continent,” said Katana Mwale an international relations expert.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
China
In Africa citizens erupted into fury over the incidents and retaliated by starting a social media campaign dubbed #ChinaMustExplain that advocated for the deportation of Chinese nationals from Africa.
African leaders and their citizens appear to be reading from a different script over Beijing’s approach to treatment of Africans in the wake of the novel virus.
The successful forays of China in Africa over the decades has made it the continent’s largest trading partner.