Violence Against Chinese Nationals Looms in Africa

Violence Against Chinese Nationals Looms in Africa
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

As the Chinese become a wealthy minority in Africa, it is only a matter of time before they become primary targets for race-based state violence.

June 4 marks the anniversary of one of the bloodiest crackdown on protests in history, one that the Chinese Communist Party, after 27 years, still sees as a political taboo.

Unfortunately, as years pass and the image of China changes abroad, the memories of that day are fading. This is especially true among the younger generation, which is too preoccupied with contemporary issues in China to be mindful of the sacrifices made by idealists more than 20 years ago.

The preoccupation with other issues is not surprising, considering that China today is a different place, with a twisted civil society that imbues newer and even darker issues.

The Chinese inherent racism toward Africans

One of these issues has been the persistent problem of racism against people of darker skin color. It should be noted that racism is not at all new in China. A traditional preference for lighter skin color has made racism an entrenched cultural trait that is not recognized as a problem.

The issue recently surfaced with the airing of a detergent ad in China. A black man, “cleaned” with the said detergent, re-emerged as a fair-skinned Chinese man. The ad instantly went viral, outraging people everywhere, including here in Africa.

The ad is not the first of its kind from China, where businesses use whatever means necessary to attract attention.

We can speculate that this particular ad received the amount of attention it did in Africa because Chinese are becoming a common presence for ordinary Africans. The Chinese attitude toward blacks in the commercial can easily be transferred to similar views held in the country's relationship with African countries and people.

It is easy to tie Chinese racism to the behavior of Chinese in Africa. There are stories of Chinese firms only hiring Chinese workers and many Africans seem convinced that the reason behind the avoidance of African workers is fundamentally racist. This belief is only buttressed by Chinese bosses’ tendency to remark how their African workers are “lazy” and “inefficient” compared with Chinese workers.

A potential violent African reaction

Two weeks from now, South Africa will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising — the clash between black protesters and the Apartheid-era South African government. And two months from now marks Uganda's forceful expulsion of its entire Indian minority population in 1972.

Both cases display the state's willingness to resort to violence against civilians to achieve political goals, not unlike that experienced by Chinese students at Tiananmen Square. The major difference in Africa is that race, rather than political ideals, is usually used as justification for state violence.

Violence in recent years, such as the ongoing Hutu-Tutsi clashes in Burundi and militia activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — both are well-noted as an extension of the genocide in Rwanda two decades ago — suggests that such tendencies for different races to resort to violence in settling scores remain a common method of the state and various militant groups aspiring to become legitimate national governments.

For the Chinese (and in many cases, other Asians), this should be a cautionary tale as their presence in Africa continues to expand.

With superior funding and business acumen helping the Chinese become a wealthy minority, it is only a matter of time before they become the primary targets for race-based state violence. Indeed, racial and financial difference has prompted popular support for interracial violence in the past, with the state galvanizing behind propagandistic calls that a certain ethnic group is “stealing” from the country and the demographic majority.

As was seen in Beijing on June 4, 1989, years of mutual resentment and quiet conflicts will boil over to a major confrontation, where one side will emerge victorious through sheer force. In the African case, the Chinese minority, without political influence or a military force, is unlikely to be the victor.

The more that the Chinese resist efforts to curb their influence, the more heavy-handed the methods of African states will likely be in narrowing the wealth gap with local Africans.

Solutions are not easy to find. Certainly, to prevent major confrontation, any allusion to race, in the form of viral ads or otherwise, should be toned down. Perhaps, while exploiting Africa's various business opportunities for profit, the Chinese also need to consider more charity projects for the poor and greater corporate social responsibility.

But this approach may still not be sufficient to change perceptions of the Chinese, as a racial block, among local populations. This has been the experience of other non-blacks, whether it is the whites or south Asians; taking up local citizenship and paying taxes has not always helped to abate the impoverished black majority's hatred toward them. Pouring aid money into local economies, as I see on a daily basis, has rarely eradicated prejudice against donor countries as victimizers of Africa.

Of course, this is not to say that an event like June 4 in Africa against Chinese is inevitable. But like Tiananmen, if anything does happen, it will happen quickly, violently, and end without concrete solutions to ongoing resentment. It is something that we, as unabashedly rich foreigners on a poor continent, must continuously be prepared for.

This piece was revised and submitted to The News Lens International by the author. The first version was published on the author’s blog here.