Kenyans living in China on Friday spoke of long nights in the cold, racial discrimination in shopping malls and retail outlets and attacks on public transport in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in the Asian country.
As China eases limits on the movement of people, a dark side is emerging from its numerous cities, where residents of African descent have been kicked out of apartments on accusations of spreading the virus.
Videos posted online showed scores of young African immigrants sleeping on pavements and backstreets, while photos showed signs barring foreigners from shopping in retail outlets.
A Kenyan student in Guangdong, whose identity the Saturday Nation is not revealing for security reasons, said attacks on African immigrants have persisted under the collective nose of Chinese authorities for two weeks now.
The Chinese Embassy in Nairobi has not commented on the attacks, but Mr William Zhuo, chairman of the Kenya Chinese Chamber of Commerce, told the Saturday Nation that “as a member of the Chinese community living in Kenya”, he is “concerned and saddened” by reports of the harassment of Kenyans.
Kenya last evening wrote a complaint note to Beijing and asked the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi to follow up on the matter.
In a press statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “received assurances from the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi that the government of China takes a serious view of the situation, and that the local authorities in Guangzhou have been tasked to take immediate action to safeguard the legitimate rights of Africans”.
The “situation” the ministry was referred to was a nightmare for many Kenyans in China, who have braved the coronavirus pandemic but now face attacks on streets, parks, their homes and hostels, and in shopping malls.
The student we spoke to is aged 27 and told us she had long waited to venture out of her home after weeks of staying indoors during a lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 disease.
Because of the open discrimination, she now has to stay indoors, “not because of the virus, but because of the colour of my skin”, she lamented.
Radical Chinese nationals, she said, have been attacking Africans, whom they are accusing of spreading the virus.
The epicentre of the victimisation is Guangdong, where the student lives.
The virus is believed to have jumped from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province, in November last year.
As infections rose and deaths multiplied, Wuhan led the world with an unprecedented quarantine lockdown on January 23 in a bid to stop the pandemic.
The rest of surrounding Hubei province quickly followed suit. As the virus spread rapidly around the globe, many countries imposed similar measures.
But while the pandemic continues to worsen in many other parts of the world, with the global death toll surpassing 100,000, the quarantine measures have appeared to pay off in Wuhan and other parts of China.
Its officially reported number of deaths and overall infections have plummeted in recent weeks.
China’s ruling Communist Party – accused of a slow-footed response and an initial attempt to cover up the outbreak – has portrayed its subsequent containment efforts as a huge success.
But hot on that success has emerged a wave of xenophobic attacks against Africans that have shocked the world. “They call us ‘black’ and cover their noses when in our presence,” the student said.
Another said taxi drivers have started refusing their fare as the discrimination gathers pace and spreads to other parts of the country.
On a cold morning this week, a Kenyan student in Guangdong stepped out of her small room to empty her trash can.
As she made her way back, she was confronted by her Chinese neighbours, who accused her of spreading the virus and being careless.
They almost beat her up, she told the Saturday Nation last evening. “We are unwanted,” she said.
“They narrowed down to Africans and started discriminating against us. We cannot enter malls, restaurants or markets. They say we are carriers of the virus and the reason for many asymptomatic cases.”
The woman, whom we are also not naming, said she now lives with her lights off because having them on will alert her neighbours that she is still around.
They want her away, she said, but her landlord has promised her that she will protect her.
But she is among the lucky few, as many Africans have been kicked out of their rented homes and are languishing in the streets.
For some, their passports have been confiscated by the police.
Because of an initiative called Chinese Call Community Welfare, which is similar to Kenya’s Nyumba Kumi, Kenyans and other well-wishers cannot host those who have been kicked out as the community will call the authorities on them.
“During the pandemic, Africans came out to help and our thinking was they would return the favour,” said the student in Guangdong.
But that help was not restricted to Kenyan nationals living in the Asian country. Kenyan authorities are said to have exported tens of thousands of masks to China in March this year.
The Pharmacy and Poisons Board had earlier stopped re-exports of the masks to China, noting that Kenyans would need them should there be an outbreak, but a senior government official vetoed the decision, according to a source in the Health ministry.
After the Chinese government made an export application online, it was declined on the condition that Kenya is also at risk and not enough masks are in the market.
Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday said it was aware that China was imposing new rules to curb Covid-19, including mass testing people.
“Unfortunately, these measures have in some instances precipitated unfair responses against foreigners, particularly those of African origin,” it said.