In the face of an invisible and deadly enemy, fears and deep-rooted biases often take over. This bore out in the reaction of some communities to the coronavirus, a swift and highly contagious disease. In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the African population — one of the largest in Asia — and black residents said they became the targets of a crackdown from local officials over unfounded fears that Africans were a high-risk population for the spread of the disease.
An Afro-Canadian man living in Guangzhou said public sentiment seemed to shift overnight. “Suddenly there is public shunning. People literally running from me on the street. And it was very, very, very bizarre.” The man spoke to The Fact Checker on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.
Before these incidents, people who spoke to The Fact Checker said their experiences in China were better than in other places — such as the United States, where the killing of George Floyd and other black men at the hands of white people have sparked anti-racism demonstrations across the country.
But in early April, something changed in Guangzhou. Videos from the port city appeared to show black residents evicted from their homes, led through the streets by officers and denied entry to shops.
A sign posted at a local McDonald’s said “black people” were no longer allowed to enter. McDonald’s later issued an apology for the sign. A business owner wrote in a LinkedIn post that local authorities told him “to refuse dine-in service to foreigners, especially black people.”
But by the end of April, senior officials characterized the events as a miscommunication and focused instead on promoting China’s “brotherly” relationship with African countries.
So, does the government narrative hold up to the evidence?
After interviewing people in Guangzhou, reviewing videos, speaking with experts and collaborating with researchers, the Fact Checker video team was able to identify what appears to be a chaotic effort from officials in Guangzhou to target Africans and the larger black community over coronavirus fears.
Why were the African and larger black communities in Guangzhou targeted for quarantine when China was beginning to lift coronavirus lockdown measures in April?
Chinese officials were shifting their attention away from community spread to cases brought in from abroad. On March 29, China’s top coronavirus task force announced it was moving its focus to “The Two Risks”: imported coronavirus infections and sporadic, local cases. Three days later, on April 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave remarks warning municipalities to stay alert for a second wave of infections from imported cases.
Roberto Castillo, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, explained how local officials interpret messaging from central authorities: “Sometimes central authorities in Beijing send the message and that message trickles down in different provinces, and different authorities are called to interpret messages in different ways. Then they establish certain actions or practices to try to respond to whatever they understood from those messages.”
Castillo said the remarks from Xi were a key catalyst for the incidents in Guangzhou.
“It’s very easy in so many countries to just say all imported cases must mean foreigners,” said Hannah Ryder, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the challenges countries like China face in reporting coronavirus cases as imported. “That must mean migrants. That must be expats.”
Chatter online around that time from netizens — Internet users in China — appeared to follow official statements regarding imported cases. But messaging focused on non-Chinese residents as causes for a second wave rather than returning Chinese nationals — which the Foreign Ministry acknowledged made up the majority of imported coronavirus cases.
“We’re used to thinking of China as a kind of an all powerful dictatorship,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. “They do react to what the netizens are talking about.”
A day after Xi’s April 1 comments, a news story emerged on social media that a Nigerian man assaulted a Chinese nurse in Guangzhou while trying to escape quarantine. Maximus Ogbonna, a leader in the Nigerian community in Guangzhou, visited the Nigerian man in the hospital on April 3. “He told me that he didn’t beat the nurse. He was trying to maybe escape from the quarantine ward,” said Ogbonna, “and he bumped into the nurse.”
Castillo said there was a history of tensions between parts of the African community and Chinese officials in Guangzhou: “West Africans in China live and have lived for a long time as undocumented, and they don’t have passports and they’re not traceable, so … this creates a lot of fear and anxiety around those individuals.”
The announcement from Xi, online chatter, a viral story and a history of tensions combined with coronavirus fears created a recipe for trouble.
“I would characterize these events as chaotic and fueled by fear and anxiety and not necessarily as a response to a particular policy or type of scapegoating. And sometimes fear and anxiety also gets fueled by ignorance, and there’s ignorance in China still about foreigners and in this case about Africans,” Castillo said.
The Fact Checker worked with researchers at professor Yulia Tsvetkov’s lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute and the Center for Human Rights Science to track what happened on social media during this period. Researchers collected about 16,000 Weibo posts, filtered from a larger data set of 200,000 posts, containing at least one Guangzhou location tag and one “African-related” keyword from late March through May. Weibo is a Chinese social media platform.
Based on automated sentiment analysis tools and manual analysis, the researchers said, they believed the majority of posts in their data set expressed negative sentiments relating to Africans or black people.
Their research showed there was a significant surge in negative posts beginning April 1. There were just 23 negative posts in the data set on March 31. The next day, the number of posts climbed to 500. From April 1-2, there was a spike in the number of posts on Weibo using the keywords “foreign trash.” A Chinese cartoon depicting officials throwing foreigners who weren’t abiding by quarantine rules into the trash went viral on WeChat.
“It looks pretty clear that there was a lot of negative sentiments toward minority communities during this time and a lot of xenophobia. It’s clear that these are social issues and that they are playing out on social media,” said Anjalie Field, a PhD candidate studying language technology at Carnegie Mellon.
On April 1, even before the news of the Guangzhou nurse, a Weibo post alleging that an African man was abusive toward his Chinese wife was shared 77 times in the data set.
The following day, hashtags relating to the story about the Guangzhou nurse being attacked by foreigners were used more than 100 times in the data set on April 2.
More negative Weibo posts and videos were circulated, including a video that claimed to show a black man bringing different local women to his apartment over several months beginning in 2019 until April 2020. Weibo posts said the man later tested positive for the coronavirus but was asymptomatic. The Post reviewed a copy of the video and was unable to independently identify the footage or the story. Nevertheless, the Afro-Canadian man said the video was circulated widely and spurred even more outrage.
Chan-young Park, a PhD candidate studying language technology at Carnegie Mellon, said she noticed in her research that the discussions around black residents in Guangzhou on Weibo may have become toxic because it appeared to be driven by a largely negative perspective.
Posts from April 5-6 appeared to call for the repatriation of black Africans in Guangzhou, claiming many of them did not possess residence status.
Beginning about April 6, there started to emerge reports of discrimination on Twitter. A video of black men wearing masks and carrying luggage trailed behind what appears to be police officers was shared on Twitter. It was taken in front of the Tongtong Hotel in the “Little Africa” neighborhood of Guangzhou.
The next day, Guangzhou officials announced at a news conference that five Nigerians tested positive. Officials said four out of the five Nigerians had frequently visited a restaurant called Emma Food. The eatery was apparently a popular gathering spot for many Africans, and the news fueled fears of a wider infection. The Washington Post could not reach the restaurant owners for comment.
At that news conference, officials took it a step further and designated two districts, where the African population is concentrated, as “medium-risk.” The rest of the city was deemed to be “low-risk.”
On social media, officials closed down an account that claimed the city was targeting a third district. But Carnegie Mellon researchers found that, in their data set, there was a spike in the use of the word “illegals” and the n-word in Weibo posts on April 7.
Jing Zeng, a senior researcher at the University of Zurich and an expert on information control and digital activism in China, said the timing of the news conference was not necessarily suspect. “There is no point for them to deliberately propagate such information to justify anything. It is more likely to be amplified by the general public,” Jing said.
The Fact Checker worked with Keenan Chen, a researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit organization that battles misinformation, to review the social media response. He talked with a landlord who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. The landlord said he received instructions to report any black people in his building to the authorities, contradicting language from local authorities that they were looking at “foreigners.”
A video of Nigerians waiting outside a Guangzhou hotel was apparently taken on April 7 and matched a Weibo image of “epidemic prevention personnel carry[ing] out checks in Guangzhou on Tuesday” published by the South China Morning Post.
The person filming the video says, “We are still outside here. They already chase us out from our hotel, and they kept us here that we should wait. They collected all our passports. Look at them. They collected all our passports. If the Nigerian government is doing anything, please, we beg them, let them be fast so we can go out of this mess here in China. It’s too difficult here, man.”
The data set by Carnegie Mellon researchers showed a spike in the number of negative Weibo posts — around 2,000 — on April 7. The researchers counted a little more than 1,000 on the day before.
Other videos claimed to show Tanzanians and Ugandans being moved to a hotel in an ambulance. The logo on the side of the ambulance in the video matches previous images of ambulances from Guangzhou.
On April 8, the Afro-Canadian man said he was confronted by Chinese officials at his home. “We got a thump on our door, heavy bang, 11 at night, and there were three security bureau guys and building security — they wanted to see passports, do a health checks, we were required to present ourselves the following day, required to show up at the police station.”
He arrived at the police station the next day and was required to verify his health and visa documents. He was eventually allowed to go home and wasn’t forced to quarantine.
“We decided to go shopping in an area adjacent to Africa town. … My wife, who is Japanese, was allowed to get on the subway, but I was blocked from getting on the subway by the guy working for the Subway Corporation and he called in security bureau people and undercover police, etc. … They made it very clear that we were not to go anywhere. We were there for 40 minutes while they tried to ascertain whether or not I was a threat.”
The subway wasn’t the only place he experienced discrimination. “I couldn’t go anywhere. [If] I went somewhere someone would scream and yell.” A black American woman in Guangzhou who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety experienced an inability to move through the city and unfair treatment from her building’s security.
Around that same time, the backlash from African leaders was swift and severe. “This really, I think, caught the Chinese central government by surprise,” said Richburg.
In recent years, China has been courting African nations with tens of billions of dollars in loans, aid and large-scale infrastructure projects.
The speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives summoned the Chinese ambassador and showed him clips of Nigerians allegedly being mistreated in China. The video of the ambassador, hands clasped behind his back, leaning over the phone, was viewed nearly 200,000 times on the lawmaker’s Twitter account alone.
Another video shows the Nigerian consul general arguing with local police and people in protective gear who are seen holding passports allegedly taken from Nigerians. The Fact Checker was able to confirm this incident by reviewing several clips of the moment and matching the details seen on the building to the Maohua Hotel in Guangzhou.
On April 12, Yang Rihua, executive deputy director of the Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department, said “foreigners in Guangdong” were to undergo “investigation, inspection, sample collection, isolation treatment.” The Fact Checker did not come across any videos of other internationals facing discrimination in Guangzhou.
On April 13, Guangzhou authorities said more than 4,000 Africans were tested and 111 were found to be positive. That same day, the U.S. Consulate issued a health alert, warning African Americans to avoid Guangzhou. The Chinese quickly condemned the response.
“I did a tweet, I think a couple of days after that happened, which the Chinese were not happy about, obviously,” said Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “So they said, well, you know, this is all the fault of the United States trying to, you know, inject separation between the wonderful, you know, mutually reinforcing relationship between Africa and China.”
“I think there’s more discrimination going on in America. Maybe even worse,” the black American in Guangzhou said in response to a question about moving back to the United States.
In the Carnegie Mellon researchers’ data set, there were more than 200 posts on the news that 111 African nationals had tested positive for the coronavirus on April 14.
That same day, a video on Kuaishou, a Chinese video sharing platform, was circulated by a local newspaper from a different province that said “Africans in Guangzhou might be the biggest risk.” The video was viewed more than 78,000 times.
The Global Times, a state-run English-language tabloid, published a piece denouncing the “fake news” of discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou. It accused Western media outlets, including The Washington Post, of running sensationalist images to sow discord between China and African nations. Chinese Global Television Network (CGTN) reported that China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong denied discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou, stating “all foreigners are treated equally under China’s virus prevention rules.”
Other Chinese state media pieces attempted to explain away what had happened.
“They were sort of trying to portray Africans … as being relatively unruly and not following the orders or instructions that were given to them,” said Castillo. “That was one of the narratives that was taken to sort of reject the criticism.”
A tweet from a news producer at CGTN said the “key points around the event in Guangzhou” were the Chinese nurse who was allegedly bit and beaten by a Nigerian man and “a few African people” who arrived in Guangzhou in March and didn’t follow quarantine, which “caused COVID19 community transmission.” Along with four other Chinese media outlets, CGTN was registered by the State Department as a government entity in a controversial move earlier this year.
At a daily news briefing, a municipal police officer assured the public that all foreigners in Guangzhou were treated equally to Chinese nationals. China’s central government eventually stepped in. The Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China has “zero tolerance for discrimination” and that Guangzhou authorities were improving their “working methods.”
State media also released their own videos. One featured a Kenyan acrobat, quarantined in a hotel, thanking the Chinese government. Signs forbidding foreigners from entering were replaced with signs that said “all nationalities, race and ethnicities” are welcome to enter.
The Chinese government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Bottom Line
Chinese Weibo announced on April 15 that it had closed nearly 200 accounts for “inciting discrimination” following backlash from African nations. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon went back and checked the posts in their data set a month after they had gathered it and found 2 percent of the accounts were deleted.
But individuals we talked to said this is far from over.
“In terms of media and African imaginations about the future, this is going to linger around for a while, and it’s denting the Chinese reputation,” Castillo said.
Through interviews and video verification, The Fact Checker has determined Africans and the larger black community in Guangzhou faced evictions, discrimination and the restriction of their movements on the basis of the color of their skin over coronavirus fears. As of this recording, the Chinese government has not apologized for what transpired during these chaotic few weeks in Guangzhou.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter
The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles
The Washington Post Fact Checker is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.
Animations by Atthar Mirza. Design by Madison Dong.