GHUANGZHOU, China: Mohammed has spent several weeks sleeping in his cramped trading booth in one of Guangzhou’s export centers after being kicked out of his apartment and forced into quarantine in April, but the Tanzanian trader says he is content to be in China.
As Africans in the Chinese metropolis were targeted that month in a coronavirus clampdown that sparked a diplomatic backlash, Guangzhou’s Xiaobei neighborhood — known as “Little Africa” — went into lockdown.
Like many in the community, including those who were evicted from their dwellings, Mohammed said he is trying to return to normal life now that the lockdown has eased.
“It happened, it was bad, but I just want to move on,” said Mohammed, who trades garments and shoes and like most people Reuters interviewed did not want to provide his full name given the sensitivity of the situation.
Guangzhou is the hub for Africans engaged in trade in China, often small-scale business owners dealing in garments and other consumer goods, and is also a center for students from the continent.
While Black Africans living in China say they have long experienced discrimination, several said the targeting of their community during the pandemic was deeply unsettling.
When five Nigerians tested positive for coronavirus in April, after China had shut its borders to foreigners, local government units in Guangzhou singled out Africans for mandatory tests and quarantines, the US consulate in the city said.
Several African countries complained, and the US consulate advised African-Americans to avoid the city. The outcry prompted a meeting between China’s foreign ministry, which denied discrimination, and more than 20 African ambassadors and representatives.
With 4,553 registered Africans in Guangzhou in April, the population is one-third its level a year ago, official figures show. About 351,000 Africans entered the city from abroad last year, often traders on short-term visits, but that traffic has almost come to a halt with coronavirus-induced travel bans.
Mercy, a Nigerian working for a small logistics company, said business is one-quarter its normal level. “There’s fewer people in town, and there are fewer flights to Africa, so freight prices are too high,” she said from her office in a half-lit building where several hair-braiding shops and salons that served the African community were shuttered.
Several traders, however, said they were staying put in China because the current situation means fewer competitors and an advantage when freight fully resumes.
“The sad thing I realized is that they see me and will always think of the virus,” said Haman, a student from Niger who said he plans to return home after seven years in China once his course finishes next month.