ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Africa was supposed to be China’s new stomping grounds. Instead, the novel coronavirus has spawned a growing backlash that threatens to unwind the ties Beijing has carefully cultivated over decades.
The trigger for the burgeoning diplomatic crisis: Anger over the treatment of African citizens living in China and frustration at Beijing’s position on granting debt relief to fight against the outbreak.
China has spent untold billions in Africa since its emergence as a global power, investing in its natural resources, underwriting massive infrastructure projects and wooing its leaders. The campaign has bought China friends and allies in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, undermining the West’s once-reliable lock on the postwar world order while fueling its economy back home.
But that decadeslong quest for influence in Africa was gravely challenged last week when a group of disgruntled African ambassadors in Beijing wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi to complain that citizens from Togo, Nigeria and Benin living in Guangzhou, southern China, were evicted from their homes and made to undergo obligatory testing for Covid-19.
“In some cases, the men were pulled out of their families and quarantined in hotels alone,” the note, seen by POLITICO, said.
The incident, which caused widespread discontent both within Africa and among the diaspora after videos posted on social media showed people of African descent being evicted from their homes, resulting in a rare diplomatic showdown between Chinese and African officials.
It also broke a long-standing tradition of Africa voicing its problems with China — the continent’s biggest trade partner — behind closed doors.
In one incident, Nigeria’s speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, posted a video of himself summoning Chinese Ambassador Zhou Pingjian to his office where he expressed his displeasure about a Nigerian man being evicted from his home.
While nobody expects China to lose its place as Africa’s biggest bilateral lender and trade partner, analysts and African diplomats say there is a distinct possibility of lasting damage. Reluctance from China to endorse a G-20 decision to suspend Africa’s debt payments until the end of the year has exacerbated the sense of frustration, they said.
“There is a lot of tension within the relationship. I think both of these issues are the newest manifestations of long-term problems,” said Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Africa’s official response [to its citizens in China] took into account popular sentiment a lot more than it usually would have.”
Some scholars have documented how politicians in Africa have boosted their electoral base by mobilizing anti-Chinese sentiment, while many ordinary people perceive China’s success in the region as a threat to their own well-being.
Although China’s government and the billionaire founder of the Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, have been among the most generous and eager members of the international community to assist Africa in fighting Covid-19, Beijing’s overtaking of the World Bank as the biggest single lender to Africa has made it less inclined to write off the money it is owed. The Chinese government and the China Development Bank lent more than $150 billion to Africa between 2000 and 2018, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
U.S. officials, including Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, have strongly condemned the treatment of Africans in China, resulting in China snapping back at Washington by accusing it of sowing unnecessary discord between the pair.
Chinese officials have moved quickly to seal the emerging rift. Ambassador Liu Yuxi, Beijing’s head of mission to the African Union, released a photo of himself giving a socially distanced elbow bump to his African counterpart — while distancing the Beijing government from the authorities in Guangzhou.
At the same time, Zhang Minjing, political counselor at the mission, downplayed the controversy in comments to POLITICO. Beijing had “championed” a debt initiative agreed upon by the G-20, he said, and is “committed to taking all possible steps to support the poor.” As for the recent tumult in Guangzhou, he said, “the rock-solid China-Africa Friendship will not be affected by isolated incidents.”
“China is against any differential treatment targeting any specific group of people. China and Africa are good brothers and comrades-in-arms. We are always there for each other come rain or shine,” he added.
But there are also growing concerns in Beijing that its multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects in places such as Zimbabwe have now ground to a halt because of the coronavirus. Not only are engineering personnel unable to travel to the continent, but construction materials are running low as supply chains dry up.
Africans are going to need all the help they can get. After years of rapid growth, the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday said sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product would shrink this year by 1.6 percent due to the effects of the coronavirus, low oil prices and poor commodity prices. In Ethiopia alone, the government has estimated that 1.4 million jobs will be lost over the next three months, according to a document seen by POLITICO, roughly 3 percent of the workforce. Africa has recorded 17,701 coronavirus cases and 915 deaths — a toll that will likely climb rapidly, and likely underestimates the scale of the continent's predicament.
So far, the rest of the world has done little to help. On Monday, the IMF granted $215 million in initial debt relief to 25 African countries — a relative pittance compared with the vast sums those countries owe. On Wednesday, G-20 nations, which include China, the U.S., India and others, did offer to suspend debt payments until the end of 2020 despite calls from French President Emmanuel Macron to help African countries by “massively canceling their debt.”
But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of four special envoys to the African Union to solicit G-20 support in dealing with the coronavirus, said Africa was still “pushing for more.” In an interview, Okonjo-Iweala said she believed “China is coming along” to provide Africa with debt relief across the board and not simply on a case-by-case basis. “I don’t believe it’s against supporting African countries on this. I’ve heard actually to the contrary,” she said. “What we need from China is not a case-by-case examination, but an across-the-board agreement.”
Stephen Karingi, director of the trade division at the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa, said support from the international community should be “weighed against the damage Covid-19 will cause” in Africa. “We think that 2020 and 2021 will be difficult and support should have that in mind or such a horizon,” Karingi said.
How damaging the latest events will be to the political and commercial ties that have made China Africa’s largest trading partner are unclear.
On the official level, there are signs that all will soon be forgotten. A senior African diplomat to the African Union, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said, “When it comes to China, I doubt we will see long-term problems.”
“They’ve got a lot invested on the continent, in the AU, in this city,” the official added.
“They’re everywhere. Realistically, I think it’s important both sides understand why this is happening and try and resolve this mutually.”
Still, a host of African officials have made sure China does not get away lightly with its treatment of Africans living in China. Over the weekend, Moussa Faki, chairman of the African Union Commission, said he had “invited” the Chinese ambassador to the AU to express his “extreme concern” for the situation, while Chinese ambassadors in Nigeria and Ghana were summoned to give an explanation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the ill treatment of African nationals in China was “inconsistent with the excellent relations that exist between China and Africa, dating back to China’s support during the decolonization struggle in Africa.”
A senior AU official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said Chinese officials were particularly alarmed by the public dimension of the incident that exploded on social media. But, the official said, many African nations were pleased by remarks delivered by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Sunday in which he underlined “the African side’s reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals.”
Whether the people living on the continent forget so easily is another matter altogether.
“It’s going to be contentious among those communities for a lot longer,” said van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs.