A Nigerian Dies in China—and Racial Tensions Heat Up

The death of a Nigerian man in the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou — allegedly when he was in police custody — sparked a protest by Africans living there, raising tensions in a country still uncomfortable with racial difference

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Chinese newspapers, under the thumb of the state, like to point out the faults of Western democracies, while sometimes obscuring abuses back home. Predictably, a politically delicate event will occur in the People’s Republic, and a broadside will appear in the Chinese press castigating, say, the U.S. for its race relations or Europe for its economic woes. On June 20, Chinese papers headlined the U.S. House of Representative’s unanimous apology for the appalling Chinese Exclusion Act, which from the late 19th century stopped Chinese migrants from coming to America for decades. The immigration act was the only one in American history to target a specific nationality, and it also curtailed the rights of Chinese living in the States. That it took more than a century for members of Congress to formally address the legislation’s shameful legacy was an issue well-covered in the Chinese media.

The same day as the House’s apology, race relations were deteriorating in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou, after a Nigerian man died apparently in police custody. Chinese media did acknowledge the event, unlike other instances when news blackouts follow sensitive stories. But the reports were rather limited in describing the protests by somewhere between 100 and 500 Africans living in Guangzhou, who were up in arms about the Nigerian’s death. While social media passed around images of physical altercations between Africans and Chinese security personnel, a June 19 statement by the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau described the protest as “some people stood on the road and caused [a] severe traffic jam.”

(READ: In Hong Kong, one woman crusades against racism.)

On June 20, the Nigerian Embassy demanded an official investigation into the June 18 death of their national. The man reportedly was involved in a payment dispute with an electric bicycle driver. As usually happens in China, a crowd formed. What happened next is not entirely clear, but reports on Chinese social media and in online expat forums indicate that Chinese individuals began tussling with the Nigerian. According to state media, the man was then taken away by police. By the evening, he was dead. Guangzhou officials said in a statement that the Nigerian had “lost consciousness suddenly” and that “the police has been carrying out investigations according to law.”

Next month, China will host a summit on Africa to deepen already booming economic relations between the two regions. At least 100,000 Africans are believed to live in Guangzhou, including around 10,000 Nigerians, although the numbers have declined in recent months because of tightening visa restrictions. Many are involved in trade, and Guangzhou is one of China’s biggest manufacturing hubs. In 2009, another Nigerian died in Guangzhou after police carried out visa checks in an area where foreign vendors worked. According to state media, the man jumped out of a second-floor window to escape the immigration inquiry because he had overstayed his visa. That incident also resulted in dozens of Africans mounting protests at a Guangzhou police station.

Some Chinese characterize their nation as free of racism, harkening back to the days when socialist, Third Worldist camaraderie linked the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. But racism in China toward blacks, in particular, is as casual as it is corrosive. During international sporting events, Chinese broadcasters will refer to the athletic prowess of blacks as somehow innate to their genetic make-up, while disparaging their play-making or tactical skills. For blacks in China, hailing taxis can be an ordeal; dating locals is fraught. The districts in Guangzhou where Africans congregate are known locally as “chocolate city.” The Chinese social media response to the latest protest in Guangzhou was dismayingly xenophobic.

Some cities in China, including Beijing, are currently in the middle of crackdowns on foreigners who have either overstayed their visas or are working in the country without the correct papers. The campaign, which is being publicized through posters showing a clenched fist “striking hard” on illegal activity, began just as two incidents hit the blogosphere showing foreigners acting badly in China. One involved an alleged sexual assault of a Chinese woman by a British man and the other showed a Russian cellist who spewed a tirade at a fellow train passenger.

(READ: Beijing orchestra fires Russian cellist for boorish behavior.)

Now, another foreigner is in the middle of a controversy in China. By June 20, alternate versions of what happened to the Nigerian were floating around the Internet, with one expat website claiming that the man was actually beaten to death by a Chinese crowd, meaning he had passed away before the police arrived on the scene. Perhaps a cellphone video or other evidence will emerge in the coming days to show what truly happened. In the meantime, distrust mounts on both sides. Africans may not be excluded from China, as Chinese were from America long ago. But an apology—or full explanation—by Chinese officialdom on the case of the dead Nigerian could be a long wait. Chinese in America know all about that.

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