China says it has a 'zero-tolerance policy' for racism, but discrimination towards Africans goes back decades

(CNN)A black version of the Chinese flag swept across African Twitter earlier this month, as users replaced their avatars to express their anger at the government of China.

They were outraged not only by widespread reports of coronavirus-related discrimination against Africans in China, but also by claims on Chinese state media that the allegations were "groundless rumors."
Posting under the hashtag #BlackChina, Dennis Kiplomo, a nurse from Kenya, tweeted: "We expect the kind of hospitality we give to Chinese here in Africa, be reciprocated in their home country."
    Another user in Kenya, Peter Kariuk, wrote: "We need a united Africa which will not be slaves of #BlackChina."
      The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has Asia's largest African population. While the exact number of Africans living in Guangzhou is unknown, in 2017 more than 320,000 Africans entered or left China through the city, according to state news agency Xinhua.
      Last month, many Africans were subject to forced coronavirus testing and arbitrary 14-day self-quarantine, regardless of their recent travel history, and scores were left homeless after being evicted by landlords and rejected by hotels under the guise of various virus containment measures.
      The incident caused a rupture in China-Africa relations, with the foreign ministries of several African nations -- and even the African Union -- demanding answers from China.
        Yet China's official response stopped short of admitting that the discrimination took place -- or apologizing for it.
        "All foreigners are treated equally. We reject differential treatment, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. China's embassy in South Africa said in a statement: "There is no such thing as the so-called discrimination against Africans in Guangdong province."
        The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, went one step further, publishing an article titled: "Who is behind the fake news of 'discrimination' against Africans in China?"
        Traditionally, Beijing has portrayed racism as a Western problem. But for many Africans, whose countries have in recent years become heavily economically entwined with Beijing, the Guangzhou episode exposed the gap between the official diplomatic warmth Beijing offers African nations and the suspicion many Chinese people have for Africans themselves.
        And that has been a problem for decades.

        No racism in China

        The West only began really noticing -- and criticizing -- China's relationship with Africa in 2006, following a landmark summit which saw nearly every African head of state descend on Beijing.
        Yet China's ties with Africa stretch back to the 1950s, when Beijing befriended newly independent states to position itself as a leader of the developing world and to counter US and USSR power during the Cold War era.
        Beijing talked up its shared history of oppression by white imperialists, condemned South Africa's apartheid early on and gave aid to Africa even when China was a poor country. In 1968, Beijing spent the equivalent of $3 billion in today's money on constructing the Tanzam Railway in Zambia and Tanzania, and in the 1960s it began offering Africans full scholarships to Chinese universities.
        A Chinese propaganda poster promotes the medical aid Beijing offered to Africa during the 20th century.