When the media in China televises racist events to the world, and its counterparts in African countries present Chinese citizens as invaders stealing local jobs, there is a recipe for a future combustible discourse.
Social and online media have made sharing news about the treatment of foreigners across national borders easy and fast. This, as with the case of the Guangzhou episode, will shape future migration on both sides.
Third are the local realities in African countries and in China. African economies have been devastated by COVID-19. Pressure on governments to improve the post-pandemic situation will continue and could become immense. In countries that cannot successfully resurrect their economies, scapegoating could surface. Politicians and interested groups will bring Chinese citizens into the narrative and instrumentalize them for political gains.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has solidified China’s powerful abilities in surveillance. Beijing now has more tools to address the issue of undocumented African immigrants, something that could trigger future tensions between African states and China.
To face the future challenges in these relations, the Chinese government must seriously respond to anti-African racism through education programmes involving not only the central government in Beijing, but also schools and local authorities.
China must also be more sensitive to local realities. Inter-governmental relations between African and Chinese ruling elites and policymakers are strong in many instances. But there is a need to strengthen relations between ordinary people as well, or between Chinese businesses and their employees and host communities.
Chinese-African friendship associations, African students in China, and the Confucius Institutes in some African countries and universities hold enormous potential. They can aid intercultural understanding, tolerance and promote positive individual relations. Together with the media they could play a role in undoing racism on both sides.
Although relations between China and Africa have been strong over the years, time will tell how the trio of racism, media, and local realities interplay to (re)shape migration between them.