HONG KONG — When a Nigerian businessman died in police custody after being attacked by a mob on the streets of a major Chinese city last month, the story made few headlines. African communities appear increasingly frustrated at the racial discrimination directed at them in China and increasingly believe their own governments are complicit in hushing up such abuses in order not to embarrass Beijing and risk jeopardizing Chinese investment back home.
The Nigerian businessman, named by Chinese authorities as Elebechi Celestine, 28, died after an argument over a disputed taxi fare with the driver of an electric bicycle.
The incident took place in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Africans on the scene report that crowds of Chinese proceeded to attack the Nigerian, who was then arrested by police.
Professor Adams Bodomo, the director of African Studies at Hong Kong University, says discrimination against Africans in China is rife.
“The weakest link in Africa-China relations is Chinese security officers," he says. "They are incompetent and sometimes - I will use the word - racist. They are racist because they seek out Africans alone [among races] and do this to them.”
Africans in China
Bodomo is author of the recently published book Africans in China, which explores social and cultural relations between Africans and Chinese, and the implications for inter-governmental relations.
Sultane Barry, president of the Association of Guineans in China, suggests the unequal nature of these relations - predicated on Chinese investment in Africa and the sovereign debt China is willing to forgive - is at the root of the ongoing racism African migrants suffer.
“Our leaders should stop begging to China," said Barry. "This is one reason we cannot complain. When we complain to our government[s] they just put it in a drawer and forget about it.”
Speaking anonymously, some Africans with recognized authority within the community in China said African embassies in Beijing are exerting pressure on their citizens to quash any comment on Celestine’s death and the issue of discrimination.
In Beijing, Nigerian embassy spokesman Ademola Oladele expressed confidence in the Chinese investigation into Celestine’s death. He says in the meantime, diplomats have worked to ease tensions among the African community in China.
“Of course you know very well that we want to calm our people, let them know there is no need for mass, large-scale protests and they naturally obeyed," says Oladele. "They fell in line and this crisis was aborted and they toed the line of peaceful negotiation. And I believe that the authorities will also reciprocate in that manner.”
Critics say that African nations were eager to prevent Beijing from being embarrassed at last week’s ministerial conference at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, thereby jeopardizing prospective Chinese investment back home.
The forum, inaugurated in 2000, is held every three years. This round was attended by leaders from 50 African countries.
Among the major announcements last Friday: China will lend Africa $20 billion over the next three years - twice the sum offered in 2009, at a time many other countries are cutting aid to Africa amid the global downturn.
South African president Jacob Zuma told a press conference: “We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China, we are equals.” Not everyone is convinced, says Hong Kong Professor Bodomo.
“It is meaningless for African leaders and the Chinese government to meet every three years, pat each other on the back and say we are friends when they cannot solve people to people problems when Africans are suffering at the hands of their officials,” says Bodomo.
Sultane Barry goes further, suggesting the well-being of Chinese investors in Africa could be compromised should Africans in Africa seek reprisals.
“We don’t know what the consequences might be," says Barry. "You have many Chinese in Africa and a lot of things can happen in this situation. So if the authorities don’t get involved, it will be very sad.”
Chinese media say several hundred Nigerians took to the streets of Guangzhou to protest Celestine’s death. The Chinese foreign ministry had no update on the investigation into his fate when contacted this week.
While the number of ethnic Africans in China is not known, there are estimated to be 100,000 in Guangzhou, including 10,000 Nigerians, many of them successful entrepreneurs.
Among them is President Obama’s half brother Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who married a Chinese and now lives in Shenzhen, another major city in the province where Celestine died.
Barry says migrant Africans in China are key to bilateral trade that topped $166 billion last year. He insists the onus is as much on Africans as the Chinese authorities to ensure the Diaspora is respected.
“The Chinese have a negative image of Africans," adds Barry. "One reason is the image of Africa shown here: Africans living in ghettoes; dying of disease; African women being raped. Maybe that makes it easier for them to singularize us. Africa needs to wake up and alter the impression it gives.”
Some observers explain Chinese racism as a result of the country being closed to the world for so many years during the Cultural Revolution.
But even in wealthy, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the suspicion of entrenched, institutionalized Chinese prejudice towards Africans lingers.
In Hong Kong’s Soho entertainment district, Togolese reggae music lilts into the night in Makumba, one of the city’s few African bars.
Makumba, popular with all races, is regularly raided by the police. Cameroonian owner, Amina de la Foulhouse, believes officers are convinced the club is a den of iniquity due to its African links.
“The attitude is really bad," says Amina de la Foulhouse. "Sometimes 20 police will come … The way they say “Give me the license! Stop the music!” … They would not behave that way, if I was a white woman with a business in Hong Kong. I am 100 percent sure about what I am saying.”
The fight against discrimination can take time. The death of Celestine Elebechi occurred the same day the U.S. Congress issued a formal statement of regret for the passage of racially prejudiced laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.
From 1862 the Act legitimized discrimination against Chinese seeking to migrate to America, and thousands who already lived there. The 70th anniversary of its repeal is approaching.