If the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation hoped that its April 13 press statement fully explained Botswana’s position on the racism that Sub-Saharan Africans in China have been subjected to, it failed dismally.
“It is true or not?” asked Thato Abueng on the statement’s comment board on the ministry’s Facebook page, then adding four laughing-face emojis. “Nna ha ke utwe sepe.” [I don’t understand a word.]
Many more commentators expressed sentiment similar to Abueng’s while others connected invisible dots to reach a grim conclusion. Oteng Kabelo said that the government should return “whatever you took from China.” The ministry’s statement says that Botswana’s Ambassador to China was among African Ambassadors in Beijing who met with the Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs on the very day the statement was issued. Basically, the ambassadors representing a whole continent of 1.2 billion people met with an Assistant Minister. That prompted Mmueledi Luther-King to wonder: “So we brought the whole team of African Ambassadors in China to meet with a Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs?? Vice Minister??? Vice???” He later posted what seems to be a quote because it is enclosed in quotation marks: “Be careful with how much you tolerate, you are teaching them how to treat you.”
The main problem with the statement is the non-assertive, non-condemnatory and patently deceptive language it uses. Some would say the statement was written by diplomats about a diplomatic situation and typically used the dry, non-revealing language of diplomacy. However, there are whole archival records of diplomatic statements being assertive, condemnatory and brutally honest.
About the deception: the statement reduces incontrovertible photographic evidence to the level of unconfirmed idle rumour from the streets. There is genuine footage of Africans being harassed by Chinese police and of an English sign at a McDonald’s that says that the restaurant will no longer serve black people. That notwithstanding, the ministry’s statement refers to “reports of mistreatment” and that the meeting with the Vice Minister was meant to “establish the veracity of these reports.” Ordinarily, people establish veracity (factual accuracy) when the evidence is lacking. The question has to be, what more evidence does Botswana want when there is already more than adequate photographic evidence of Africans in China being physically and emotionally abused?
The press release is titled “Statement on the Reported Mistreatment of African Nationals in China.” As used here, “reported” has the same semantic meaning as “alleged” and its absence would have more accurately reflected what actually happened – and can be easily proven.
Interestingly, in one seemingly harmless but loaded sentence, the Ministry seems to endorse what the Chinese government has given as explanation for why some African nationals were subjected to harsh treatment from the police. “It should be noted that in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the city of Guangzhou, the Government of the People’s Republic of China is enforcing quarantine measures and testing.” In itself this sentence doesn’t reveal much but the Chinese government has used variations and elaborations of it to justify why Africans were roughed up by the police. Apparently, some COVID-19 positive African men (reportedly Nigerian) went out to eat at a restaurant and ended up infecting both restaurant employees and other customers. Collective punishment is a crime under the Geneva Conventions – which China is a signatory to.
Botswana clearly wants to cover for China, which has been anything but honest in this matter. In an April 12, 2020 statement, Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that “all foreigners are treated equally.” That assertion doesn’t explain why only blacks have been subjected to forced evictions, repeated testing for COVID-19 and denial of service at restaurants. Nowhere in its statement does the Botswana mention these acts. The Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe would repeat the all-foreigners-are-treated-equally lie and claim that a few incidents were being “sensationalized.” Wilful intent on the part of the Chinese government to tell blatant lies clearly shows that it doesn’t want to own up to its culpability in the racism that blacks have been subjected to in its territory for some time now.
Much of the debate and reportage of the racism has dwelled on what is currently happening but there is a whole history that not only points to an entrenched culture of anti-black racism but also implicates the Chinese government itself. In October 2017, way before there was COVID-19, there was an exhibition (themed “This is Africa”) of pictures that compared blacks to wild animals. This exhibition was held at a private museum in Wuhan, a city that no longer needs any introduction. In its rebuttal statements, China has been keen to stress that Africans are “our brothers and sisters.” Oddly, this exhibition didn’t compare the Chinese to animals because if blacks look like wild animals, it should be expected that their Chinese siblings would also look the same. One can legitimately wonder whether by “brothers” and “sisters”, the Chinese are actually referring to Africa’s natural resources – like diamonds (sisters) and gold (brothers). The previous year, in 2016, a television station had flighted an advertisment of a black man whose Chinese girlfriend forces down a washing machine and comes out Chinese. The subtext was clear enough: blacks are dirty and need to be laundered. The only black actor in a “Star Wars” poster has also been replaced by spaceships. Photographic evidence of these incidents is all over the Internet.
To some, it would seem ridiculous to blame the Chinese government but nothing happens in China that the government doesn’t want to happen. If the government doesn’t want citizens to privately practise Falun Gong, they won’t. If, for the sake of equal treatment, the Chinese government wanted the Wuhan exhibition to depict Chinese likeness to wild animals, that would have happened without fail. If it considered the exhibition to have been highly offensive to Chinese values, it would have taken stern action against the museum.
The Chinese government is typically awfully quick to dismiss what portrays it in bad light as a “rumour.” When a Wuhan medical doctor alerted his acquaintances of a strange disease that was killing people, he found himself in trouble with the police for “spreading a rumour.” Against incontrovertible photographic evidence, the Chinese government has dismissed the abuse of blacks living in China as a rumour. In referring to the “reported mistreatment” of Africans, Botswana’s foreign affairs ministry is itself essentially characterising the abuse incidents as a rumour. Against all evidence to the contrary and seemingly intent on absolving China of blame, the Ministry’s statement ends: “Botswana remains confident that China will continue to tackle this pandemic in line with foreign policy principles of solidarity, tolerance, non-racialism, non-discrimination and compassion.” What is odd about that sentence is that there is more than enough evidence to shake confidence in China’s adherence to the principles of solidarity, tolerance, non-racialism, non-discrimination and compassion. Yet, Botswana retains its confidence in China.
The person who owns the ministry’s statement is the minister, Unity Dow, because she is the one who certainly approved it. If Dow needs any lesson on what being assertive reads like, she should borrow a leaf from the book of her Ghanaian counterpart, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey.
“I have been briefed on the inhumane treatment being meted out to Ghanaians and other African nationals in the People’s Republic of China with regards to the COVID-19 outbreak. I regret and highly condemn this act of ill-treatment and racial discrimination,” reads a press statement from Botchwey, whose full official title is Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration.
With language that plain, Thato Abueng is never going to say “Nna ha ke utwe sepe” after reading the latter statement. Botchwey’s intolerance for racism is also teaching the Chinese how to treat Ghanaians.