COVID-19 Pandemic and Nigeria-China Relations: Critical Issues and China’s International Responsibility (2)

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Muhammadu Buhari
Muhammadu Buhari

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

In this column last week, focus was on the controversial invitation extended by the Federal Government of Nigeria to some Chinese medics to come to Nigeria and assist in the struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s discussion is a continuation of the issue, but with a focus on the mistreatment of Nigerians in China and the question of China’s international responsibility. In this regard, let us put the understanding of the nexus between mistreatment and international responsibility in context to begin with.

There is no ambiguity in the notion of mistreatment. It is simply bad treatment or maltreatment, indecency, and an expression of unacceptable mania of behaviour in both inter-personal relations and political governance. On the contrary, the notion of international responsibility is complex. The concept of ‘International Responsibility to Protect,’ otherwise referred to as IR2P, is quite different from the concept of ‘International Responsibility’ of States under private international law. When IR2P is referred to in academic discussions, it is the international responsibility as initiated by the Government of Canada and ultimately endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005.

In this regard, when situations of genocide, crimes of war, crimes against humanity, violations of international humanitarian law, etc exist in a given Member State of the international community, and the Government of that Member State is unable to put prompt end to the situation, the international community has the responsibility, that is, the international responsibility, to protect the affected citizens of such a country, without having to be officially invited by the legitimate government of the country. Such international intervention will not be in conflict with the provision of Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter which prohibits foreign interventions in the domestic affairs of other sovereign States.

On the contrary, the concept of international responsibility under private international law has it that when a foreigner legally residing in a country is accused or alleged to have violated the law of the land, or that he is assaulted or victimised, and in the process of his quest for justice, he is unable to have access to fairness, justice, it is then that the country of which the foreigner has an effective nationality can claim the application of the principle of international responsibility to protect within the framework of consular protection or diplomatic protection, depending on the status of the affected foreigner.

When we espy the conception of the two concepts, it can still be observed that the protection of a national abroad under the pretext of denial of justice in the host country of the national, is still different, but it can be rightly considered as an extension of the duty of a legitimate government to protect all citizens, foreigners and whoever is legally residing in its country at the domestic level. A government should and be able to protect its citizens wherever they may be found. If every government is committed to good governance, fairness and justice for all, there will not be need for the application of the rule of international responsibility. Consequently, the discussion of China’s international responsibility to protect foreigners, and particularly Nigerians, cannot be called to question with the many posted videos in the social media, showing how foreigners have been treated.

The Recent Chinese Mistreatment

Grosso modo, Nigerians have been maltreated in various countries of the world. The Government of Nigeria has also and always reacted to such acts of maltreatment, but again, always to no avail. The international responsibility of such countries has never been called to question. Besides, the Government of Nigeria is not on record to have any known foreign policy of protection beyond always announcing efforts at investigation and promising commitment to protect Nigerians wherever they may find themselves.

As a result, Nigerians are from time to time mistreated. The common rationale always given for such ‘alleged mistreatment’ is that Nigerians have violated the law of their host countries. We talk about ‘alleged mistreatment’ because the affected countries never accept any allegation of mistreatment. Their explanation is, more often than not, that their law does not allow anyone, foreigners and citizens alike, to flout the law of the land. This is the argument also advanced by the Chinese government in the case of the reported maltreatment of Nigerians in China.

There have been different incidents of mistreatment of Africans in China but the genesis of the recent one can be traced to the cases of two Nigerians, who reportedly tested positive to COVID-19, but who also reportedly escaped from being quarantined. The escape is said to have prompted the decision to lockdown some parts of the city where Africans live and trade. More important, the Health Commission engaged in an extensive testing of African people. The outcome of the testing revealed that 111 of the 4,500 Africans in Guangzhou tested positive. This situation can be considered as the immediate causal dynamic of the mistreatment, but surely not tenable as justification for whatever may be called mistreatment. There are more fundamental dynamics that can to understand the issue.

Put differently, the mistreatment can be explained by three other main factors: first is the status of Guangzhou as capital of Guangdong Province and preferential choice of establishment for Africans; the second is the gap in communication between policy directive in Beijing and policy implementation in Guangzhou; and lastly is the conflict in the attitudinal disposition of the Chinese as a people and Chinese as a government.

As regards Guangzhou as a preferential choice by Nigerians for settlement, it is the epicentre of China’s economic reform, and particularly the heart of China’s export-driven manufacturing sector. This means that the Beijing authorities cannot but have a more monitoring eagle eyes on what transpires in the city and in the whole province. In fact, Guangzhou is geo-politically located near Hong Kong, another hub for international business, and Macau, both of which have been exposed to westernisation in many ramifications. Guangzhou has the largest concentration of Africans in the whole of Asia and majority of them are essentially from Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali.

On the gap in communication between policy directive in Beijing and policy implementation in Guangzhou, the Central Government is directly responsible for foreign policy but it is the local agencies that are directly responsible for immigration, a critical aspect of foreign policy in international relations. As noted by one academic, ‘when Local Governments like those in Guangzhou make decisions in a crisis, they won’t prioritise national and diplomatic interests until they receive pressure and guidance from Beijing’ (vide “Mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou threatens China’s coronavirus diplomacy,” https://theconversation.com, 17-04-2020).

As further explained by the scholar, amid the ‘fear of imported coronavirus cases and a second wave of the pandemic in China, the Local Government implemented surveillance and mandatory testing and an additional 14-day quarantine for all African nationals in the city, regardless of whether they tested positive for COVID-19. These measures paid no regard to whether people had recently travelled out of China, or how they would be mistreated by landlords, hotel managers and shop keepers.’

Concerning the conflict in the attitudinal disposition of the Chinese as a people and Chinese as a government, the Government of China preaches the gospel of a win-win cooperation, particularly with Africa. It hardly talks about racism, superiority of race. It talks more often about ‘all-weather’ relationship. It talks about equity and fairness and is always coming into the open to defend Africa during debates on Africa. The main reason for this official position cannot also be far-fetched: China sees the African continent majorly as a source of raw materials, mineral resources needed for China’s economic growth and development.

And true enough, since the miraculous economic transformation of China, begun over thirty years ago, Africa has been the main source of its needed material resources. In the words of Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at the Claremont Mckenna College and a non-resident Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, ‘Chinese leaders see Africa mainly as a source of natural resources. China’s fast-paced growth since the early 1990s has generated a voracious demands for oil and subsoil minerals, and Africa appeared a perfect fit since dominant multinationals had a weak hold on the continent and Beijing could easily outbid them to gain equity stakes in mines and oil fields’ (vide his article, “China’s expensive bet on Africa has failed,” Asian Review, May 01, 2020). This observation is simply to underscore the importance of Africa in the economico-political and strategico-industrial calculations of the Chinese government.

Perhaps more interestingly, the Beijing authorities are also underscoring the need to respond to the prediction of population explosion in China by 2050, and therefore the need to encourage Chinese people to travel out and seek establishment wherever they are accepted. In this particular case, Africa has always been on record to be the terra cognita for humanity, Good Samaritanism, altruism of all kinds, and unrestricted generosity to foreigners. China, for reasons of force majeure, cannot afford the luxury of being hostile to Africa and its people in light of its own enlightened self-interest. Even if the Chinese government has any belief in racist policies vis-a-vis Africa, the manifestation cannot be consciously done, and for that matter in the public.

However, this position is completely different from that of the people of China. The attitude of the people of China can be discussed and understood in the context of China’s international responsibility.

Nigeria and China’s International Responsibility

Several Chinese people, rightly or wrongly, hold the belief that foreigners are being given unnecessary advantage over them, and from this perspective, relate to them with much animosity. Various videos of such animosity abound in the social media. The people of China do not know that the peace and security at home, in China, is also a derivation from the contributions coming from foreign countries. In other words, many Chinese not only believe that foreigners are being given extra benefits to their detriment. They also see the extra benefits as unfairness to them. In fact, when the Beijing authorities published the draft regulations aimed at easing the conditions for foreigners to get permanent residency in China, the draft was met with very ‘strong opposition.’

From the foregoing, therefore, the first issue in the international responsibility of China towards foreigners is the failure of the Beijing authorities to educate the people of China on their sensitivity to racism, and particularly to Africans, with whom the Government of China wants to develop special understanding. China cannot seek to court a lady and refuse to respect her parents. That is surely not possible in the African setting.

Secondly, there is the declaration of the policy of belief in the principle of international responsibility in all its ramifications, on the one hand, and failure to make the application of the principle universal. Without doubt, the Government of China is on record to strongly believe in the principle of international responsibility and the Chinese leader regularly talked about it in the context of an international community with a shared future. For instance, in his telephone conversation with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on 22 January, 2020, President Xi Jinpin has it that, ‘guided by the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind, the Chinese government has acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner. We have shared control and treatment experience with the WHO and the rest of the world without reservation, and actively engaged in international cooperation to jointly meet this common threat and challenge. We are resolved to protect the lives and health of the Chinese and other peoples across the world.’ The emphasis is on the resolution to protect, not only the Chinese, but also the other peoples of the world.

President Xi Jinping repeated his view of the need for global cooperation and need to protect other peoples of the world during his meeting with the Cambodian Prime Minister, Samdech Techno Hun Sen, on 5 February, 2020. He said: ‘The CPC and the Chinese government have a strong sense of responsibility toward its own people and the international community… As a nation that has gone through a lot of hard time, China has full confidence, capability and determination to win the battle against the disease… China will take good care of all Cambodian nationals, including students in China like its own, and protect their life and health.’

Thirdly, while the position of the Government of China may be clear on its responsibility to protect everyone, the implementing agencies of government are on record to be acting contrarily. In this regard, for instance, testing positive to COVID-19 cannot be a punishable offence. What actually is punishable should be COVID-19. Again, if some Nigerians committed an offence by escaping lawful testing for fear of being actually injected with the terrible virus, or assaulting a Chinese nurse, the offence of one or few individuals cannot be rightly visited on a whole group of people. Those who specifically committed offences, or those who might have assaulted the nurses should have been simply brought to book, rather than evicting a whole group of people and neglecting them on the streets homeless, only to suffer.

It is precisely this aspect of the politics and management of COVID-19 that raises the dimension and failure of China’s claim of international responsibility. If the main focus and concern of the Beijing authorities remains non-spreading of the virus in the country, there cannot but be little sense in throwing people believed to be carriers of COVID-19 into public streets. They will only spread the virus the more. In this type of situation, the ideal thing to do would have been to keep them in isolation centres, if the Chinese believed that they were still COVID-19 carriers.

If the central government wants to protect, and the Local Government probably wants to impress Beijing of being very proactive, acting more than necessary, there is no way such an action would not be detrimental to China’s international image. In Kenya and other countries, China is increasingly being accused of racism and discrimination. This cannot be in the long term interest of Africa and China. However, and good enough too, the Government of China has recognised the faux pas of the Guangzhou authorities by quickly taking some diplomatic steps to redeem the already badly tainted image of its country.

For instance, on April 13, 2020 the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it clear that it would adjust its coronavirus restrictions on African nationals. It promised to provide them with health services without discrimination, as well as adjust accommodation prices for those in financial difficulties. Apart from this, the McDonald’s management has apologised after its branch in Guangzhou prevented some black people from entering it.

More importantly, as noted in conversation.com, the Chinese Weibo also closed 180 accounts for ‘inciting discrimination.’ It discouraged its users ‘from sharing news involving foreigners and foreign countries.’ And more interestingly, ‘officials and community leaders in Guangzhou have also begun to realise the importance of treating Africans decently’ and have also started to send flowers and gifts to Africans in their areas. Civil society groups are also making good efforts, with their volunteers coming out to offer supplies and psychological support to people in need (https://theconversation.com; 17-04-2020).

This is a good and welcomed development because the world of today is that of unequal interdependence, conflicting national interests, globalisation- or technology-driven colonialism, in which Nigerians, and particularly the more courageous and business-oriented Igbo people, would want to quickly return to China after the COVID-19 saga. Igbo business people account for more than 70% of Nigerians in Guangzhou, importing knocked down parts to Nigeria, filling the vacuum of Nigeria’s technical needs. Without them, most members of the middle class in Nigeria will suffer devastatingly. Consequently, the international responsibility of Nigeria is to have an MOU on the protection of Nigerians in China in particular. In general, Nigeria must evolve a foreign policy on protection of Nigerians in every country of the world. That is one clear message from the mistreatment of Nigerians the world over. More important, Nigeria must reckon with the politics of COVID-19. Muammar Gaddafi was quoted as saying that ‘they will create the viruses themselves and sell you the antidotes. Thereafter, they will pretend to take time to find the solution when they already have it.’ This statement is self-explanatory and is not limited to any given major power.