Africans in Beijing say discrimination on the rise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am

Students and businessmen, teachers and diplomats packed the African-themed Pili Pili restaurant on Friday in Beijing's run-down Super Bar Street, knocking back drinks and munching on African barbecue as a DJ spun the decks.

A Botswanan dance troupe gyrated, eliciting a chorus of applause. But for some there that night, things had changed.

A heavy-handed anti-drug operation by Beijing police in the nearby Sanlitun bar district had put many of Beijing's black residents on edge. In what witnesses say appeared to be a racially motivated exercise, about 30 African and Caribbean men, including the son of Grenada's ambassador, were arrested and some badly beaten early on September 22.

'The city is a more frightening place now,' said Michael, a 25-year-old businessman from Uganda, who did not want to give his full name. 'Since hearing about what happened that night, I've been very careful about where I go in Beijing. And I always bring my passport to prove that I'm here legally.'

Beijing's Public Security Bureau denied black men were the focus of the operation. A spokesman told the Associated Press that the action was 'aimed at rectifying social order'. Few among Beijing's African community appear to believe them. But many concede that there is a drug problem - and most cite the city's growing Nigerian population.

'Everyone knows they're the ones selling drugs here ... what they do gives Africans a bad name,' one high-ranking African diplomat said.

Others contend the size of the Nigerian population in Beijing makes them an easy target.

'To blame them is wrong,' said a 30-year-old Nigerian businessman who has lived in the capital for seven years. 'Most of the drug dealers in Beijing simply aren't Nigerian. Many are from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Kenya, but they use fake passports and pretend to be Nigerian because in the past, it was always easier to get into China if you were Nigerian.

'It might be Africans out on the street doing the selling, but it's the Chinese who run the operation.'

Some say the perception that all drug dealers are black is fuelling racism and discrimination in the capital, which in just 10 months' time will be hosting the Olympics and thousands of black athletes and sports fans.

'It's definitely getting worse,' said Thabo Lieket, a 24-year-old student from Lesotho who was among those arrested in the raid and later released without charge. 'In the last few months, the atmosphere has changed. Beijingers are becoming more racist.'

Black men say taxi drivers will often refuse to take them. Some restaurants and bars are known for stopping anyone black from entering. But it is not just Beijingers who are being blamed.

The expatriate manager of one popular bar in Sanlitun said: 'It's the Africans who sell drugs, so we try to keep them out. If I hear an African accent, I'll ask them to leave.'

But despite what many of Beijing's black residents feel is increasing discrimination, few say it is bad enough to make them leave China.

'When I lived in Ireland, I had eggs thrown at my house, dogs set on me and stones hurled at me by kids. You don't get that in Beijing,' said Ama, a 29-year-old Ghanaian-Irish teacher. 'I feel a lot safer here than I did in Ireland. There's a lot of racism, but it's because people ... don't know anything about Africa.'