Religious discrimination of Africans in Guangzhou

By Natalie Craig

March 10, 2020

Sunday English Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral 
Photo credits: Natalie Craig

GUANGZHOU, China — The South China city of Guangzhou is characterized by invisible barriers of racial division and informal segregation. Through interviews and extensive travel between districts across the city, I gathered evidence of strong racial divides between Chinese and African inhabitants. One of the largest divides between Chinese and Africans appears to be diametrically opposed views towards religion. These divides, along with visa crackdowns, have led to a rapid decline of Africans residing in Guangzhou. 

The current estimated population of Africans in Guangzhou is 15,000 compared to 100,000 in 2012. In pockets of the city with a large African presence, surveillance, and security personnel are heightened. At Sacred Heart Cathedral, cameras line the wall of the building both inside and out. Each Sunday afternoon, there is an english mass dedicated to foreigners. Although the service included African style processional music and African clergy members, the service was led by a Chinese priest speaking broken english. This scenario falls in line with Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution stating that, “…religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.” In practice, this means religious leaders may only be Chinese citizens.

Crossing the unseen lines of segregation, a few Chinese attendants come to see the english mass to observe the spectacle of Africans attending church in this ornate cathedral. Many Chinese view this place of worship as a tourist attraction — a “big jamboree they can come visit and get a show to observe this foreign idea of going to church,” explained a Nigerian businesswoman outside the church. 

After the Sunday show is over, Chinese citizens are forced to leave by six o’clock, while many Africans stay behind for another, less censored service in an adjacent building. As the gates are closed, it shows Africans locked behind iron bars as the church gates close. The physical barrier intensifies the “us versus them” mentality that has arisen among Guangzhou residents of various backgrounds. According to some of the Africans in the city, many Chinese view them as foreign and strange, some with curiosity and others with condescension. 

However, some of these prejudices are not one-sided. Africans also mentioned their frustration with Chinese or their lack of desire to get to know them. “The Chinese don’t understand Christmas, and they don’t understand our religion,” a man from Uganda remarked. “It makes it hard to connect with anyone.” 

These prejudices are coupled with stereotypes that cloud the already limited understanding of one another’s culture, and many do not dare overlook the stereotypes and seek to forge a relationship with a member of the other group, or to form their own opinions about their co-inhabitants. In speaking to both Africans and Chinese citizens, it is clear that they look upon each other with vitriol, deepening the chasm of misunderstanding between the two factions. 

The most chilling factor in this undeniable prejudice and discrimination, are the government policies that encourage and perpetuates these feelings. Last year, China’s State Council promulgated policies dedicated to the Sinicization of religion, stipulating that Chinese should “actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society.” This policy characterizes the active government efforts in shaping religion so that everything aligns with the beliefs of the Communist Party. Through policies like this one, and others designed to segregate and restrict religion, the government deepens tensions between the two groups. At the Guangzhou International Christian Fellowship, a foreigner-only Protestant church,, a man from Uganda expressed his frustration with the regulated service time, explaining that if a holiday like Christmas did not fall on a Sunday, they are not permitted to meet on the actual day of the holiday as this would be outside of the church’s permit. With Christmas falling on a Wednesday this year, members of the congregation will be unable to hold a Christmas Eve or Christmas day service. 

Tong Tong Shoes and Clothing Trading City 
Photo credits: Natalie Craig

George, an owner of a Ghanaian restaurant in Tong Tong Shoes and Clothing Trading City, identifies as a traditionalist. He explained that in his time living in Guangzhou for six years he has only been able to worship privately in his own home. While many people were hesitant to speak about their religion or feelings towards the Chinese government, George feels that, “when you come to a country you need to follow their laws. If you don’t agree, then you shouldn’t come to this country.” 

Although attitudes vary towards the religious crackdowns, the acrimonious environment between Africans and Chinese in Guangzhou is riddled with misconceptions of the others’ culture, religion, and language. Many Africans cannot speak Mandarin or Cantonese, while many Chinese cannot speak English, French, or any African language. The government’s active surveillance  state holds a tight grip over its people, watching their every move and controlling all expressive elements of their lives, including religion and culture. 

For Africans in Guangzhou, religious sites are sometimes the only place they can find fellowship and a sense of community. This sense of isolation and inequality will shape the future of relations between Africa and China. While the population of Africans in Guangzhou may continue to decline, the experiences these Africans had in Guangzhou will shape the view of China for many abroad. If divides are not mended between the two groups, dissent and, in the worst case, violent outbreaks may be inevitable.