Animosity towards African students has been a recurring event since the early 1960s, when scholarships provided by the Chinese government allowed many students from 'China-friendly' African countries to study in Beijing. This policy was originally based on the idea of 'third world solidarity' and Mao's linking of the fight against 'white imperialism' with Marxist class war. Many of these African students were given larger educational grants than native Chinese students, and racial hostility towards the Africans was a regular occurrence. Most of these students returned to their home countries before reaching the end of their courses due to poor living conditions and the political uncertainties of the Mao era. From the mid-1970s, China allowed African students to study outside of Beijing.
As well as resentment about the larger stipends given to African students, hostility from Chinese students towards Africans also flared up when there was contact between African men and Chinese women. In an incident in Shanghai in 1979, African students were attacked after playing loud music and consorting with Chinese women. These clashes became more common during the 1980s and sometimes led to arrests and deportations of African students. Cultural differences in dating habits added to the tensions - whereas Chinese students were expected to know each other for some time before dating, African students may have come from cultural backgrounds with more liberal attitudes towards asking strangers to date. In their defense, the Africans noted that any women present at their parties were their voluntarily and that Chinese men don't "own" Chinese women."
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel about correct identification between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had ordered the Africans to register their guests, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans' dormitories, shouting slogans such as "Kill the black devils!" After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from Hehai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000 strong demonstration which called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of 26 December, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The demonstrations were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrations which lasted several more days.
In January, three of the African students were deported for being suspected of starting the brawl. The other students returned to Hehai University and were required to follow new regulations, including a night-time curfew, having to report to university authorities before leaving the campus, and having no more than one Chinese girlfriend whose visits would be limited to the lounge area. Guests were still required to be registered.
Anti-African demonstrations spread to other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. These were smaller than the Nanjing protests, though the Beijing protests were one of the currents which led to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming "No Offend Chinese Women".