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Racial Discrimination in China - a Social Issue Neglected for Long

By Ruijian Zhu

In February 2018, as billions of people worldwide celebrated the Lunar New Year, a skit broadcasted on CCTV New Year Gala spurred criticism and dispute. Preformed on the biggest TV platform in China, the skit discussed China’s foreign aid and construction project in Africa. Besides the prevalent political propaganda embedded in Chinese TV programs, this skit included enormous amount of racial discriminative contents, including generalization of African culture, stereotypical portrait of African women, and Chinese performer with blackface. The skit sparked immediate worldwide outrage that ranged from accusation of neocolonialism to criticism on party negligence. Similar discussions of the skit were rare in China as most viewers hailed the achievement of Chinese government in African countries from a nationalistic perspective.

Throughout the incident, Chinese viewers displayed an outrageous degree of ignorance on the issue of racism against Africa. Similar pattern also exists in Chinese government which could have prevented such disgrace on the international reputation of China. The majority of TV programs in China is influenced by the government, meaning that a show can serve a duel purposes of entertainment and propaganda. In recent years, skits on the New Year Gala were often modified to incorporate political ideals of the government. It serves as a tool to improve its public image both within and outside China. The skit this year failed to complete these objectives and reflected Chinese government’s unawareness of racism against Africans.

Shocked by the skit, I investigated the root cause of racism in China and how such racism was represented explicitly and implicitly. To first understand the existence of racism in China, I investigated with two approaches: past and present. Past racism incidents were proven with literature review, while present racism—both explicit and implicit racism—is detected by issuing first hand survey and conducting interviews with current African immigrants in China. The author believes that the cause of racism in China needs to be analyzed with a different angle from that of European or American countries because China does not have a history of slavery, which is a common source of racism against black people in European and American countries. The uniqueness of racism against Africans in China is explored through extensive literature review of Chinese culture and history.

One of the experts in researching African Diaspora in China is Professor Adams Bodomo at University of Vienna, who published a book titled Africans in China in which he discussed the life of Africans living in five different regions of China. Although the main focus of this work is not on racism and discrimination, this book is effective in providing definitions and backgrounds that are useful for this research. Professor Badomo proposed a unique definition for “African Diaspora in China” based on the non-immigration nature of China. He believed that the phrase “African Diaspora in China” “involves the constant back-and-forth movement of Africans into China, resulting in migration (temporary or permanent) and the formation of networks and communities in China.” This research will adopt the same definition. Prof. Bodomo’s research also provides us with insights over the general demographic background of African Diaspora in China and African communities in China. Based on his estimation, there are around half a million Africans living in China with most of them residing in Guangzhou (This estimation figure is calculated around 2012 when the book was published, and it took into account illegal immigrants). Two features of this Diaspora group need to be highlighted: first, a huge proportion of Africans in China are traders in search of business opportunity; most of them congregate around Guangzhou because of its well-developed manufacture industries. The trader backgrounds of African immigrants is important in understanding stereotypes that led to racism and discrimination. Second, Beijing has a huge proportion of students who are attracted by the education resources in the capital. These students will make up the majority of survey samples that are analyzed in this essay.

Unawareness of racism is common in the history of China, and its existence was previously denied thirty years ago when CCP president Zhao Ziyang announced that racism was common “everywhere in the world except China.” However, scholars like Barry Sautman have recorded multiple events during Post-Mao era that serve as evidence of the long-term existence of racism in China. In 1979, 1980, and 1989, violent confrontations took place between Chinese and African university students in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Nanjing. In all incidents, Chinese students attacked African students in the first place and the government’s response to these attacks are described as passive and ineffective by Sautman. In multiple official statements, the government acknowledged the misbehavior of Chinese students but refused to attribute the assaults to racism. The government insisted that these conflicts are independent incidents that have no connection with each other.

On a closer look at these incidents, however, it is clear that there are a lot of similarities in these attacks. First, all attacks involved racist and stereotypical speech from Chinese students. In the 1979 conflict, Chinese students referred African students as “hei gui”, which is a racist phrase in Chinese that can be translated into “black devils”. In 1989, African students were accused of being AIDS carriers, which is a common stereotype of Africans among Chinese. In both 1979, 1980, and 1989 conflicts, African students are described as womanizers who are sexually aggressive towards Chinese women. It’s worth noticing that international students who are not black were not subjected to this accusation.

In order to further prove the existence of racism in modern China, I distributed surveys in Beijing. After a month of distribution, I received 40 copies of effective responses. Although the scale of the sample is still small for quantitative research, it is sufficient in providing clues for the existence of racism.

Question 1, 3, 4, and 6 focus on the background of participants. From Q1 we learn that the survey covers Africans from thirteen countries with Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia on the top of that list. Q3 and Q4 asks about the occupation of participants and their reason for coming to China. An overwhelming high proportion of the participants are students (28 responses) while the remaining answers include teachers, businessmen, journalists, and lawyers. This composition of survey body is predictable as the survey is distributed at Peking University. Question 6 asks about the language frequently used by the participants. 31 of them reported English, 15 of them reported Chinese, and 1 each reported French, Zulu, and Swahili.

Question 2 and 5 investigate how long the participants have stayed in China, and whether they plan to stay in China in the future. When asked how long they have stayed in China (Question 2), 7 replied less than 6 months, 13 replied between 6 months and two years, 10 replied between 2 years and 5 years, and 10 replied over 5 years. However, when asked whether they have plans to stay in China in the future, only 11 replied yes while 29 answered either unsure or no.

Question 7 asks the participant to rate their perception on how Africans are treated from 1 to 10, with 1 being treated better than Chinese citizens and 10 being treated worse than Chinese citizens. The median of all responses in 7, which shows that most Africans perceive themselves as being treated worse than Chinese citizens. The subsequent question (question 8) directly asks participants’ opinion on the extent to which their skin color affects the level of treatment they receive in question 7. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least influential and 10 being extremely influential, question 8 also requires the participant to rate their response. The mean for Q8’s response is 6.175 and the median is 7. The result of these two questions provide clues for my assumption that Africans suffer from discrimination that stems from racial discrimination.

Question 10 is an open question that asks participants whether they think Africans are favored or mistreated by government officials. The result is a mixture of no different treatment and being mistreated while no participants believe that Africans are being favored. Our survey shows that the majority of respondents do not believe that difference in treatment exists, suggesting that discrimination and racism are not systematic in China. This conclusion is affirmed Prof. Bodomo through his interactions with Africans which he recorded in his book Africans in China.

Among those who responded mistreatment, one respondent alleges that Africans often suffer from unfounded suspicion from immigration officials even if they have a valid residence permit. Two respondents believe Africans are being mistreated because of their skin color. One respondent claims that Chinese government “propagates to its people about the bad side of Africa hence encouraging its nationals to maltreat Africans everywhere”. These alleged mistreatments are the same type of racist behaviors exhibited by Chinese students during 1980s, which includes stereotypical judgments (AIDS, womanizers, and illegal immigrant) and racism based on skin color.

In order to extract details on the life of Africans in China, I conducted a thirty-minute interview with an African immigrant currently living in Beijing. The person interviewed is a Kenyan teacher in the international department of a Chinese school. He was offered a teaching job in China 10 years ago and has stayed in China since then. According to him, the teaching job he was offered in China is in every aspect better than opportunities he had in Kenya. He said it is easy to settle down in Beijing as the BICF (Beijing International Christian Fellowship), a religious group, is extremely helpful in connecting foreigners. There are weekly meetings and small group meetings in which he can study the Bible, share ideas, and mingle with people from his own language group, which, in this case, are Swahili and his Kenyan mother tongue. There is also a small Kenyan community formed by three Kenyans within the school where the interviewee teaches. Above all, the interviewee added that social media also helped him to find communities and friends. However, the interviewee pointed out that he does not have any Chinese friends even though he has stayed in China for more than ten years. He also said that besides BICF meetings, he does not have a habit of participating in social events, which may be helpful for him to better settle down in Beijing.

In order to investigate discriminative behavior within immigration system, I asked the interviewee to talk about his experience interacting with the government. To my surprise, the interviewee expressed no dissatisfaction with either immigration policy or the police force. He remarked that he has never encountered restriction or inconvenience of any form when renewing his working visa every year, though he agreed that visa issue could be a big trouble for illegal immigrants. Regarding interaction with the police force, the interviewee provided an answer contradictory to many reports on Africans in China. He claimed that he had never been stopped by police for questions or ID check. He recalled once when he voluntarily provided his ID to the police at a check point in the street, he was told no need for it and allowed to enter. When I expressed my astonishment after listening to his words, he replied: ‘be a good citizen, do not disturb Chinese people, and you will be fine.”

At the end of the interview, the topic of discrimination based on race and skin color was brought up by the interviewee himself, who believed that he has suffered implicit discrimination within the school. He claimed that the school promotes teachers based on their appearances rather than experience. White, young teachers who have limited teaching experiences are offered better positions than veteran teachers who have worked for years at the school but are ethnic minorities. Comparing this circumstance with that of Europe, where he previously held a position as a teacher, he admired the fact that European schools promote faculties based on their experiences and degrees rather than race and appearance. This discriminative promotion system casts a light on the existence of implicit racism against Africans in China. It reflects a broader mistrust that exists between Chinese and Africans.

What is equally important (as acknowledging the existence of racism in China) is finding the cause of it. First, we need to distinct Chinese racism against Africans from general racism in Europe and America. Racism in western countries is the product of slavery and colonial era, during which white population exerted dominance over black population. An example of racism of slavery root will be the Blackface in the United States. However, slavery and imperialism are not contributing factors of racism in China because the country did not have a history of dominance over black population. Noticeable connection between China and African countries were established no until the Cold War during which Pro-communism African countries sent exchange students to China for further education. Racism in China has its roots in stereotypes of Africans.

The first stereotype is weak intellectual capability, which first appeared in the work of Tan Sitong (1865-1898), a radical reformer during the 1880s. In his book Views on the Management of World Affairs, Tan divide the world into three regions with China classified as “the core of the universe” and Africa classified as “state of the beast”. Tan’s stereotype was fostered by the long-held belief of supremacy of China—a belief that is embedded in traditional Chinese culture. The most obvious representation of such belief is the name “China”, which means “the country in the center of the universe” in Chinese. The existence of this type of stereotype in modern day China was verified by Sautman in his published work Racism in Post-Mao China. In this paper, he included a 1992 poll among a diverse sampling populations of 461 people from 14 groups. One question asked the participants to rate the intelligence of people of different races (choices include highly intelligent, fairly intelligent, average intelligent, below average intelligent, and unintelligent), and the result showed that “all groups rated Africans last in terms of intelligence.” Student groups tend to place Africans between average and below average while intellectuals usually rate Africans as below average to unintelligent. In the same question, Europeans, Japanese, Americans and South-east Asians were all given higher rating.

The second stereotype that causes discrimination in China is the association of disease with Africans. In past, Africans are often related to AIDS and this stereotype has recently evolved into association with Ebola Virus Disease which erupted from 2013 to 2016 in West Africa. This stereotype is most likely caused by Chinese media’s narrow coverage of news in African countries. Positive news are rarely reported while information of Ebola in West Africa is persistent on state media.

The third stereotype, which is less common than the other two, is the aforementioned “womanizer”. This stereotype is most predominant during the 1980s among universities in which African male students may date Chinese female students—a relationship that often leads to discontent within Chinese community. A protestor of the 1989 Nanjing incident expressed discomfort over black-Chinese relations rather than foreign-Chinese relations. Another demonstrator remarked that a Chinese girl will be denounced and humiliated within Chinese community if she dates a black man. However, the stereotype of womanizer is starting to wane in modern China, especially in Guangzhou where many male African diaspora married Chinese wives. Professor Bodomo estimated that, in 100 years, an African Chinese minority ethnic group may emerge in China and demand “to be recognized as a distinct ethnic group in the country and accorded full citizenship rights in China.”

In addition to stereotypes, another source of racism in China may be the negative connotation of the color “black” in Chinese language. In Modern Chinese Dictionary, the character “black” has five definitions: 1) The color; 2) Darkness; 3) Night; 4) Illegal/unofficial; and 5) Vicious. While the first three definitions are common among different languages, the last two negative definitions of “black” are unique to Chinese culture, constituting to racism in China. These two definitions of “black” is constantly used Chinese words like “gangsters ” (black gang), “unlicensed shop” (black shop), “illegal residence” (black residence), and “evil intention” (black heart). The negative connotation of “black” can be easily associated with African Diaspora in China because of their skin color and their social status in China since many Africans conduct trade business in China and many Africans are illegal residents in cities.

The relationship between China and Africa has arrived at a new stage as The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was hosted last month in China. Amid criticism of neocolonialism, the forum signifies a new landmark in the economic ties between China and African countries after the initial establishment of Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. The FOCAC 2018 is also regarded as a diplomatic victory for Beijing as three African countries (the Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Burkina Faso) renounced their diplomatic tie with Taiwan and established formal diplomatic relationship with mainland China. Apart from economic and diplomatic development, however, the skit indicates that the cultural relationship between China and African countries has not been improved or taken seriously. Propaganda have successfully diverged people’s attention from this ever growing social issue of racism and discrimination. In a country where 91% of its population is of the same ethnicity, racism is hard to catch. This article intends to expose this social issue through literature reviews, surveys, and interview. Although there is not enough quantitative data in this research to completely prove the existence of racism against Africans in China, the survey and the interview provided promising results that help prompt further studies in this area.

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