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China's Uneasy Relationship with Race and Ethnicity - part 1

Updated: May 25

The above message was one of the first I remember receiving on WeChat, from an owner of a local bar who had welcomed me (a white man) to his establishment with open arms during my early days in China. I can’t recall the context but I can’t think of one in which this unabashed, overt racism would be permissible. It would be unfair to infer that this individual’s bigoted stance is symptomatic of Chinese attitudes towards black people across the board, however, there are tough questions to be asked over the prevalence of discrimination towards ethnic minorities - and blacks in particular - in modern-day China. As China expert Bonnie Girard wrote in a recent article for The Diplomat: “Racism is a worldwide scourge...what makes it different in China is how easy it is to encounter racist behavior and beliefs.”

The issue of racism in China has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks as the country fears a second wave of COVID-19. The 15,000 Africans residing (legally) in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou have become a convenient target of public hatred. Rumours of Africans being potential carriers of COVID-19 were fuelled by the local government testing and placing African nationals residing in an area of Guangzhou referred to “Chocolate City” by locals under 14-day quarantine - even if they hadn’t left China and even if they had previously tested negative for the virus. Soon after, restaurants and bars were turning away black people - a Guangzhou McDonald’s was forced to apologise and retrain staff after displaying a notice that read: “We’ve been informed from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant” -  and landlords began evicting African tenants who had paid their rents. Mr. J, a South African English teacher living Guangzhou told the China Insider: “there has always been an air of discrimination against Africans but things have been ramped up recently.”

Africans sleep on the street in Guangzhou after being evicted from their homes by landlords

The central government, usually known for its uncompromising robustness in quelling any signs of social disruption, stoody by idly on this occasion as popular racism spread on the streets and online through social media. Staying true to form, however, were Chinese state media outlets such as The Global Times and China Daily, who failed to report on the litany of instances of discrimination until the evidence became too insurmountable to play dumb. The optics weren’t great for China in countries it can usually depend on to pull rank, with the hashtag of #ChinaMustExplain being shared across social media platforms in several African nations and Chinese ambassadors in the continent being politely asked to take up the grievances of Africans with their superiors in Beijing. The word “unprecedented” has been banded about with unfettered abandon in recent weeks to describe almost anything COVID-19-related but, unfortunately, it cannot be applied to these cases of abhorrent racism in China.

When exploring matters surrounding race in China, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s only since Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms, with which the leader officially opened up China for business, that most Chinese people have come into contact with foreigners - both in China and abroad. Even today, China is amongst the countries with the lowest immigration in the world (migrants account for 0.07% of the population) and only around 10 percent of Chinese citizens hold passports. The commercial centres of Beijing and Shanghai don’t feel anywhere near as multicultural as London or New York and the Chinese word for any non-Chinese is 外国人(wai guo ren), literally meaning “outside country person”. Because different races don’t really co-exist in China, a lack of discourse exists on systemic racial discrimination. Take employment for example: why would equal opportunities be discussed when Chinese people and foreigners aren’t competing for the same jobs? It’s through this background of homogeneity and an “us and them” lens that China views race, making it difficult for genuine progress to occur and for racial stereotypes to be eradicated.

One of the few foreigners to be granted permanent residency in China

Foreigners - white people from the West, that is - have been gradually accepted as necessary outsiders that come and go in order to aid China's development. Generally speaking, Chinese people still see the white foreigner as a filmstar-like attraction to admire or take photos of. Black residents, however, have been battling against a plethora of discrimination within China since labour migration from countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Kenya began in earnest during the 1990s. In China, comments on facial features are not taboo in the same way they are in other places in the world and racism has been normalised in popular and commercial culture. Blacks are seen as dirty and uneducated - irrespective of their nationality or academic background - and are often unfairly associated with crime. Hostility towards an outside group is an effective shield for criticism of deeper-rooted social problems and therefore invariably goes unpunished by the authorities.

This 2016 advert for a detergent company, Qiaobi, aired for months in China before it was picked up and widely criticised across global media platforms

To throw in the obvious pun at this juncture, attitudes towards race in China can be exceedingly black and white. Even amongst the teenagers I taught who attended international school, had been around foreigners for years, and had grown up in “open” China, racism was seen purely as Jim Crow America. They would - quite rightly - consider it racist to lynch someone because of their skin colour, directly enforce separate use of public facilities, or use the N word. Underneath the surface, however, lingers a collective mindset in which blacks are subconsciously (or not) perceived as an underclass. I could ask one of my classes: “do you think black people should be treated badly?” and would probably be met with a chorus of “nos”, however, if I asked: “would you ever marry a black person?” I would expect a similar response. Prejudices are even more pronounced amongst older generations who are less likely to have had access to education and the outside world.

A 15 year old student from the international school I taught at describes how her impressions of black people are influenced by the news

Excerpts from a Liverpool supporters WeChat group I was part of in Hangzhou, China.

My ex-colleague receives reassurances from his landlady

Despite the somewhat grim picture this piece has painted of an ingrained culture of racial discrimination in China, I do see shoots of hope. China’s Generation Z is more broad-minded towards diversity and this should only increase as more Chinese students go abroad and interact with people of different backgrounds and racial profiles. Coming across foreigners within China's borders will also become less of a novelty. A softening of attitudes may be born out of necessity as China looks to extend its influence across the world. Developing countries have welcomed Chinese cash with open arms thus far but their citizens may not tolerate being looked down upon through Chinese noses for long. There have already been several instances of violent clashes in Africa between Chinese emigrants and natives - teaching Chinese entrepreneurs to treat African labourers as their equals may not be a quick fix. 

It should be non-negotiable in the 21st century that countries actively endeavour to promote open-mindedness and inclusivity of all races and cultures. The Western developed world still has its problems with racism and China should not be held to a different standard because it has historically been considered outside of our sphere of influence. Poor education and relative isolation from the world can no longer be considered reasonable mitigation for backwards, discriminatory attitudes.

Part 2 focuses on the struggles facing ethnic minority Chinese citizens within China as national identity hardens.


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