In February, China’s televised Lunar New Year gala made international headlines for its controversial depiction of African life. During a segment of the variety show meant to celebrate relations with Africa, a popular Chinese actress arrived on stage in blackface makeup, with a basket of fruit on her head and prosthetic parts that enlarged her breast and buttocks under a traditional African dress. She was joined by a black man in a monkey costume.
The skit elicited widespread allegations of racism, with many adding that this was not the first time lately China had offended along racial lines. In October of last year, for instance, an art museum in Hubei Province was panned for pairing portraits of African people with photos of wildlife bearing similar expressions, such as a man and a lion both gnashing their teeth. In 2016, a now-infamous laundry detergent ad featured a young woman shoving a black suitor into a washing machine — and swooning when he emerged as a pale and camera-ready Asian man.
Boasting a world-class military and an economy on track to surpass that of the United States by 2030, there is little doubt that China will soon assume the mantle of a global superpower. But in a world where many see racial and cultural pluralism as sources of strength for the West in recent decades — and where global media culture has become broadly rooted in the politics of inclusion — experts say blunders like the gala’s may undercut China’s soft power efforts abroad and limit the cultural influence the nation is able to achieve on the world stage.
“China still has many problems in terms of cultural communication,” said Zhang Lihua, a resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
“It is an obstacle standing in the way of carrying out One Belt and One Road,” she added, referring to China’s flagship economic development initiative that includes major infrastructure projects across Asia, Europe, and Africa. “Once we step over the line with a partner, the exchange will all become negative.”
Chinese officials routinely dismiss criticism on matters of race. They have argued that media intended for Chinese audiences should not be viewed through an international lens and that, without the same history of colonialism and racial strife as the West, China should not be obligated to uphold what they say are simply Western standards of political correctness. Indeed, February’s skit was not an unsupervised flub by the show’s directors. With over 700 million annual viewers, the Lunar New Year gala is one of the most watched television shows on the planet, and Communist Party officials exercise tight scrutiny over its every detail.
Responding to backlash after the gala, officials called negative coverage part of a deliberate attempt by the West to tarnish China’s image in Africa. As one representative of the Chinese embassy in Nairobi told Kenyan reporters, who published their own criticism of the broadcast, “We are not happy to see Kenyan media follow the Western media report. Kenyan people should have their own judgment.”
To Joseph Wasonga, who chairs the Department of Diplomacy and International Relations at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University, these defenses ring false. Not only are Kenyans plenty capable of taking their own offense, in his view, but suggestions that China does not have a problem with race are inaccurate, based on observations of Chinese officials and development workers in his country so far.
“China says it is approaching African countries as peers, ‘brother to brother,’” he said. “But in many ways, China has been less tolerant of cultural differences than traditional aid partners in the West. They often treat themselves as superior and do not integrate with African people and society.”
Wansonga added, “Personally, I doubt China’s commitment to appreciating our circumstances, how we think, and who we really are.”
China has its own complex history when it comes to race. The country is home to 56 different ethnic groups, though Han Chinese comprise the overwhelming majority of the population and have long dominated China’s culture and politics. Smaller ethnic groups have historically faced pressure to adopt Han language and customs, and a few groups such as the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province and the Tibetans in China’s southwest have met particularly harsh treatment by government and security forces.
During the Cold War, Mao Zedong signaled an open mind toward race with his concept of third world solidarity in the face of American and Soviet influence blocs. Taking up the cause of African-Americans specifically, Mao wrote that “racial struggle is fundamentally a matter of class struggle.” Still, relatively homogeneous Chinese citizens were not always inclined toward tolerance or accommodation of different races. In the 1980s, African students hosted by Chinese universities experienced regular episodes of hostility and violence.
Today, despite the hundreds of millions of Chinese who live and travel abroad as migrants, business people, students, and tourists, experts say most people in the country remain largely unfamiliar with the language and norms of global multiculturalism. Though there are certainly those in the country who cry foul at racial missteps, they are not the majority, and they do not carry enough collective weight that Communist Party leaders might feel pressure to liberalize on their behalf.
This is in part by design. The characters for China, 中国, literally mean “central nation,” and notions of centrality and superiority historically pervade Chinese literature and thought. China has long been home to strains of nationalism and ethnocentrism, which its rulers have encouraged lately to shore up legitimacy amid the county’s momentous rise. Public attitudes are reinforced by online firewalls that limit access to websites hosting free exchanges of ideas, like Facebook. In fact, many who complained about the New Year’s gala on Chinese social media saw their comments swiftly deleted by government censors.
“Many people here don’t have a real idea about the outside world,” said Morshed Al Muzahid Mim, a Bangladeshi business student in Yichang. “On the internet, the information is not updated, so no Bangladeshi people will go on to tell Chinese people about Bangladesh.”
Mim said he encounters frequent and vocal prejudice in China on account of his dark complexion, including assumptions that he is poor or uneducated.
In the 2000s, under Hu Jintao, it appeared Chinese civil society might soon expand to include liberal ideologies, which could have led to more nuanced understandings of race and culture. Under Xi Jinping this trend has reversed, according to David Lampton, director of Chinese studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Xi is talking about a new model for world development,” Lampton said. “He specifically means to leave out multiculturalism and liberal attitudes. The world, he says, can develop and maintain stability without them.”
If any doubt this approach, Lampton added, the strongman may point simply to social tension and the calamitous state of political affairs in the United States, compared with China’s rapid economic expansion amid relative political stability.
Still, China has hardly left soft power by the wayside. As its international engagements have kicked into high gear, the country has spent an estimated $10 billion annually on public diplomacy, compared with some $2 billion spent by the United States in 2016. To cultivate influence, China has pursued robust media partnerships with foreign news outlets and production companies. It has opened 500-plus Confucius Institutes in 142 countries, which have taught Chinese language and culture to 7 million students worldwide. And it has aggressively sponsored traveling art exhibits, which draw on millennia of impressive cultural heritage.
Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, draws a line, though, between routine public diplomacy and earnest soft power acquisition.
“To the extent that soft power is a more organically felt baseline of shared cultural values and norms, China will struggle to be attractive to other countries,” Economy said. “In the messiness of the West, there is something for everyone. You can embrace art and ideas from all over the world. In China, that type of variety doesn’t really exist. Instead you have a highly censored culture of social and political fear. How do people in other countries relate to that?”
If China might not capture hearts and minds, experts emphasized that it will not altogether lack power and influence, either.
A 2016 survey by the research organization Afrobarometer found that 63 percent of Africans hold overall positive views of China’s role in their country, based on 54,000 interviews in 36 African countries.
According to Edem Selormey, an Afrobarometer field operations manager who was heavily involved in the survey’s production, most Africans’ views are shaped by what they see on the ground: new roads, schools, hospitals, and factories, all the result of Chinese investment. Factors in the survey that contributed to negative opinions of China included the poor quality of Chinese-made products and perceptions that China was robbing countries of their resources — not experiences of racism or cultural grievances. Generally, Selormey said, only wealthy or educated Africans were likely to take the latter considerations into account.
“Those who have access to media might see some of the negative things about China, about how Chinese might view Africans,” she explained. “But that sort of imagery doesn’t easily get to everybody.”
Vianie Mbalayi, a Congolese economics student at Sanxia University, believes China and her country have a strong relationship. But after four years in China, she was shocked and disheartened when she saw February’s New Year broadcast.
“The behaviors by the Chinese authorities represent the values of the country,” Mbalayi said. “They should be more responsible. You cannot say China and Africa are friends and then humiliate us.”
Whatever offense might be caused abroad, representations of race in Chinese media are unlikely to change soon, said Zhang Xiaoling, an international communications professor at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo. According to Zhang, who has studied media’s role in building Chinese international soft power, many officials still see no problem with the New Year gala’s imagery, nor with depictions of Africans as helpless and diseased, as in last year’s mega-blockbuster Wolf Warrior II.
Officials might also judge that the domestic impact of such imagery outweighs potential damage to China’s reputation internationally.
“What the Chinese people want to see right now is a stronger country,” Zhang said. “The public and the media are obsessed with emphasizing Chinese identity. If you look at it this way, China is indeed rejecting other cultures.”
Additional reporting was provided by Si Chen and Chuan Tian at Columbia Journalism School.
Andrew McCormick is a reporter currently studying at Columbia Journalism School.