China Power | Society | East Asia

Racism Is Alive and Well in China

The problem is decades old, but some Chinese are trying to do something about it.

Bonnie Girard
Racism Is Alive and Well in China
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

China is not unique in having a problem with racism. It is a worldwide scourge, and nowhere, it seems, is immune. In every society, there are those who act and believe in highly racist ways, and those who do not at all. China, like most places, is full of both types.

What makes the issue different in China is how easy it is to encounter racist behavior and beliefs. It can be strongly argued that this is not because the Chinese, as a people, are any more or less racist than any other nationality. Quite simply, racist sentiment may seem prevalent simply because it is so blatantly and matter-of-factly expressed when and where it does exist.

Foreigners who have spent any length of time in China will have their own stories of racial profiling and discrimination, from very commonly heard comments on the size and shape of facial features to more aggressive forms of discrimination founded on negative stereotypes associated with one’s race.

And where racism is found in China, there can be little argument that no group is more racially targeted and maligned than persons of sub-Saharan African descent.

So, when Chinese workers at a McDonald’s in Guangzhou recently held up a sign saying – in English – “black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant,” they appear to be completely unembarrassed about the whole thing.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

And what of the person who composed the notice on the sign, which read in full: “Notice: We’ve been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant. For the sake of your health consciously notify the local police for medical isolation, please understand the inconvenience caused. Police, Tel: 110”?

Someone well-educated in English either composed that notice in English or translated it from the Chinese. The wording (“consciously notify”; “understand the inconvenience caused”), while grammatically correct, uses syntax that does not sound machine translated.

The all-out assault on Africans living in Guangzhou has been documented in recent weeks in video and stories of Chinese police rounding up Africans, forcing them out of their homes and hotels, and putting them out on the street in a backlash against those thought most likely to be carriers and transmitters of the coronavirus. Local authorities were unconcerned with potential accusations of racism, and concern only came at a national level once embassies, leaders, and citizens from dozens of African countries began vociferously protesting China’s treatment of their citizens.

Many Africans have had their own experiences with racism in China.

Anecdotes abound. An elevator in the five-star Kempinski Hotel in Beijing, full of guests including a tall black man, stops on a floor on its way down to the lobby. The doors open and a Chinese woman waiting to get on takes one look at the African man, opens her mouth in shock, and shoos the lift to carry on without her.

The African could only laugh.

A program connecting Chinese high school students to American faith-based schools and the families that will host them draws hundreds of potential applicants. A majority of applicants request that their child not be sent to live with a black family. Their applications are denied, because placing their student with a non-black family would have seemed to have granted their request.

A group of ministry-level Chinese officials meets with senior diplomats from an East African country, discussing an infrastructure project that the Chinese side wants to secure the rights to build. Forgetting that the African translator at the table could understand him perfectly, one of the Chinese officials turns to his Chinese colleague and uses an obscenely racist slur in reference to the African diplomat. The interpreter translates.

Good grace and dignity win the day again. Instead of getting up and walking out, the African diplomat looks his Chinese counterpart straight in the eyes and says, “Tell him I return the compliment, and now let’s get down to business.”

Many who have watched China’s unprecedented commercial and investment entry into Africa have wondered when the long history of Chinese racism toward Africans would again overshadow Beijing’s preferred narrative. The COVID-19 pandemic has now proven the perfect setting for the resurgence of this ugly phenomenon.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

There are a wealth of papers, articles, books, and commentary tracing Chinese racism from the 1960s to the 1990s. In one of the most notable incidents, in late 1988, Chinese students in Nanjing assaulted foreign, mainly African students. The incident sparked a wave of coverage in foreign media, with headlines such as “China’s long-held image of foreigners fuels racial conflict” (the Washington Post; January 3, 1989); “Africans accuse Chinese of racism” (the New York Times, June 10,1986); and “In China, black isn’t beautiful” (the New York Times, January 25, 1989).

One of the earliest works in post-1949 China to document Chinese racism toward Africans was Emmanuel Hevi’s An African Student in China, published in London in 1963. In it, Hevi documents his experience of “the arrests of Chinese girls for their friendships with Africans, and particularly, Chinese feelings of racial superiority over black Africans.”

Some Chinese are tackling the subject head-on. Zhu Ruijian, a Chinese researcher, documented in Change Magazine in October 2018 how he became aware of the issue, and what he decided to do about it.

Zhu writes that he watched a skit on television during the 2018 Chinese New Year Gala, “performed on the biggest TV platform in China… discussing China’s foreign aid and construction project in Africa.” The skit, Zhu said, “included enormous amount of racial discriminative contents, including generalization of African culture, stereotypical portrait of African women, and Chinese performer with blackface.”

Zhu said, “The skit sparked immediate worldwide outrage…[but] 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 skit this year… reflected Chinese government’s unawareness of racism against Africans.”

The incident prompted Zhu to begin researching, interviewing Africans, and analyzing China’s problem with racism, particularly toward those of African heritage.

Zhu’s results are impressive in and of themselves, but what is more impressive is his own disgust at the expressions of racism which he saw and later learned more about through the first-hand accounts of Africans living in China. Even more, he had the willingness and courage to write about a phenomenon whose existence is all too often stridently denied. He, and others like him in China who see racism for what it is and who will take risks to defeat it, are hopeful signs for the future.