‘China opposes all forms of racial discrimination.’ Oh, really?
Chinese New Year television 'blackface' row gave foreigners the chance to flex their moral superiority. But China's difficulties around race, diversity and cultural identity run deep
By now, you will perhaps have read about the fallout from a little Chinese New Year sketch that featured on this year’s Spring Festival Gala show on China Central Television (CCTV). That’s right: the one that had “blackface.”
The gala is one of the Chinese state broadcaster’s most widely watched programs of the year, and this year a “comedy routine” supposedly depicting friendly ties between China and Africa had the Chinese actress Lou Naiming appear on stage wearing faux-tribal clothing, dark make-up and a huge fake butt.
There’s been enough ink spilt already on how offensive this depiction is, sure. But now China has fired back, spouting forth about how western media’s attempts to hype the situation are “futile.” “China has always opposed any form of racial discrimination,” announced foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
I would really beg to differ. Let’s start with China’s treatment of its own people. The victimization of minorities in China — i.e. the 112 million people, across 55 ethnic groups, who do not belong to the overwhelming Han Chinese majority — by their own government has been widely documented. At best, minorities lose out on employment opportunities or make less than their Han Chinese counterparts. At worst, they’re shunned or persecuted for their traditions and beliefs.
In many instances, the Han Chinese find ways of being racist towards one another. How else do you explain stereotypes for the Hakka (stingy and untrustworthy), Hokkien (brash), and Chiu Chow (rude and uneducated)? All this casual bigotry — and that’s just within the southern region. Let’s not forget beliefs like how northerners are hairy or that Taiwanese women “talk with a tarty voice,” as I’ve heard it expressed.
And all of this is before we even think about the racism experienced in China by non-Chinese residents — factor that in and it’s simply untenable that Chinese media criticize foreign attitudes as being colonial, or racially charged, without checking their own xenophobia.
If you think the performance at the Spring Festival Gala was an oversight, you only have to look at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, which compared Africans to monkeys in an exhibition late last year, for a glimpse of the prejudice that seems to be part of mainstream culture in China.
The country’s minorities are viewed with suspicion, or worse; ‘foreign forces’ are to be resisted
Of course, whenever accusations of racism towards Chinese take place outside the country, and especially in the West, China has a field day. When staff on a United Airlines flight were filmed unceremoniously hauling a Kentucky-based doctor, David Dao, off a plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, in April last year, it caused a huge furor in China. The doctor’s part-Chinese heritage drew outrage, with the story becoming the number one trending topic on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo.
More recently, an allegation made against London’s Heathrow Airport of unfair treatment towards Chinese travelers made headlines in state press earlier this month. A Chinese member of staff apparently revealed that tourists from China had to spend £1,000 (US$1,394) to receive a voucher at the duty-free store, whereas others only had to pay £79 (US$110) for the same privilege.
Of course, racism is still alive in the West, but a lot of it has been recognized as unacceptable. Hollywood’s invocation of “the yellow peril,” where East Asians were depicted as posing a threat to the civilized West (think Fu Manchu and Mr. Yunioshi in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s), just doesn’t fly anymore. And blackface in the US was mostly brought to an end with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
China does not accept the concept of dual nationality. If you are of Chinese nationality and simultaneously a holder of a foreign passport, it doesn’t matter: in the eyes of the law in China, you’re Chinese and Chinese only. One can see how this very rigid definition might set limits on people’s views of otherness. And that narrowness can only be compounded by Xi Jinping’s vision of Chinese identity and culture: one that is nationalist, ethnically-charged and supremacist. The country’s minorities are viewed with suspicion, or worse; “foreign forces” are to be resisted.
Cultural norms don’t change overnight – but how can views about race and diversity in China even begin to be challenged if the country’s “paramount” and “core” leader has no interest in that happening?