EXCERPTED from 49 Myths about China – By Marte Kjaer Galtung and Stig Stenslie (2015)
Myth 27 The Chinese are Racist
Many Chinese are too brainwashed to overcome their racist attitudes towards blacks.
In China taxi drivers sometimes refuse to pick up black passengers. Those who have dark skin tend to sit alone on the bus because no one wants to get too close to them. For fear of contracting HIV, hotel and restaurant workers allegedly burn bedding and chopsticks used by foreigners. In the summer of 2007, in Beijing’s popular bar area Sanlitun police rounded up and brutalized all black people—including students, tourists, established businessmen, women, and the children of diplomats—as part of a drug raid aimed at young African dealers. Two years later, twenty-year-old Lou Jing made it far in the competition Go, Oriental Angel!—a program with a strong resemblance to American Idol—causing great uproar in the real world and online. Why? Lou has an African American father and a Chinese mother. “Ugh, it’s really disgusting when black and yellow people mix,” posted one angry commenter.
We come across racist statements from Chinese people quite frequently, particularly against blacks. But this truth must be examined for nuance as well.
Racism in China today might seem more apparent than in the West, but this does not necessarily mean that it is stronger or more widespread. The Chinese tend to have a different standard of political correctness and permissible speech. In China, race-related statements are less shocking than in the West, largely because the Chinese lack the West’s historic legacy of slavery and colonization. In addition, it is generally more acceptable to comment on people’s appearance in China than it is in the West. If you are fat, thin, freckled, tall, or have a visible disability—well, it is all up for discussion. A Chinese who comments on the skin color of a dark complexioned person is often simply stating that he or she is dark, nothing more. Frank Dikötter, who has made a study of Chinese attitudes toward race throughout history, argues that while China is definitely no stranger to racism, “[racism] was certainly more virulent and widespread in the West.”
In order to understand racism in China today, a look at Nigerians living in the metropolis of Guangzhou is particularly enlightening. This is the largest group of Africans in Asia, numbering several hundred thousand. The markets they have established in the city are booming, and relations between them and the Chinese are for the most part friendly. In fact, some of the African young men have Chinese girlfriends and wives, and the girls’ parents often do not disapprove. A very young generation of African Chinese is growing up now, speaking at least two languages. The hottest clubs hire African DJs. African clothing and music are beginning to spread among the Chinese in Guangzhou.
Singer Lou Jing (of Go, Oriental Angel!) is not from Guangzhou but claims that she had never experienced racism in her native Shanghai until she became a television celebrity. And many Chinese expressed strong disappointment in the negative feedback she received.
Chinese people have a long tradition of marrying foreigners—the highest form of acceptance of someone perceived as different. During the Tang Dynasty, immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East were encouraged to take Chinese wives in order to help integration. The encouragement hardened into a decree during the Ming Dynasty. Several emperors took Persian wives themselves. Today marriage between Chinese and foreigners is not unusual. In Shanghai about three thousand interracial couples get married annually, making up about 3 percent of all weddings in the city.
Similarly, studies of Chinese behavior in Africa do not report widespread racism. On the contrary, there are strong indications that the Chinese are often more likely than Westerners to treat locals as equals. The biggest development project in China’s history was the construction of the TAZARA railway from Zambia to Tanzania in the 1970s. For five years tens of thousands of African and Chinese workers worked and lived together. Jamie Monson, president of the Tanzania Studies Association, interviewed Zambian and Tanzanian workers about their relationship to the Chinese. Many contrasted the Chinese people’s behavior with that of European colonizers. Educated Africans in particular tended to become friends with their Chinese counterparts. To their amazement, their Chinese colleagues would invite them home for dinner or various festivals. Sitting at the same table as a white person at the time would have been unthinkable. “It was true friendship; it was so good that you just can’t understand it,” recalls foreman John Gilbert.
Even today Africans tend to hold a more positive image of Chinese immigrants than one would think. This is the conclusion of a study performed by Barry Sautman in 2009. He found that Africans believe Chinese immigrants adapt well to local conditions, far better than Westerners do. About half of the respondents in the survey—which included nine African countries—replied that Chinese are the best at adapting, while only 22 percent found that Westerners adapt best. Only 2 percent thought the Chinese were racist.
Finally, it is important to point out that Chinese people, generally speaking, have little knowledge of and experience with foreigners. Many have never met one. China’s contact with the outside world is relatively new. The number of foreigners in China is increasing, and Chinese people travel overseas more. More contact will probably lead to more nuanced attitudes toward foreigners, for better or for worse.
- About.com, 1 June 2000, http://veritas-lux.blogspot.no/2013/05/research-shown-that-indiansare.html.
- For a firsthand account of being black in China, see Marketus Presswood, “A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China,” Tea Leaf Nation, July 17, 2013, http://www.tealeafnation.com/2013/07/chinese-raciality-and-black-reality-inchina/#sthash.hHVRg6iG.dpuf.
- Frank Dikötter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London: Hurst and Company 1992), 195.
- “The Promised Land: Guangzhou’s Canaan Market and the Rise of an African Merchant Class,” New Yorker, 9 February 2009, http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2009-02-09#folio=050.
- Heidi Østbø Haugen, “Afrikanere redder Kinas handel” [Africans Come to the Rescue of Chinese Trade], Ny Tid, 24 July 2009.
- Heidi Østbø Haugen, “Globaliseringens fotsoldater” [The Footsloggers of Globalization], Aftenposten Innsikt, October 2009.
- James Farrer, “From ‘Passports’ to ‘Joint Ventures’: Intermarriage between Chinese Nationals and Western Expatriates Residing in Shanghai,” Asian Studies Review, March 2008, http://sophia.academia.edu/JamesFarrer/Papers/590164/From_Passports_to_Joint_Ventures
- Jamie Monson, Africa’s Freedom Railway (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).
- Ibid., 61.
- Barry Sautmann, “African Perspectives on China-Africa Links,” Center on China’s Transnational Relations, 14 May 2009, https://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.cctr.ust.hk/materials/conference/workshop/18/20090514-bsautman.ppt&sa=U&ei=M5W0U8bIGbSksQTAn4DoBQ&ved=0CAYQFjAB&client=internal-udscse&usg=AFQjCNEJTJH0555IxAMozVL8pT1eurhZOw.