Amongst the many activities Africans in China organise, there are also different types of awards. Below see some of the contestants for the 2nd edition of the ‘Mama Africa’ (diasporic) awards – most of them based in China (and multi-lingual).
Amongst the many activities Africans in China organise, there are also different types of awards. Below see some of the contestants for the 2nd edition of the ‘Mama Africa’ (diasporic) awards – most of them based in China (and multi-lingual).
On the afternoon of Friday 9 September 2016, Ms Tebogo Lefifi addressed a room full of journalists and media practitioners as she opened the official launch of South Africa Week at the South African Embassy in Beijing. Hosted collaboratively by the South African Embassy, Brand South Africa and South African Tourism, the inaugural South Africa Week event series ran over four days from the 9th to the 13th of September. It brought together South African companies in China, importers and distributors of South African products in China and other friends of South Africa together to showcase the country. The event series was dedicated to unpacking South Africa’s complex relationship with China, and showcasing South African culture through food, wine, teas and dance. From Africa to China was fortunate enough to receive a media invite to South Africa Week and to cover some of its events. In a three-post series, we will share what we heard, learned and saw, with the purpose of explaining what South Africa Week 2016 was and why it is important!
South Africa Week Beijing: Day 1
I arrived at the South African Embassy in Beijing on the afternoon of Friday the 9th of September to cover the Media Appreciation and official launch of South Africa Week 2016. Organised by the South African Embassy,Brand South Africa, South African Tourism and South African Airways, the event was specifically dedicated to honouring the media and the positive role it has played in facilitating and showcasing South Africa-China relations.
Once everyone was seated, Ms Tebogo Lefifi took to the podium. “Until the lion tells his own story, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” she began. The invocation of this well-known African proverb was incredibly fitting. It reflected the importance of honest and balanced reporting by journalists who cover South Africa-China relations, as well as the need for South Africans and Africans to be at the forefront of reporting on how South Africa interacts with China. The guests in attendance spanned a wide range of different publications, most of them from China. The Beijing Review and China Business News were among the many media publications that had reporters and staff at the Media Appreciation that afternoon.
In her address, Her Excellency Ambassador Dolana Msimang began by emphasising how the relationship between South Africa and the Chinese media is a “two-way street”. She was specifically referring to the mutual reliance between the two parties, with the South African Embassy and Brand South Africa providing access to content for the purpose of balanced and accurate reporting, and media practitioners using this content to write stories and disseminate information. HE Ambassador Msimang made it clear that the South African Embassy in Beijing remained open to cultivating a strong relationship with the media and that its doors were “always open”.
In order to bolster the ability of the reporters in attendance to write thoroughly on the event, HE Ambassador Msimang provided a concise overview of both the state of affairs in South Africa and the state of South Africa’s relations with China. She also made sure to mention why, for many reasons, 2016 is an auspicious year for South Africa. For example, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing into law of the South African constitution. It is also the 20th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the 40th anniversary of the June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising in 1976. 2016 also marks the 60-year commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria during Apartheid. The Ambassador’s highlighting of these historical landmarks for South Africa underpinned the spirit in which South Africa week was launched that afternoon. [KEEP READING HERE]
“Rolling with NAK is a new tv talk show hosted by China-based Sierra Leone’s Neneh Ada Yang. Ada is an artiste, fashion designer, host, painter, collector and mum. Ada also has a foundation in China, Sierra leone, US and some other countries which supports the less privileged. The talk show is produced by her and hopes to have top dignitaries and celebrities based in China and those that are on tour in the country.”
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.
On May 26th, The Shanghaiist broke the (SinoAfrican) internet by bringing a Chinese ad to the attention of its mainly American audience. The ad – which you can watch below (Youku see here) – is a commercial for a Chinese detergent called Qiaobi and has been deemed as ‘highly racist’ or the ‘most racist advert ever’ by a whole host of American media outlets like this, this and this.
In the video, a paint-splattered black man catcalls a Chinese woman and approaches her confidently as she lures him with her finger. As he attempt to kiss her, she places a detergent bag in his mouth and shoves his body into a washing machine.Once the machine cycle is done, a young (robotish, if you ask me) Asian man emerges as clean as can be. At no point during the short ad, are we the audience aware of the status of the men in relation to the woman. Is the black man her boyfriend, fiancee, or husband? My original reading! Or is he only the painter, or maybe an ‘immigrant worker’ (as one of my Chinese friends saw it)? Is the young and clean machine-made Asian man the replacement for the black guy? Where will he replace him, in painting, or in a relationship?
Amid the outcry, users of diverse Chinese online platforms have reported that the ad is running on national television and before the movies at Wanda Cinemas (owner of AMC theatres). Contrasting versions report that the ad is no where to be found both in offline and online media environments on the Mainland. Latest reports (May 27) claim that the ad has disappeared from Chinese social media platforms.
There are a few ways in which one can read and interpret this ad – I will come back to these readings some paragraphs down. Meanwhile, after cringing in horror and anger when I first saw the ad, I became even more irritated to read the ways in which the ad was decoded by American writers, and the ways they explained it to their (Western) audiences. In short, the discussion was totally kidnapped by the (hegemonic) way of discussing issues of race that Americans are so eager to export/impose. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the ad is fucked up in every single, possible aspect. In nicer words, it is profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic. As the most recent manifestation of a century-old trope it is indeed ‘racist’. But I don’t necessarily see it as evidence of a ‘Chinese’ racism, or a culturally specific form of racism. And this is what troubles me.
Having done research for the last 6 years on African presence in China, and being very interested in all kinds of SinoAfrican exchanges, I’m often suspicious of people/students arguing that China is a ‘racist’ society (esp. when they’ve never been to China). ‘Really, how do you know that?’ I usually reply. Again and again, people point to incidents like the detergent ad. (By the way, this is not the first online incident relating to blackness in China. It may be, however, the one that has gotten the most play ever).The ensuing explanation is often short – as if the instances were always self-explanatory – and concludes that Chinese are ALSO ‘racist’ and that there’s ‘racism’ in China. At this point, I usually go into ‘I can’t overemphasise’ mode, overemphasising indeed the importance of understanding that ‘racism’ (and the same goes for the constructed category of ‘race’) is a context-based multilayered phenomenon, with uncountable ramifications (e.g. specific hybridisations with class and gender), that needs to be understood against the lived realities of diverse social contexts. In other words, there’s no one kind of ‘racism’, and ‘racism’ (whatever you may call that) is culturally specific.
The way I understand ‘racism’ (and feel free to lambast me for this, if you need), is as a covert, systematic, and persistent (e.g.that is almost inescapable) form of discrimination embedded in social institutions (like the mighty American police, in case you were looking for an example), that grants privileges to one group while denying them to others. Racial prejudices, and isolated forms of discrimination, although central to ‘racism’ are not inherently always ‘racist’. The ‘-ism’ here, at least for me, denotes a set of systemic practices. These practices, embedded in the ‘-ism’, are just not present in China (and I have countless evidence to prove this). Any foreigner (whites included) that has lived in China knows that there are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination (not only against foreigners) and that they are usually very overt (as you now know), rather than covert. Often, as I tell my students, people claiming that there’s racism in China seem more interested in showing (in a justificatory way) that there are ‘racist’ societies outside the Euro-American world. Interestingly, they are usually rather lazy (or incompetent) to point towards evidence of deep-sited, systemic, practices of ‘racialisation’ as those pervasive in, say, the land of freedom and justice, the US. Indeed, from my conversations with multiple non-Western foreigners in China throughout the years (many of them from Africa), I have argued here that while many feel that some Chinese people dislike foreigners, ‘there is no structural racism’ in China. Many foreigners that arrive in China assuming that they will confront the types of racism they have confronted elsewhere (or that construe certain Chinese practices as ‘racist’), soon find their views changing.
In short, the ad is not evidence that Chinese society (whatever that means!) is ‘racist’ but rather that many people in China are still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic. No systemic practice in China (Sorry, me dear China bashers).
Often, when discussing these incidents, you get a whole bunch of academics (me included) and pundits that quote the long-standing historical perceptions on skin colour in China. The simple explanation of this is a China 101 from my Mandarin class some years ago: in (historical) China they appreciated fairness in skin because higher classes would normally stay away from hard (under the sun) labour. Peasants were normally darker and that leads Chinese people to discriminate against dark-skinned people. ‘So, you’re like a peasant’, my 101 teacher told me when I complained about something that I perceived as discrimination while hailing taxis in Beijing (note for American readers: I’m ‘brown’, but my privilege makes me ‘white’ in Mexico). The implication of this is something many Chinese pride themselves on: that China cannot be ‘racist’ but merely ‘classist’. While I believe that ‘racism’ as I explained above does not happen in China, I’m afraid that in cases like the detergent ad the class/dark skin explanation may not be enough. While respecting historical and culture specific developments, I’m troubled by the simplicity of this explanation. It plainly falls short to describe something that is indeed way more complex, and it often comes across as a childish denial. “We don’t like you because you’re brown. It’s not your fault, it’s the sun, right?” “Because you’re brown, we think less of you,” one of my good (and racially aware) friends used to ‘joke’ (don’t worry, I took revenge :)).
In addition to this, there’s one other often invoked explanation when it comes to incidents like the detergent one. Here, the story line goes: ‘it’s not about Africans, the Han were historically contemptuous of dark-skin people in the southern imperial frontiers’. There’s a plethora of stories about the so-called Kunlun (slaves) and debates about them either being South Asian or African. When I hear this, I think of incidents like this – in which a women calls a black man with whom she’s fighting a ‘zebra’. Isn’t there a vicious/malicious intentionality in the video? The story line continues: ‘Han disdain for southern dark skin was at some not-very-clear point in history transposed onto Africans’. That ‘not-very-clear point in history’ is (look no further) COLONIALISM, and Chinese intellectuals contact with Western racial theories (e.g. Kang Youwei and Liang QiQiao).
It’s true, issues of racial prejudice in China are informed by deep-seated class issues, but also, and let’s not fool ourselves, by global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority (e.g. white supremacy). So, as you may imagine, the iterations of something that looks like ‘racism’ in contemporary China, emerge out of a complex global media environment, rather than being a ‘class’ (or a necessarily ‘Chinese’) issue. Here, the often invoked media element is ‘Hollywood’. Every foreigner in China has a story of a Chinese friend explaining how afraid he/she feels of black (or Arab) people thanks to American movies. This was my Mandarin 101 class ‘racial explanation’ number two: “Chinese are not ‘racist’, they are just naive and confused thanks to Hollywood’s historical representation of people of colour,” or so the explanations goes. Difficult to buy! But this one is a bit more complex, and it’s not only about Hollywood. Watch this, and this and cry. Indeed, this one also goes back to issues in contemporary global imaginaries that keep selling whiteness as something desirable and blackness/brownness (‘otherness’) as the binary opposites.
Here is where the detergent ad makes a very complex turn/tweak (that makes the whole thing so difficult to grasp). It opposes blackness to a Chinese ‘whiteness’ (some Chinese people on my WeChat call it ‘yellowness’) thus inputing a ‘different’ answer to this (colonial racial) equation: the black individual does not serve the purpose of whiteness becoming the correct way of being (ontology). Rather, it presents the Chinese man as the correct, perfect, clean answer. This is not new, there have been other instances of using non-white ‘foreigners’ (or Chinese of mixed heritage – see the case of Lou Jing) to reinforce the boundaries of Chineseness in ethno-nationalist discourse. Indeed, the ad can also be read as a great example of policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity (obviously, more readings may emerge, as the ad makes more global rounds). There have been other historical instances in which Chinese men have policed women’s sexual practices when they related to black men (e.g. the Nanjing anti-African protests). Indeed, as China grows confident in her new role as emerging/consolidating global power, the mixture of her anxieties mixed with traces of widely circulating ethno-nationalist discourses in the country, could lead to the emergence of more, rather than less, things like the detergent ad.
Having said this, I still believe that cases like this can also be seen as productive in the sense that people in China could learn about these global sensitivities. Gauging from those Chinese netizens who have condemned the ad, in the process of China’s ‘going out’, Chinese people will have to deal with more multicultural politics (hopefully not in the American fashion) and learn about the complex and problematic histories of colonialism that inform global mediascapes. So, I’m afraid that soon scholars and pundits won’t be able to invoke Chinese disdain for peasants (e.g. class issues), or the Hollywood inflicted damage (e.g. racist American ideoscapes), as the root cause for iterations of global racist expressions in China – such as the Qiaobi ad – and will have to hold some people in China somehow accountable. Not without, however, understanding/respecting the specificity of ‘Chinese’ views and practices.
The Shanghaiist also noted that the ad was a blatant ripoff of a series of Italian laundry detergent ads screened in the early 2000s.
Adding to the detergent storm, HKFP noted that the Chinese ‘cleansing’ blackness ad is a ‘century-old joke’, part of an old trope in racially insensitive advertising. They did some serious Reddit research and unearthed an almost ‘century-old’ (1920s) Swedish commercial with a variation of the ‘joke’.
Also, HKFP brought these two 19-century images out from the depths of Reddit and claimed that advertising has not really changed in more than a hundred years.
In the 1990s, the well know Czech political satire show ‘Ceska Soda’ used the trope in an attempt to mock xenophobic behaviour in the Czech Republic. (In the original post, I had claimed that this was an ad. A reader has kindly noted that I was wrong and pointed out to the political satire show).