Earlier this month in Beijing, amid the pomp of China’s annual rubber-stamp parliament meetings, a politician proudly shared with reporters his proposal on how to “solve the problem of the black population in Guangdong.” The latter province is widely known in China to have many African migrants.
“Africans bring many security risks,” Pan Qinglin told local media (link in Chinese). As a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory body, he urged the government to “strictly control the African people living in Guangdong and other places.”
“Black brothers often travel in droves; they are out at night out on the streets, nightclubs, and remote areas. They engage in drug trafficking, harassment of women, and fighting, which seriously disturbs law and order in Guangzhou… Africans have a high rate of AIDS and the Ebola virus that can be transmitted via body fluids… If their population [keeps growing], China will change from a nation-state to an immigration country, from a yellow country to a black-and-yellow country.”
On social media, the Chinese response has been overwhelmingly supportive, with many commenters echoing Pan’s fears. In a forum dedicated to discussions about black people in Guangdong on Baidu Tieba—an online community focused on internet search results—many participants agreed that China was facing a “black invasion.” One commenter called on Chinese people (link in Chinese) not to let “thousands of years of Chinese blood become polluted.”
The stream of racist vitriol online makes the infamous Chinese TV ad for Qiaobi laundry detergent, which went viral last year, seem mild in comparison. The ad featured a Asian woman stuffing a black man into a washing machine to turn him into a pale-skinned Asian man.
Not about reality
Of course, while a growing number of Africans work and study in China—the African continent’s largest trading partner—the notion that black people are “taking over” the world’s most populous nation is nonsense. Estimates for the number of sub-Saharan Africans in Guangzhou (nicknamed “Chocolate City” in Chinese) range from 150,000 long-term residents, according to 2014 government statistics, to as high as 300,000—figures complicated by the number of Africans coming in and out of the country as well as those who overstay their visas.
“Guangdong has come to be imagined to embody this racial crisis of some kind of ‘black invasion,’” said Kevin Carrico, a lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia who studies race and nationalism in China. “But this is not about actually existing realities.” He continued:
“It isn’t so much that they dislike black residents as they dislike what they imagine about black residents. The types of discourses you see on social media sites are quite repetitive—black men raping Chinese women, black men having consensual sex with Chinese women and then leaving them, blacks as drug users and thieves destroying Chinese neighborhoods. People are living in a society that is changing rapidly. ‘The blacks’ has become a projection point for all these anxieties in society.”
The past year or so has seen heated debate among black people living in China about what locals think of them. In interviews with Quartz, black residents referred to online comments and racist ads as more extreme examples, but said they are symptomatic of broader underlying attitudes.
Madeleine Thiam and Christelle Mbaya, Senegalese journalists in Beijing, said they are saddened but not shocked when they are discriminated against in China.
“Sometimes people pinch their noses as I walk by, as if they think I smell. On the subway, people often leave empty seats next to me or change seats when I sit down,” said Thiam. “Women have come up to rub my skin, asking if it is ‘dirt’ and if I’ve had a shower.”
Yet on a recent coffee break most passersby politely admired the fashionable women as if they were going down a catwalk.
One Chinese man, gazing at Thiam in her purple lace blouse and a yellow dress flaring around her hips, let out an admiring “wow” as the elevator doors opened to a third-floor café. Servers greeted their regulars with warm smiles and asked them in English, “How are you?”
Racism or ignorance?
Such experiences speak to the duality of life for black people in China. They may be athletes, entrepreneurs, traders, designers, or graduate students. Some are married to locals and speak fluent Chinese. Yet despite positive experiences and economic opportunities, many are questioning why they live in a place where they often feel unwelcome.
They grapple with the question: Is it racism or ignorance? And how do you distinguish the two?
Paolo Cesar, an African-Brazilian who has worked as a musician in Shanghai for 18 years and has a Chinese wife, said music has been a great way for him to connect with audiences and make local friends. However, his mixed-race son often comes home unhappy because of bullying at school. Despite speaking fluent Mandarin, his classmates do not accept him as Chinese. They like to shout out, “He’s so dark!”
The global success of black public figures, such as politicians, actors, and athletes, appears to have a limited effect on Chinese attitudes.
“People would say to me, ‘Obama! You’re a black American!’ And I’d be treated better than my African friends,” said Jayne Jeje, a marketing consultant from Maryland who has worked all over mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong. “I think it’s a class thing. If you’re African you’re from a poor place and should be treated with less deference, but if you’re African-American, that’s great, and you get some grudging respect.”
In response to international criticism of racism against blacks in China, some commentators have argued that the racism is not as serious as it is in other countries. Hong Kong columnist Alex Lo wrote in the South China Morning Post that criticism from Americans is “rich coming from a country that was founded on black slavery… China has racial problems. But murderous racism against blacks isn’t one of them.”
And of course racial tensions occur elsewhere, sometimes with ethnic Chinese as the victims. In France this week, Chinese protesters gathered in northeast Paris to protest the shooting of a Chinese man by police. Many complain of racism directed against them, and also of being targeted by gangs (video) of North African descent.
Looking deeper into history, evidence suggests a preference for slaves from East Africa in ancient China. African slavery in the country peaked during the Tang (618 to 907) and Song (960 to 1279) dynasties.
More recently, violence broke out after the Chinese government started providing scholarships allowing African students to study in the country in the 1960s. Many Chinese students resented the stipends Africans received, with tensions culminating in riots in Nanjing in the late 1980s. The riots began with angry Chinese students surrounding African students’ dormitories in Hehai University and pelting them with rocks and bottles for seven hours, with crowds later marching through the streets shouting anti-African slogans.
In the past few years, loathing among some Chinese toward foreign men who date local women has led to a recent rise in violent attacks against foreigners.
Yet most respondents Quartz interviewed remain optimistic. Vladimir Emilien, a 26-year-old African-American actor and former varsity athlete, said that for him, learning Chinese was crucial to better interactions with locals. Emilien volunteered last year as a coach teaching Beijing youth the finer points of American football. He said that once he was able to have more complex conversations in Chinese, he was struck by the thoughtful questions locals would ask.
“They’d say, What do you think about Chinese perception of black people? How does that make you feel?’ So they are aware that there is a lot of negativity around blacks and against Africa as a very poor place.”
Emilien hopes that more interactions between Chinese and black individuals will smooth out misunderstandings. But others say that improving relations requires more than black people learning the language, since that shifts responsibility away from the Chinese.
“The government has never done anything serious to clean up racist ideas created and populated by the [turn-of-the-20th-century] intellectuals and politicians that constructed a global racial hierarchy in which the whites were on the top, Chinese the second, and blacks the bottom,” said Cheng Yinghong, a history professor at Delaware State University who researches nationalism and discourse of race in China.
Instead of addressing discrimination, the Chinese government has focused on promoting cultural exchanges while pursuing economic partnerships with African countries. However, many have pointed out that relationships appear unbalanced, with China taking Africa’s limited natural resources in exchange for infrastructure investment.
“Racism is racism, period, and although some people would say that in different places it is more explicit, nuanced, or implicit, as long as there are victims we have to call it racism and deal with it,” said Adams Bodomo, a professor of African studies focused on cross-cultural communication at the University of Vienna. “China can’t be the second-largest economy in the world and not expect to deal with these issues.”
You can follow Joanna on Twitter at @joannachiu.