Saturday, December 17, 2016

Good work, Netease! An honest discussion of Chinese attitudes towards black people

Guangzhou's African community, probably the most striking case of foreign immigration to China, is apparently getting smaller and smaller. Over the last few months, articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Quartz and CNN claiming that there has been something of an exodus of Africans from Guangzhou and from China in general. Part of the reason would seem to be economic: most of the Africans in Guangzhou are small-time traders buying up cheap goods and exporting them to their own country, but China's economic growth is slowing down, and African consumers are becoming better at distinguishing fakes from original products. There is also currently a shortage of dollars in West Africa, which is a problem because these traders cannot use their local currencies to trade in China.

Another part of the explanation seems to be connected with the increasing strictness of the authorities towards foreigners breaking visa regulations in China, something which is affecting both African traders as well as English teachers. Some of the Africans in Guangzhou do indeed overstay their visas, often because they are itinerant traders who are given 30-day tourist visas at a time and find that they are unable to finish their business in such a short time or don't even have the money to fly home. There are however also Africans who have lived stably in the city for years and have proper work visas. What all the reports agree on is that many of the city's Africans complain about the impossibility of acquiring some kind of permanent residence right, and about a general climate of racism and hostility towards them.

That there is a certain dislike of black people among many Chinese is a well-known fact to those familiar with the country. It is however extremely rare to hear such things openly admitted or discussed in the Chinese media. When it comes to racism, official slogans like "racism doesn't exist in China" and "Chinese people are very friendly towards foreigners" are what you will usually hear both in public discourse and on the streets. That is why I was quite surprised, in a good way, to see an article entitled "Why do the Chinese self-righteously discriminate against black people?" appear in Wangyi (Netease), one of China's major internet portals. It should be noted that Netease is one of the most liberal and open-minded of the country's major media providers (of course this is very relative).

The article touches upon all of the problems that black people might encounter in China. For instance, there is an interview with a black American who teaches English in Beijing. He claims that his school was happy with his performance, but his boss still told him that they were forced to look for someone else, because "the students would like a different teacher". During the breaks, he said he would hear students say in Chinese "I spent such a lot of money, and I'd really like a white teacher", or "I really don't want to stare at his black face the whole evening".

The article then goes on: "Saying that in China there is no discrimination against black people means deceiving ourselves and others (自欺欺人). Any ordinary Chinese can imagine the hard-to-conceal sense of foreboding and dread they would feel if they saw a black person walking towards them. Even though historically China has not engaged in the kind of large-scale, organized discrimination that Europe and America did, and there haven't been any policies of separation aimed at black people, racial thinking has long embedded itself in the heart of the ordinary Chinese. These sayings that we often like to use, like "descendants of the dragon" and "descendants of the fiery emperor and the yellow emperor", are actually a kind of racial thinking which show how we uphold the concept of blood lineage." The sayings mentioned (龙的传人 and 炎黄子孙 in Chinese) are often-used ways to refer to the Chinese people. It is really quite rare for an article in the Chinese media to attack the roots of Chinese thinking about nation and race in this way.

Later on the article describes the anti-African protests of 1988-89 at Nanjing University, something else which I am relatively surprised to even see mentioned. Finally, it touches upon the African community in Guangzhou. It says that even though Africans in Guangzhou have their own "Little Africa", "in China they are still a group that is seen in a poor light, rarely mentioned and even studiously avoided". It also quotes an African trader who married a Chinese woman and found that even his wife was constantly telling their children bad things about Africa. Finally, the controversy over the Chinese "Star Wars" poster that relegates the leading black actor to the a supporting cast position is analyzed.

All in all, I am quite impressed at the honesty and self-reflection displayed in the piece, in a country where racial issues of this kind are rarely acknowledged. Hopefully articles like this might help to improve attitudes. Keep up the good work, Netease!

African woman and baby on the streets of Guangzhou

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