Surely this outrageous example of racism couldn’t be broadcast? Well it was….
Imagine this TV advert for washing powder. A young black African man is attempting to chat up an attractive white Chinese girl without success. During the course of the conversation the girl persuades the man to swallow a pouch of the powder and he is then bundled into a washing machine. After a cycle of muffled screams from the machine, she opens the lid and a grinning white Asian man climbs out, much to the girl’s pleasure and delight. The message is crystal clear; if you’re white you succeed, if you’re black you don’t!
When this advert was aired for months on Chinese television recently, it generated not the slightest internal criticism or debate. Zilch.
The world became aware of the inherent racism in China.
It’s happening again. This time Chinese racism has been exposed by the discrimination and maltreatment of Africans brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Guangzhou.The Chinese social media platform erupted with xenophobic racist sentiment and abuse. In turn, videos of the mistreatment of Africans ricocheted around African broadcast and social media.
Having successfully combated the first wave of Covid-19, Beijing has become paranoid about any possibility of a second, this time heavily focusing on imported cases. The regime quickly closed the long border with Russia when returning Chinese were found to have the virus, but it now sees the greatest danger coming from the southern Guangdong province, with its large African population. Guangzhou, the capital, is closely linked to Hong Kong and Macau, and houses the largest African community in Asia. It’s even known as “little Africa”, with an estimated 150,000 Africans living in the city.
Many African countries have issued strong statements expressing their disappointment about the treatment of their nationals, given that for many years their diplomats have spoken up for China on the international stage. After all, many African governments have regularly supported China on issues ranging from its membership of the United Nations in the 1970s to the more recent territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The supreme irony is that many African governments are also supporting China in its current racist treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.The danger for China is not only the potential loss of this valuable diplomatic support from African countries, but the effect the crisis could have on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region.
It’s also no wonder that Beijing is rushing to contain this potential harm to its relationship with African countries. It will not be easy as racism runs deep in Chinese society. As Sino-African affiliation began to develop decades ago, there were reports in the western press about mass displays of social unrest in China against black Africans, culminating in extreme violence against them in Nanjing. “Chinese students hold racist rally” reported the New York Times on December 27, 1988. A few days later the Washington Post carried the headline “Chinese students continue to protest against Africans”.
The recent rumblings started in late February when in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis the government published draft regulations to ease conditions for foreigners to get permanent residency in China.
This was met with strong opposition online, accompanied by rising nationalist sentiment, with Africans regularly mentioned as the example par excellence of why foreigners should not be welcomed in the country.