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China’s treatment of ‘Black Expats’ exposes its hypocrisy

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A cyclist passes a poster in a part of Guangzhou where most African people live and work. Photo: EPA-EFE<br />

The trope of the coronavirus pandemic seemed to have reinforced racial stereotypes of Chinese people in the western world. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it, xenophobic violence over the role of China in the spread of the deadly virus that has shattered lives and economies across the globe. What is ironic is the fact that a country that has raised much hullabaloo over supposed integrated attacks based on ‘race’ has a dastardly history of its own deeply embedded racism problem.

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Chinese mainstream media did not waste any opportunity to have a media trial of US over its treatment of black community. The Chinese leaders are trying to hard sell the BRI to African countries through high level visits, vaccine diplomacy and China Africa forums, however, China’s treatment of black people within China in recent years as well as racist attitude of Chinese towards black people exposes China’s hypocrisy.

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The April 2020 incident of a restaurant in Guangzhou, China barring the entry of ‘black people’ has highlighted China’s unspoken discrimination problem. This is not an isolated case as tensions run high among local Africans and Han Chinese across various cities of the country. Restrictions on visas for African nationals, who conduct business in China, have incited the discriminatory practices further. Online platforms even go to the extent of terming black people as ‘a lot of cockroaches and rats’, a parasitic race ‘specializing in seizing Chinese women and impregnating them’.

The problem, however, is not limited to local practices. China’s booming entertainment industry is a hotbed for racism- mostly directed towards ‘black people’. The fury and rejection of black representation is a product of an environment that is impressed upon by censorship than racial tensions. It does seem absurd how the most influential entertainment industry is so powerless so as to be unable to change perceptions stuck in the dark ages.

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An outrageous 2016 advertisement from Qiaobi, aired on television and movie theatres in China, depicted a Chinese woman dumping a paint-splattered black man in a washing machine only to reveal a squeaky-clean, glistening,pale Chinese man in a white t-shirt with the tagline: ‘Change starts with Qiaobi’. The unoriginal ad representing ‘purification’, a remake of an Italian ad, only added the racial transmogrification elements perpetuating the idea of ‘black is dirty’ and drew disgrace over the Internet with hardly any repercussions faced by the brand on its home ground.

Another controversial escapade in CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala in 2018 featured ‘blackface’ Chinese actors surrounded by black actors in animal costumes representing a ‘savannah’ in the midst of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The Chinese actors even donned fake buttocks for a realistic (sic) portrayal of ‘backward’ Africans who needed China as a ‘savior’ from their impoverished lives.

Africa is often depicted as a damsel in distress with China almost always portrayed as the modern male hero in a consistent top-down, ego-boosting bid to represent China as a way for Africa to enter modernity. The skit merely catered to age-old Chinese stereotypes held by Chinese people. This stereotype lies deep rooted even among Chinese families who have migrated to other countries like USA and Canada.

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China has an ignoble history of ‘whitewashing’ cinema and has its tentacles spread even in Hollywood. With Chinese audience comprising a major portion of the global entertainment industry, Hollywood filmmakers choose to fulfill ‘aesthetic preferences’, accommodate local sensibilities and state censorship rules and, quite often, reduce the roles of black actors or even cut them out completely from the Chinese release. A poster child for this case is the 2009 comedy, ‘Couples Retreat’ from Universal Pictures which omitted Faizon Love from the movie poster in its international release.

The Hollywood blockbuster superhero film ‘Black Panther’ drew rave reviews (“the blackness made me drowsy”) from Chinese audiences who again took to social media platforms to express their discomfort over a ‘too politically correct’ all-black cast. Although the film managed to rake in $100 million from Chinese box office, it failed to change the attitude towards racism in China.

In a 2019 online poll, over 600,000 respondents of Chinese entertainment platform Sina Movie, stated their displeasure over Disney’s announcement of singer Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in the live-action remake of the 1989 film ‘The Little Mermaid’.

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While the world lauded Disney’s colorblind casting, Chinese netizens, clearly upset by the deviation from the original image, flooded the internet with rude comments and messages of disappointment at the multibillion-dollar company. Disney’s TV network, Freeform, refused to give in to the bullying with a scathing statement defending its decision. Disney has had to bow down to Chinese racism in the past. The 2015 film ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ faced criticism for the shrinking of actor John Boyega on Chinese posters.

This has not been the only experience of Chinese racist demands for Boyega who chose to step down as the brand ambassador of the perfume brand Jo Malone, owned by Estée Lauder, after the company replaced him with Chinese star Liu Haoran for the ad campaign in China with no consent or prior notice.

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Netizens often resort to gaslighting in racism debates. The infantile behavior exudes a ‘newly rich’ temperament of contemporary Chinese families who have managed to attain wealth with new reforms and believe they deserve the level of respect offered to white capitalists turning to discrimination towards the yet-to-become-rich black people or even South Asians. The racial superiority comes as no surprise from a country that is mimicking nationalistic ideals from the Nazi age with concentration camps galore filled to the brim and a country plagued by mental deficiency and anti-intellectualism.

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