High-profile blackface scandals typically produce public embarrassment, apologies and promises of self-reflection — but not when the Chinese government is responsible. That's what we saw last week on the eve of the Lunar New Year, when the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV televised its annual live variety show, which draws hundreds of millions of viewers, featuring dancers in blackface.
For those who think the official line from Beijing is bad, check out the Chinese internet, where the rampant racism against Black people is often too appalling to repeat.
This performative use of blackface belies a rampant racism problem in the country, which comes on the heels of growing discrimination against Black people and Africans by the Chinese government, which appears to be compounded by the pandemic.
Last April, authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, which has China’s largest African community, launched a campaign to forcibly test Africans in the city for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, in hotels or in shops. Some restaurants refused to serve Black customers.
Scenes of Africans sleeping on the street with their belongings were shared widely on social media, which sparked outrage among African communities around the world and prompted rare public rebuke from some African governments.
But the Chinese government denied that the authorities’ conduct was discriminatory, and blamed “Western media” for provoking “the problems between China and African countries.”
For those who think the official line from Beijing is bad, check out the Chinese internet, where the rampant racism against Black people is often too appalling to repeat. The use of racial slurs is ubiquitous on social media discussions about Black people. People of African descent living in China are often depicted as overstaying visas, not paying taxes and encroaching on Chinese culture.
People of African descent living in China are often depicted as overstaying visas, not paying taxes, and encroaching on Chinese culture.
African migrants as well as African Chinese intermarriages are commonly described as spelling doom for the Chinese race. “In a China, where the birth rate is gradually decreasing due to family planning policies,” meaning the one-child policy in the past and the two-child policy of the present, “not too many years later, China will become a country with a Black and foreign Muslim majority,” lamented one person on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. In other instances, some Chinese women in relationships with Black men were doxxed and vilified.
During the Lunar New Year live show last week, as the “African Song and Dance” number began, dancers launched into a performance allegedly meant to celebrate traditional African culture. But viewers quickly realized that the dancers were Chinese, their skin darkened by makeup.
Criticism came quickly. On Twitter, Black Livity China, an activist group run by Africans in China, called the show “extremely disappointing.” “We cannot stress enough the impact scenes such as these have on African and Afro-diasporic communities living in China,” the group stated.
In response to the backlash, China's foreign affairs ministry stated that the performance was a sign of respect and that those who “make a fuss” about the program “obviously have ulterior motives.”
This isn’t the first time the Lunar New Year show has featured racist caricatures. In CCTV's 2018 Lunar New Year gala, a skit intended to showcase the Chinese government’s friendship with African countries and China’s investment in Africa featured a Chinese actress in blackface with an exaggerated fake posterior and a basket of fruit on her head, reciting lines like, “China has done so much for Africa” and “I love Chinese people! I love China!” Accompanying her was an actor from Ivory Coast dressed in a monkey costume.
Just like in 2021, the 2018 skit drew outrage from audiences around the world. “[C]ringworthy at best, completely racist at worse. It’s Africa, so bring out tribal dancers & animals?” one person commented on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been touting the establishment of a "community of shared future for mankind” on the international stage. One has to wonder whether these displays are merely a manifestation of the kind of community — or international system — that Xi wants to build.
The Chinese government and social media companies occasionally censor online hate speech, and some users have been warned by the authorities to stop their racist rhetoric. But Beijing largely has itself to blame for the persistence of online racial hate. It is the result of decades of severe repression of any discussion or activism that promotes the ideas of racial and ethnic equality and human rights, combined with ever-increasing nationalistic and chauvinist propaganda from the government.