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Collage of news headlines on anti-Black racism in China. © 2023 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The Chinese government should acknowledge and condemn anti-Black racism prevalent on the Chinese internet and adopt measures to promote tolerance and fight prejudice, Human Rights Watch said today. Chinese social media platforms, which are quick to delete content critical of the Chinese government, should remove racist content that violates their community standards on hate speech, or might incite racial discrimination or violence.

Racist content on the Chinese internet directed at Black people inside and outside of China has become common in recent years, often created by netizens for the purpose of attracting traffic and generating profit. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of hundreds of videos and posts since late 2021 found that the major Chinese social media platforms – including Bilibili, Douyin, Kuaishou, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu – do not routinely address racist content despite their responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“The Chinese government likes to tout China-Africa anti-colonial solidarity and unity, but at the same time ignores pervasive hate speech against Black people on the Chinese internet,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing should recognize that undertaking investments in Africa and embracing China-Africa friendship won’t undo harm caused by unaddressed racism.”

Many of the videos and posts that Human Right Watch reviewed portrayed Black people through offensive racial stereotypes. Unless there is a compelling reason to do so, Human Rights Watch does not repeat racial slurs or other offensive language and images, or link to them, so as not to promote their use or perpetuate the harm they cause.

A widely shared type of video, created by Africa-based Chinese social media influencers, portrays Africans as impoverished and dependent, while Chinese people – often the content creators themselves – are shown as wealthy saviors who provide them with jobs, housing, food, and money.

Another common type of racist content reviewed denigrates interracial relationships. Black people married to Chinese people are accused of “contaminating” and threatening the Chinese race. Perceived relationships between Black men and Chinese women are particularly vilified.

Some Chinese women who post photos with their Black male partners on Chinese social media have become targets of online harassment, including death threats, threats of rape, and doxing – publishing personally identifiable information without the individual’s consent.

Human Rights Watch also found many accounts that impersonate Black people, spreading false and hostile information. Black men coveting Chinese women is a common theme. Photos of the Black American singer Ricardo Valdez Valentine Jr., known as “6lack,” were used by an impersonating account on the social media platform Xiaohongshu. Instagram photos of a US-based Black male model were used by another impersonating account on Xiaohongshu.

Some netizens urged the Chinese authorities to ban Black people from becoming permanent residents in China or from marrying Chinese people. Some also adopted racist symbols and language frequently used in the United States in their online posts attacking Black people. Some called for killing Black people.

Netizens also targeted other Chinese who denounce racism or support victims of racism. In April 2021, racist netizens trolled China House, a sustainable development nongovernmental organization, for its program helping Africans living in China’s city of Guangzhou. Comments include, “Volunteers, you worked very hard, hope you all die”; “Han traitor”; and “You gang who help Blacks integrate into Chinese society, who funds you? Who is behind this?”

The Chinese social media platforms Bilibili, Douyin, Kuaishou, and Weibo all have published community standards and guidelines banning content promoting racial or ethnic hatred and discrimination. Xiaohongshu bans impersonation, calls on users to “respect the rights of others,” and discourages users from making or sharing comments based on people’s appearances.

Bilibili, Kuaishou, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu did not respond to June 2023 Human Rights Watch letters regarding their policies and response to anti-Black racism on their platforms. ByteDance, the owner of Douyin, removed one video that Human Rights Watch flagged, but took no action against several others concerning a Black child, stating that problematic depictions of the child were “not necessarily associated with any certain group or race.”

Douyin said it relies on “a combination of people and technology” to enforce content moderation guidelines, and the platform “on average take[s] action on more than 300 videos and comments per day that include violative content targeting Black people.” The company did not address questions regarding whether the platform works with civil society groups in developing hate speech policies, or details about content moderation outcomes.

The Chinese government maintains one of the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship regimes, colloquially known as the Great Firewall. Numerous words are banned on the Chinese internet, which is largely cut off from the global internet. The major Chinese social media platforms have thousands of content moderators to remove or restrict content deemed politically sensitive. The amount and extremity of racist content on the Chinese internet suggest that the platforms either are not meeting their own standards banning racist content, or that their policies are inadequate when addressing racist content, both contrary to their human rights responsibilities.

Chinese authorities have at times condemned online racism when it triggers a backlash, particularly in Africa, whose countries are key economic and diplomatic partners of China. In 2022, the BBC released a documentary exposing the “well-wishing” industry on Chinese social media, which sold videos featuring African children coached to repeat demeaning phrases in Mandarin. The videos were widely condemned for racism and economic exploitation of children. In response to the international outcry, the Chinese authorities said they “condemned racism in any form” and pledged to crack down on “unlawful online acts.”

The platforms’ responses to the BBC exposé were rigid, arbitrary, and opaque, a University of Witwatersrand study found. They blocked searches of videos containing the term “Africa,” even educational videos.

Black people who had recently lived in China told Human Rights Watch that they had reported racist content to social media companies but only received automated responses that the content did not violate guidelines. “For me, it’s shocking that [racist] stuff like that doesn’t get censored or banned given how quickly the Great Firewall works to ban,” said a Shanghai-based West African man.

Runako Celina, who studied and lived in China and was the lead producer of the “well-wishing” industry documentary, said that she knew some Chinese academics who specialize in African studies and had tried to engage major social media companies, but found their response inadequate: “Sometimes it would result in a conversation. [The platforms] might kind of hush things down for a bit, censor some videos here and there. Nothing would ever last.”

A Black man from the United States who has a sizable following on TikTok, where he makes videos about his life in China, told Human Rights Watch in May that he would not post the same content on Douyin because of the prevalence of racism. “It is very hard to look at these comments and think anyone who is on the street walking by me could be saying those things online, and having those type of thoughts,” the man said. “It’s unnerving to be so close to someone who hates you so much for existing.”

Celina said she was worried about the possibility of online hate turning into offline violence: “I’ve seen [Black] people who’ve used Douyin just like the rest of the population and post their families like ‘Happy birthday to my daughter’ or whatever. Then someone decides to comment [racist] emojis underneath them and ‘get out of China’ and things like this. It’s very scary. I think if I’m honest, one of my biggest fears is that online extremism of any type only stays [just] online for so long.”

In 2019, a surge of sexist and racist attacks occurred online against a “study buddy” program between foreign and domestic students at Shandong University, in eastern China. Netizens falsely accused the university of assigning “beautiful” Chinese female students to foreign male students, particularly Black students. Chinese female students who participated in the programs also became targets. Some netizens reportedly showed up on campus to harass and intimidate students.

In response, the university said that the program did not pair Chinese female students with foreign male students, but failed to condemn the online and offline harassment, leading some female students to express disappointment.

While the Chinese government ostensibly condemns racism, its own state media perpetuates it. In the flagship state television China Central Television’s (CCTV) 2018 Lunar New Year gala, a skit intended to showcase the Chinese government’s investment in Africa featured a Chinese actress in blackface, reciting lines like, “China has done so much for Africa” and “I love Chinese people! I love China!” CCTV was criticized for racism in that production, but the government again featured blackface in its 2021 gala. In a performance titled “African Song and Dance,” which was supposed to celebrate traditional African culture, Chinese dancers appeared with their skin darkened by makeup.

A 2022 musical “Ironman in Africa,” produced by the Heilongjiang provincial government, extolled Chinese workers’ oil exploration in Sudan. The musical showed Chinese actors dressed in what appeared to be dark wigs and in grass skirts apparently as a caricature of Sudanese residents.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), to which China is a party, obligates countries to “condemn racial discrimination” and undertake measures aimed at “eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races” while undertaking “not to sponsor, defend, or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations.”

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitors government compliance with the ICERD, has stated in a general recommendation on combating racist hate speech that “[f]ormal rejection of hate speech by high-level public officials and condemnation of the hateful ideas expressed play an important role in promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.” The Committee recommends that governments undertake “information campaigns and educational policies calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech,” and that training for police and legal systems is “essential” to foster “familiarization with international norms protecting freedom of opinion and expression and norms protecting against hate speech.”

The Chinese government should counter hate speech online through affirmative or nonpunitive measures, tailoring its response to the specific context, Human Rights Watch said. This could include public education, promotion of tolerance, publicly countering incendiary misinformation, and strengthening security to protect those who are threatened.

“Major Chinese social media platforms are failing to fulfill their own guidelines to address pervasive racist content,” Wang said. “Chinese authorities should stop facilitating this toxic environment.”

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