Chinese Dialogue on Racism Emerges
By SKY CANAVES and SHAI OSTER
BEIJING -- U.S. President Barack Obama's first state visit to China comes as Chinese are, for the first time, engaging in unusual public dialogue about racism in a country where prejudice has long been seen as a foreign problem.
In recent months, several incidents involving the children of Chinese mothers and black fathers have sparked a vigorous debate on what it means to be Chinese. While many young people here are inspired by what Mr. Obama represents in terms of ideals of equality, the reality for Chinese citizens with similar family backgrounds sometimes involves outright racism and discrimination, which in turn has led some to reflect on its sources.
.Most Chinese have grown up in what is, at least ethnically, a fairly homogenous society. More than 90% of the population is ethnic Han Chinese, and there is still little public discussion of the underlying tensions that sparked anti-Han ethnic riots among Tibetans last year and among Uighurs this year.
Although China has a history of racial incidents involving ethnic-African expatriates-from large protests targeting African students in the city of Nanjing in 1988 to police detentions of young African men in the capital ahead of last year's Beijing Olympics-the existence of racial prejudice within China was almost never talked about.
But as the country's economic might grows, it is attracting more foreigners in search of opportunity, from a 100,000-strong community of African traders in Guangzhou to Middle Eastern traders in the east coast manufacturing town of Yiwu. At the same time, changes from abroad-such as the election of America's first black president and the growing popularity of African American basketball players in China in the last decade-have challenged entrenched stereotypes in the country much the way they have elsewhere.
The changes are prompting some Chinese to confront issues of racism and discrimination for the first time. Attitudes towards black have come into especially sharp relief in recent weeks, thanks to an incident involving a nationally televised talent show. One contestant on the show, called "Oriental Angel," was a young Shanghai woman named Lou Jing who is the child of a Chinese mother and an African-American father-a relatively rare combination in China. Her participation in the show prompted a firestorm of epithets from viewers-and criticism of that reaction from others.
Lou Jing, right, played cards as she took part in the recording of a TV program in Shanghai.
."Reporters were asking everybody which school they were from and what strengths they had," the 20-year-old university student recalls of her experience on the show. "But when they got to me, it was always the same question about my skin color. It made me very angry." In China's active online discussion forums, anonymous Internet users attacked her and her mother with vulgar terms. "Her mom's got a really thick skin," read one of the tamer comments. "It may be trendy to date a foreigner, but you still can't choose a black person."
Hung Huang, a publisher and writer who is one of China's most famous media personalities, wrote on her blog that she was distressed that, even as Americans welcomed Mr. Obama into the White House, Chinese people were still struggling to accept a young woman whose skin color was different. "It pains me to see that a people who themselves were discriminated against by the West and called "the sick man of Asia," would have such short memories, and start discriminating against groups that are in a disadvantaged position."
Ms. Lou says that growing up in Shanghai, she didn't feel that different among her family and friends. When dealing with strangers, she often passed as a foreigner by speaking Mandarin instead of her native Shanghainese dialect. "People would often say, "you speak Mandarin so well." I wouldn't explain because it's not necessary," she said.
But Ms. Lou says the Oriental Angel incident has caused her to question her identity. "Now I always wonder: am I really a Chinese?" she says. "In the past, I never thought of going abroad," but now she wants to study in the U.S. or Europe after completing her undergraduate degree in Shanghai.
Hu Jinshan, a professor at the Institute of American History at Xiamen University, said that there is still "extreme prejudice" in China, which she attributed primarily to insufficient contacts with diverse groups of people. "In the future it will improve. We see the example from America, and more Africans coming to China to do business."
Many young Chinese say they are inspired by what Mr. Obama represents. As China's growing wealth gap threatens to undermine one of the central tenets of Communist Party rule -- the classless society -- Mr. Obama is often cited as an example of individual accomplishment within a more equal society. He even gives some people hope that the United States may one day elect an ethnically Chinese president.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009, Uighur women grab a police officer as they protest in front of journalists visiting the area in Urumqi, China.
.In China's controlled media environment, the public discussion on race and discrimination remains largely limited to foreigners and blacks. It doesn't extend to China's own ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans and Uighurs, who have taken to the streets to air their grievances against Han Chinese. In those cases, the government and most people alike tend to blame the resulting violence on a small number of instigators, and refuse to look further into the homegrown sources of ethnic strife.
Jeremy Goldkorn, a white South African in Beijing who co-produced a 2006 documentary on African soccer players in Beijing and who runs a popular Web site on Chinese media, described the prevailing attitudes toward black people in China as "naïve racism." One typical example would be the treatment of another half-Chinese, half-African American celebrity, Ding Hui, who earlier this year was selected for the Chinese volleyball team, becoming the first black athlete on national sports team here. Media reports on Mr. Ding often include references to his white teeth. During last year's U.S. presidential campaign, a leading Chinese Web site dubbed the U.S. president "Black Kid Obama" in a special section that paid tribute to the then-candidate.
Indeed, there's still a long way to go before China approaches the levels of political correctness seen in the United States. On Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said during a regular press conference that Mr. Obama, as a black person, should be more sympathetic to China's position on the Dalai Lama and Tibet.
"Dalai Lama is the chief of feudal serfdom. China abolished serfdom in 1959. ... This is the same with Lincoln's abolition of the black slavery system in the U.S.," said Mr. Qin. "President Obama should be more able to understand the stance of the Chinese government against Tibet independence and Dalai's international activities to break up his motherland."