Like most families in China, we always spend part of our Chinese New Year’s Eve watching the CCTV Gala, one of the most watched annual events in all of television with an annual viewership of about 400 million people. (By contrast, the Superbowl is watched by about 100 million people). This year, though, we had thankfully gone for a walk when this garbage showed up.
While the entire Gala show this year was centered around China’s influence on the various minority groups around the country and on other countries around the world as part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Gala directors thought that the best way to celebrate China’s relationship with Africa was to dress up a Chinese woman in blackface (complete with a sexualized Hottentot Venus bottom) and have her accompanied by a monkey, either played by a Black actor or another Chinese actor painted to appear Black. While the Chinese actress has been confirmed as Luo Naiming, no one has come forward to admit to being the monkey.
You can watch the skit in its entirety on Youtube, but the basic summary is that a young Black woman (played by an actual Black woman but I haven’t been able to find her name) asks the Gala’s host, Zheng Kai, to pretend to be her boyfriend to keep her mother from setting her up on a blind date, and he happily plays along. Which, honestly, was a pretty forward-thinking setup. When it comes to interracial relationships in China, Chinese people who date Black foreigners face a lot more pressure and discrimination themselves than if they choose to date white foreigners, who are often welcomed with open arms. But any goodwill or progressive thinking the directors hoped to engender with the skit completely bombed by casting a Chinese actress to play the mother and trotting out her monkey counterpart.
The skit ends after the host’s Chinese wife makes an appearance, ending the farce. But the “Black” mother is not angry for being deceived. She instead proclaims, “I love Chinese people! I love China,” because “China has done so much for Africa.” (I’ll come back to that particular point later.)
To get right to the main point, the skit was racist. Period. I say this because many people will try to defend the skit because blackface is an American phenomenon. While it is true that America has a specifically nasty history with blackface, that doesn’t make blackface acceptable in other countries. It’s wrong, and it’s offensive.
Some people also might say that China and Chinese people aren’t racist at all. After all, racism is a system of oppression, not simply a prejudice or dislike for people of another race, and China doesn’t have many Black people or a history of immigrants. In fact, if you ask any Chinese person if they are racist, they will vehemently tell you no. And China does have a particular fondness for many aspects of Black culture. Black sports stars and hip-hop music enjoy a popularity here you would be hard-pressed to find in any other country outside of America. But if you then ask them specifically their thoughts about Black people, most will respond with the typical derogatory words and statements that have been used to harm and insult Black people for centuries. An op-ed published last year gave voice to many of China’s irrational fears of Black people, Black men especially. And Black people do suffer from systemic oppression here. Many Black people – whether they are from Africa or a Western country – have difficulty getting jobs, work visas, or even crossing the border into China. They are often denied housing. And, as mentioned earlier, it is difficult for them to form relationships with locals.
I also want to add that China’s racism is not limited to Black persons. Many of the same derogatory words are often used to describe China’s minority ethnic groups. And the Chinese government is systematically attempting to wipe out the Tibetan and Uyghur peoples through oppressive policies.
Within hours, the skit and reactions to it were all over Wechat and Twitter. Most people recognized the skit for the racist failure it was. So within hours, the Chinese government was trying to cover its tracks and explain why it wasn’t racist. An op-ed in the Global Times spends several paragraphs explaining how the skit wasn’t racist because “Chinese people love monkey.” The article also went on to talk about how reverential the other animals were as well. This is a bit of a sidetrack, but I just want to point out how stupid this guy’s attempt at an argument is. In the Broadway version of The Lion King – which I’ve seen, and is fantastic – almost all of the characters, including the baboon Rafiki, are played by Black actors. Rafiki has also always been voiced by a Black actor. It is the context that matters. And in the context of a monkey accompanying a Chinese woman in blackface, the monkey character was also racist.
Over the last few days, China has grown even more desperate in its attempt to buck blame for the embarrassing skit. China’s foreign minister said that the cries of racism were an attempt by Western media to undermine China’s relationship with Africa. I really don’t think my blog is that influential, but maybe I have more readers than I realized 🙂 But in all honesty, very, very few Western journalists care about China’s relationship with Africa – which is itself a problem, if an unrelated one.
This brings me back to the “China has done so much good for Africa” portion of the skit, which has been largely ignored due to the glaring and horrifying racism of the sketch, but it is probably the more insidious part of it. I don’t write or even talk about this topic very much because I am far from an expert on it, but it is something I have kept within my field of vision over the years because it is very concerning. For about two decades, China has been heavily investing in Africa. And while on the outside this appears to be a good thing, many people who are experts on the matter have accused China of “neo-colonialism” or “economic colonialism,” charges China vehemently rejects. The Gala skit, with the “Black” mother proclaiming that she “loves China” was China’s propaganda machine on full display and in full defense mode. I don’t know if what is happening in Africa constitutes colonialism, but I do know that China often uses economic “development” as an excuse for its oppressive treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs. China also uses it’s money to prop up dangerous governments like North Korea. While it might be extreme to call China’s role in Africa “colonial,” it is not extreme to say that the world needs to be watching this development more closely.