A comedy sketch raises questions about racism in China

A Chinese comedy sketch broadcast on state media showing an Asian woman with her face blacked up has drawn accusations of racism. The skit was shown on state broadcaster CCTV on Feb. 16 and depicted the opening of a Chinese-built high-speed rail in Kenya. (CCTV via AP)A Chinese comedy sketch broadcast on state media showing an Asian woman with her face blacked up has drawn accusations of racism. The skit was shown on state broadcaster CCTV on Feb. 16 and depicted the opening of a Chinese-built high-speed rail in Kenya. (CCTV via AP)

A popular Lunar New Year/Spring Festival state television show broadcast to an audience of hundreds of millions across China caused an international uproar this year after featuring an Asian actor in blackface in a comedy sketch.

To viewers aware of racism and the unpleasant history of colonialism, the sketch “Joy Together” was full of offensive content. It featured an African mother played by a Chinese actress wearing blackface and a prosthetic derriere eager for her daughter to marry a Chinese man, shouting out: “I love Chinese people; I love China!” An African performer in a monkey costume followed her around, and her daughter was depicted as a Kenyan train attendant who lied to her mother about marrying a Chinese man so she could fulfill her dream to study in China.

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But even as the skit created an uproar on the internet, many Chinese could not see what the fuss was all about.

While many Chinese people, including those in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, are sensitive to being targets of discrimination, they do not consider how their own prejudice toward or stereotyping of foreigners constitutes racism. Many view Caucasians with a mixture of envy and jealousy but see people with skin darker than themselves as inferior. They often fail to see how their comments on racial minorities’ looks and lifestyle can be perceived as discriminatory.

Seen by an estimated 800 million viewers during the most watched annual television event in the world, according to Guinness, the sketch was officially intended to praise the China-Africa friendship and to celebrate a China-funded railroad linking Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya. The 470-kilometer (290-mile) line is part of China’s ambitious global infrastructure investment and development project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Even as the skit created an uproar on the internet, many Chinese could not see what the fuss was all about.

A number of posts on Chinese social media expressed embarrassment over the sketch’s overtones of cultural superiority, but many Chinese did not see a problem.

“How can this be racism? People who believe this must think they’re American! Only people in the United States would be so sensitive. There is racism in the U.S., but not here!” said one internet user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service, in response to posts that criticized the sketch. “Has China not been discriminated against enough by other countries in recent history?... Why should a skit showing China-Africa friendship be attacked like this?”

“Those who complain about racial discrimination are white lefties,” another poster sneered.

“If that really was racism, those African girls [the actresses] wouldn’t have participated,” said another poster. “Foreign media who [complain about] racism are probably just unhappy about China and Africa’s diplomatic relations, but that doesn’t mean all Africans think racism was involved.”

This view is shared even among the educated in China.

A Chinese-language instructor to foreign university students, Lu Fangzhe, asked in an online essay: “Who has ‘Joy Together’ offended exactly?” He said that African students he knew of were not offended, and it was the Western “racial germaphobes” who are quick to point fingers but are often oblivious to their own racist stance.

“If you apply this logic, every Hollywood movie is deeply discriminatory: Why is it that every time, it’s the Americans who saved the world, and not Chinese or Africans?”

He described Mercedes-Benz’s approving mention of the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post and the Marriott Hotel chain’s referral to Tibet as a country in an email to its customers as “discrimination against the Chinese people.” The Western media, which he said monopolizes the international public discourse, is foisting its own values on other countries, and Chinese people should be bold enough to resist, he argued.

“If you apply this logic, every Hollywood movie is deeply discriminatory: Why is it that every time, it’s the Americans who saved the world, and not Chinese or Africans?”

“What is the Western media’s ulterior motive in such eagerness to criticize the Spring Festival sketch?” he asked. “Racial discrimination, democracy and human rights are Western media’s buzzwords and if we adopt these terms, we’ll fall into their mindset to the point of no return.”

Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao, a former producer of the BBC Chinese service, said in an online article that the sketch was along the lines of the Communist Party’s traditional theme of harmonious living but drew “jealousy from white Westerners, who took it out of context to attack China.”

He opined that the portrayal of the stout African mother was a reflection of “reality, not stereotype” of African women, arguing that plumpness meant no offence in Chinese culture. The Western media's interpretation of the portrayal as offensive was a “one-sided judgment by Western cultural imperialism and hegemony.”

Even if the sketch was indeed guilty of racism, “why should China Central Television be judged by Western culture?” he asked.

“Has the state television program not been censored enough and it needs another level of censorship by the Western cultural experts?”

But if the sketch was supposed to showcase China-Africa friendship, some Africans living in China did not appreciate it. Hannah Getachew and Runako Celina Bernard-Stevenson, two African postgraduate students at Peking University, complained that the portrayal of China as the altruistic donor in Africa made no mention of the economic gains China stands to receive in return.

In a post for the website Black Lives China called “Racism—with Chinese Characteristics: How Blackface Darkened the Tone of China’s Spring Festival Celebrations,” they wrote: “At best, it is a one-sided portrayal of international relations, and at worst it calls in a new year with an ego boost for Chinese audiences delivered at the expense of Africans.

“An apology from CCTV would be ideal, though...the damage has already been done.”

Although the Spring Festival TV gala, broadcast on China Central Television since the 1980s, often touts the Chinese leaders’ signature initiatives, the message of the China-Africa relations skit was particularly forceful compared with past years. Many online articles critical of the sketch were quickly deleted from the internet by official censors.

Prompted by reporters’ for an official response on the controversy at a regular press briefing on Feb. 22, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was against racial discrimination but any effort “to use this as an excuse to foment discord between China and African countries would be in vain.”

Willy Lam, an adjunct history professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the CCTV sketch showed the regime’s perception of itself as a powerful and mighty “super nation” receiving tributes from humble nations.

Chang Ping, a mainland Chinese political commentator living in exile in Germany, said since discrimination is at the core of an authoritarian regime, it was not surprising that the most watched show on Chinese state television, carefully planned and pre-approved by various levels of authorities, carried such a message.

“The values conveyed by the Chinese Communist Party through its propaganda [organs] are authoritarian values which incorporates discrimination,” he said.

Hotels in major Chinese cities are required by the authorities to report and reject Uighurs from the restive region of Xinjiang in western China and Tibetans when they seek accommodation. The authorities frequently refer to Uighurs and Tibetans as separatists and terrorists following violent clashes and self-immolations protesting Chinese rule in recent years.

In the Mao era, people classified as the “five black” categories” of so-called political enemies—landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, “bad elements” and rightists—were ruthlessly persecuted, and their spouses and children were treated as a political underclass, routinely denied jobs, schooling and other basic social rights.

“Authoritarianism is built upon class discrimination. Equality threatens the foundation of autocracy,” Mr. Chang said. “So be it the exploitation of the underprivileged...the governing of ethnic minorities or ‘aid’ to Africa, the regime thrives on these values.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

To think less of some others is a natural built in tendency of all humans. You can say God made us this way because it is natural.

In graduate school we learned about a study where two homogeneous groups were divided arbitrarily in two. They then were separated but could be seen visually by each other as they were assigned tasks that were different for each group. Attitudes in each group formed that were positive about their group and what they were doing and negative ones formed about the other group. The groups exchanged a couple members from each group and shortly thereafter attitudes began to change to be less negative toward the other group.

To call this behavior racism when it gets played out really misses what is going on. It is a self defense mechanism about those who are not like ourselves. Every group protects their own and when we see another group not like ourselves, we instinctively know that they will protect their group and this could possible mean harm to our group. We must learn to overcome this judgment throughout life.

Also the concepts of "racism" and "discrimination" are very different concepts. Humans discriminate every day and it is a healthy characteristic. Before one gets upset, please tell me that a mother and father will not discriminate in favor of their children for their well being. They will help others but not before their own children are taken care of.

But why the constant drip, drip, drip of the use of the terms "racist" and "racism?"

It is usually not because one cares about others but because those that use it believe the term can be used to shame others into a political way of thinking that has nothing to do with discriminatory behavior. In other words it is all about politics.

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