Thus far 2018 hasn’t been great for Sino-African relations.
In late January, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Chinese officials had been stealing information from the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Beijing paid for the construction of the $200 million building in Ethiopia but according to the report, Chinese construction and telecoms firms put bugs in the desks and walls and installed “back doors” in computer systems, allowing the country’s intelligence agencies to download information on a nightly basis (interestingly, China’s spy body doesn’t have a well-known name like the CIA or MI6 – suggesting it does a better job of staying secret).
The Chinese ambassador to the African Union denied the report saying its publication was intended to undermine relations between Beijing and the African continent.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and China was forced to deploy the same defence – this time in relation to a controversial skit on state television’s Belt and Road themed Spring Festival Gala.
Titled “Let’s Celebrate Together”, the 14 minute sketch was pegged to the opening of the Chinese-funded Nairobi-Mombasa rail link in May.
One of the show’s hosts finds himself in Kenya – as denoted by the presence of tribal dancers and people dressed as wild animals – where he meets a young woman named Carrie who has just got a job as a stewardess on the train line.
Carrie is just 18 and wants to carry on working but her mother wants her to marry. This is where the problems really start. While Carrie is played by a Chinese language student from Gabon, her mother is played by local actress Lou Naiming – with a blackened face.
Lou also dons a padded bodysuit for the role, accentuating her bosom and buttocks. Her brightly-coloured clothing is topped off with a headscarf and a carefully balanced basket of fruit. She is also given a sidekick: a human-sized monkey.
Even as the skit was being aired some viewers saw it as problematic.
“Does anyone else think this is racist?” asked one person on Sina Weibo.
“Disgusting,” wrote another.
In Africa there was disquiet too. “The scenes in the skit depicting Kenya in racist, derogatory impressions add to the obscurity of whether Kenya is truly a valuable trade partner to China or just another cow they are milking,” the Daily Nation quoted one young Kenyan as saying.
In 2016 a commercial for the clothes detergent Qiaoibi featured a black man being “washed clean” (see Wi327) and last October a museum in Wuhan had to remove an exhibition that juxtaposed photos of Africans with images of animals from the continent.
Complicating the issue is that some Chinese believe that racism is largely a Western problem, borne from Europe’s and America’s history of enslaving non-white people.
The Chinese prefer to see themselves as victims of racism – an example being the incident last year when the supermodel Gigi Hadid posted an Instagram video of herself holding a Buddha cookie and narrowing her eyes (see WiC379).
Chinese ethnicity is often at the heart of modern Chinese identity too. In December Wang Jian, the head of one of China’s leading genome companies (see WiC393), suggested foreign vaccines for Human Papilomavirus might not work on Chinese recipients because of genetic differences (there is no evidence to suggest this is the case). Likewise the Chinese authorities often feel they have a special relationship with ethnic Chinese abroad, regardless of the passports they hold.
Many local academics also resist the idea that Africa is the birthplace of humanity, preferring the idea that Asians evolved in China.
All of this pales in comparison to the more blatant racism that some people of colour say they face every day in China. Black Americans often says they lose out to white Europeans when they go for English teaching jobs and men of colour complain that women have screamed in fright as they pass them in the street.
And there was more intolerance from some of the netizens commenting on the night of the Spring Festival Gala. “What are all of these black people doing in our show?” asked one. “Get them out of our country,” demanded another.
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