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Racial rethinking as Obama visits

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.

"The kind of prejudice you see now really happened with the economic growth," said Hung Huang, a Beijing-based fashion magazine publisher and host of "Straight Talk," a nightly current affairs talk show. "The Chinese worshiped the West, and for Chinese people, 'the West' is white people."

Hung, 48, said her generation was "taught world history in a way that black people were oppressed, they were slaves, and we haven't seen any sign of success since. The African countries are still poor, and blacks [in America] still live in inner cities." Hung noted that Chinese racial prejudices extend to the country's own minority groups, including Tibetans and Uighurs -- or anyone who is not ethnically Han Chinese.

The view of African Americans as poor and oppressed fits into the official narrative of the United States as a place of glaring inequalities. China's most recent annual report on the United States' human rights record in 2008, released in February, made no mention of Obama's historic election. But it said, "In the United States, racial discrimination prevails in every aspect of social life."

"Black people and other minorities live at the bottom of the American society," the report said. "There is serious racial hostility in the United States."

Sherwood Hu, a Shanghai-based filmmaker, was one of the judges on "Go! Oriental Angel" who gave Lou high marks. "Before the Cultural Revolution, China considered black people our brothers and white people our enemies," Hu said. "But deep down, they're a little bit afraid of black people."

The racial animosity here reflects a prejudice dating to China's mainly agrarian past: Darker skin meant you worked the fields; lighter skin put you among the elite. The country is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, but that historical prejudice remains. High-end skin-whitening products are a $100 million-a-year business in China, according to industry statistics.

'Are we racist?'

Chen Juan, 27, a secretary in an English-language training school in Beijing, regularly uses skin-whitening products and carries an umbrella on summer days. "For me, the whiter, the better. Being white means pretty," she said. "If someone looks too black, I feel they look countrified and like a farmer. . . . Being white is prettier than being black."

"In my impression, black people, especially Africans, are not clean enough," Chen continued. "To be frank, I just feel black people are too black. Definitely, I wouldn't consider having a black guy as my boyfriend even if he were rich."

P.C. Chike, a Nigerian businessman in Guangzhou who has been in China for five years, exports wigs and extensions made from Chinese hair to his home country. He married a Chinese woman from Beijing, and they have a son, with another on the way.

"Chinese don't like Africans. They don't like black skin," Chike said. "China trying to embrace Africa is a political statement. The question is, how do they treat black people?"

Li Wenjuan, Chike's wife, said she thinks racial attitudes are less coarse in Beijing than in Guangzhou, where the commonly used Cantonese term for blacks translates as "black ghosts."

Some here say Obama's presidency is causing a major shift in attitudes. Others, however, say many Chinese rationalize his election as a fluke of the American system or suggest that Obama, whose mother was white, isn't "really" black.

"It will be really interesting to see what happens when he comes to visit, because I really think the Chinese have a hard time with it," Hung said. "Nobody has dealt with this question of what this means to our sense of race. It's a kind of self-examination that Chinese -- including myself -- need to go through: Are we racist?"

Lou sees similarities between her life and Obama's: She also grew up without her father, whom she never knew. She read Obama's autobiography and watched his campaign speeches on television. She learned how to chant "Yes, we can!" in English and calls Obama "my idol."

Reading the withering online criticisms of her talent-show appearance, she recalled, she came across one post that asked: "Now that Obama is president, does that mean a new day for black people has arrived?"

"I think the answer is yes," she said. "Some Chinese people's perceptions of black people here have been transformed."

Researchers Wang Juan and Zhang Jie contributed to this report from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

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