Racial rethinking as Obama visits
Increasing diversity, born out of boom, forces Chinese to confront old prejudices

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 15, 2009

SHANGHAI -- As a mixed-race girl growing up in this most cosmopolitan of mainland Chinese cities, 20-year-old Lou Jing said she never experienced much discrimination -- curiosity and questions, but never hostility.

So nothing prepared Lou, whose father is a black American, for the furor that erupted in late August when she beat out thousands of other young women on "Go! Oriental Angel," a televised talent show. Angry Internet posters called her a "black chimpanzee" and worse. One called for all blacks in China to be deported.

As the country gets ready to welcome the first African American U.S. president, whose first official visit here starts Sunday, the Chinese are confronting their attitudes toward race, including some deeply held prejudices about black people. Many appeared stunned that Americans had elected a black man, and President Obama's visit has underscored Chinese ambivalence about the growing numbers of blacks living here.

"It's sad," Lou said, her eyes welling up as she recalled her experience. "If I had a face that was half-Chinese and half-white, I wouldn't have gotten that criticism. . . . Before the contest, I didn't realize these kinds of attitudes existed."

As China has expanded its economic ties with Africa -- trade between them reached $107 billion last year -- the number of Africans living here has exploded. Tens of thousands have flocked to the south, where they are putting down roots, establishing communities, marrying Chinese women and having children.

In the process, they are making tiny pockets of urban China more racially diverse -- and forcing the Chinese to deal with issues of racial discrimination. In the southern city of Guangzhou, where residents refer to one downtown neighborhood as Chocolate City, local newspapers have been filled in recent months with stories detailing discrimination and alleging police harassment against the African community.

"In Guangzhou, to be frank, they don't like Africans very much," said Diallo Abdual, 26, who came to China from Guinea 1 1/2 years ago to buy cheap Chinese clothes to ship back to West Africa for sale.

With the recession, his business has dried up, his money is gone, and he has overstayed his visa. Now, like many Africans here, he spends most of his days at Guangzhou's Tangqi shopping mall avoiding the police.

"The security will beat you with irons like you are a goat," he said. "The way they treat the blacks is very, very bad." He and others pointed out the spot where in July several Africans jumped from an upper-floor window to escape an immigration raid. One migrant was reported critically injured in the fall, and a large number of Africans marched on the local police station in protest.

The Guangzhou Security Bureau said in a statement at the time that it had a duty to check that foreigners living in the city were there legally.

Long-held prejudice

In the 1960s, China began befriending African countries, supporting liberation movements in Africa and bringing African students to China in a show of Third World solidarity. Lately, China has further deepened its ties to the continent, with Premier Wen Jiabao pledging $10 billion in new low-cost loans at a China-Africa summit in Egypt last week.

But that official policy of friendship has always been balanced against another reality -- the widely held view here that black people are inferior, that white people are wealthy and successful.

"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.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company