The CCTV New Year’s Gala is one of the highlights of the state broadcaster's year in China — and probably one of the world's most-watched television events. With an estimated 700 million viewers, the show's audience is about seven times as large as the most recent Super Bowl.
The skit, which aired Thursday, was designed to celebrate the numerous links between China and African nations, including a new Chinese-built high-speed rail line in Kenya. Critics say the segment ended up stereotyping Africans in a condescending manner.
The segment began with a dance routine to the Shakira song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)," then featured an African woman who asks the show's host to pretend to be her husband so her mother does not set her up on a blind date. The mother, played by Chinese actress Lou Naiming, then enters the scene, accompanied by an actor in a monkey costume.
After the host introduces his Chinese wife, the mother says she cannot be angry about the ruse because of the strong bond between Chinese people and African people. “I love Chinese people! I love China,” the mother says.
China has made billions of dollars of investments in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, with a big push to improve infrastructure on the continent as part of its global “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Polls have shown that in general, Africans welcome the Chinese investment, but there are often points of tension, including a widespread concern that Chinese investments pillage natural resources on the continent or aid bad governance.
The skit caused widespread criticism on social media outside China, with many in Africa or the African diaspora taking offense. Within China, African groups complained about the segment on social media; on the popular microblogging network Weibo, many Chinese viewers agreed it was in poor taste.
“This is plain racism, the foreign media are going to explode,” wrote one user in a message noted by the blog What's On Weibo.
But while blackface is taboo in the United States and many other parts of the world, some in China did not see what the fuss is about. “It’s normal for Chinese actors to dress up like foreigners when performing a foreign play,” Zhou Hengshan, 80, told an Associated Press reporter in Beijing.
Chinese television has been accused of racism before. In an advertisement aired in 2016, a young Chinese woman used laundry detergent to change a dirty-looking black man into a clean-looking Chinese man. Local media later reported the advertiser had been removed from the Internet and the company behind it had apologized.
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