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China says controversy over ‘racist’ blackface skit was designed to undermine relations with Africa

China's New Year's Gala, one of the world's most-watched TV events, drew widespread ire on social media after it featured a Chinese actress in blackface. (Video: The Washington Post)

A skit at state broadcaster CCTV's annual Lunar New Year gala recently caused headlines around the world after it featured a Chinese actress in blackface with huge prosthetic buttocks portraying an African woman, along with tribal dancers and monkeys. As one observer put it, the skit was “cringe-worthy at best, completely racist at worst.”

This week, Beijing responded — by saying that the sketch was not racist. Instead, the Foreign Ministry said, the controversy over the skit in Western media was a “futile” attempt to undermine China's relationship with Africa.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang was asked about the segment at a news conference Thursday: the first to be held since the end of the week-long new year holiday. Geng initially questioned whether the sketch was really a diplomatic issue and said the reporter posing the question should be asking the gala organizers instead.

“As a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, I can tell you that China has always opposed any form of racial discrimination,” Geng said. The spokesman added that he had seen that the skit had been covered widely in the Western media. He said that if people tried to exaggerate the incident to undermine relations between China and Africa, it would be a “doomed, futile effort.”

The CCTV New Year’s Gala draws massive viewership. With an estimated 700 million viewers, the show's audience is about seven times as large as the most recent Super Bowl, making it probably the world's most-watched television show.

The controversial segment of the show was designed to celebrate the links between China and Africa, including a new Chinese-built high-speed rail line in Kenya. The skit began with a dance routine featuring the Shakira song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)." An African woman then asks the show's Chinese host to pretend to be her fiance so her mother does not set her up on a blind date and she can instead move to China. Her mother, played by Chinese actress Lou Naiming wearing blackface, then enters the scene, and the African woman and the host pretend to be a couple.

The ruse is soon ruined after the host's Chinese wife makes an entrance. However, the African mother says she cannot be angry over the subterfuge because of the strong bond between the people of China and Africa. “I love Chinese people! I love China,” the mother says.

Blackface is taboo in the United States and many other parts of the world, but racism is rarely a subject of public discussion in China. “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 last week.

However, some Chinese social media users were embarrassed by the segment and worried about the damage it would do to China's image abroad. “This is plain racism, the foreign media are going to explode,” wrote one user on Weibo, according to the blog What's On Weibo.

China has made billions of dollars' worth of investments in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, and polls have shown that, in general, Africans welcome the Chinese investment. However, there are often points of tension, including concerns surrounding the continent's natural resources and Chinese aid propping up bad governments.

Chinese television has faced accusations of racism before. In an advertisement aired in 2016, a black man is shown turning into a Chinese man after a Chinese woman “washes” him with the laundry detergent being advertised. In that case, it was later reported that the company behind the advertisement had apologized.

A Chinese laundry detergent ad went viral and has prompted backlash for its racist implications. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

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China’s televised New Year’s Gala featured a blackface skit about Africans