Yet the most vocal support for Black lives from Asia came from the representatives of Beijing. State-run media outlets such as the Global Times and the China Daily published hundreds of articles related to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest. Lijian Zhao, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, described the United States’ race problem as a “social ill” and argued that “Black Lives Matter and their human rights should be protected.” Another spokesperson, Hua Chunying, affirmed a now common refrain of the movement by tweeting, “I can’t breathe.”
China’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement seems opportunistic, given its own poor record on human rights. But throughout the early to mid-20th century, China’s leaders and Black activists did find common cause on the issue of racism. They collaborated to challenge global racism, drawing on their shared experiences and histories, as the scholars Yawei Liu and Michael Cerny have explored. Their solidarity represented one thread in a global tapestry of anti-racist activism — an elaborate network that joined Black Americans at home to the struggle of colonial subjects abroad. That history of Black internationalism, and its arrival in China, is what Communist leaders seek to exploit today. It serves as a stark reminder of a timeless truth: that the United States’ racial legacy is as much a form of diplomacy as it is an arm of domestic politics.
Black internationalist affinities with China began during the age of empire. In 1911, when the Qing dynasty collapsed under repeated foreign incursions, Black activists saw commonalities in the experiences of Chinese people, who had also endured racial subjugation under Western imperialism. Like White anxieties about Black emancipation during Reconstruction, China’s resistance to colonial rule triggered a fear of a “yellow peril” to White Christendom. Edward Cooper, a prominent Black journalist at the time, wrote that he “did not blame the Chinese for resenting the interference of foreigners.” According to the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, a prominent Black newspaper, China’s subsequent transformation into a Western-style republic was the embodiment of a quest for racial parity from an “Oriental’s — and aye, a colored man’s — point of view.”
During the early twentieth century, an uprising against European and U.S. missionaries called the Boxer Rebellion pit U.S. soldiers, some of them Black, against Chinese nationalists. Noting the conflict of interest, Bishop Henry Turner declared in the New York Age, another influential Black publication, that the skirmish against China was “not our war.” “The Black man who puts a gun upon his shoulder to go and fight China,” he wrote, “should find the bottom of the ocean before he gets there.”
Solidarity between Black activists and Chinese patriots reached a pinnacle in 1944 during World War II, when the major countries of the Allied forces — China, the United States, Britain and Soviet Russia — convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss the foundations for what would become the United Nations. China was the only member of the “the Big Four” to propose that a racial equity clause be included in the new charter.
When news of the proposal broke to the American public, China’s main support came not from White liberals but Black Americans. The conference would be “watched by millions of dark people the world over” wrote the editors of the Philadelphia Tribune, the country’s oldest Black newspaper. “To rebuff China,” they admonished, “will be tantamount to telling the darker people of India, Africa and other sections of Asia, ‘You are still not ready for equality.’ ” American and British officials, however, hoping to check future Chinese power, had the proposal dismissed.
The 1949 victory by the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War did nothing to dampen the relationship between Chinese and Black activists. Mao was a revolutionary leader who believed that a vicious cycle of imperialism would plague the world so long as the United States and the Soviet Union remained in power. The solution was to unite the world’s peripheral powers — the subjugated, non-White peoples — under the banner of the “Third World.” In this Manichaean worldview, split between the forces of good and evil, rich and poor, White and non-White, a global coalition of the dispossessed would lead the world with Mao at its helm. The African American struggle was part and parcel of this vision; only with the “complete emancipation of the Black people,” Mao said, would the Western system of imperialism “come to its end.”
Mao’s rhetoric of world revolution shaped the views of many civil rights activists. In 1959, W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated his 91st birthday at a reception of more than 1,000 professors and students at Beijing University. Throughout the 1960s, the Black Panther Party sold copies of the “Little Red Book,” a collection of quotes by Mao, to raise funds for their activism. By the 1970s, a host of civil rights and Black Power activists including Elaine Brown, Huey Newton, Robert Williams and Du Bois had set foot in China. “I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life,” recalled Newton on his trip, “completely free among my fellow men.”
Although Mao’s revolutionary ambitions died along with him in 1976, the current Communist Party’s support for BLM activists recalls the earlier efforts of the Communist dictator.
In a speech last year, President Xi Jinping, known by many accounts as a successor to Mao, promised that China would never return to its years under Western subjugation — a period that many Chinese now refer to as the “century of humiliation.” The Chinese people have “managed to stand up on its feet,” said Xi, and their mission now is to “embark on a journey of national rejuvenation.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Mao’s world revolution presented one alternative path to a world driven by colonialism. Yet in drawing stark divisions across race and class, and enforcing ideological conformity from the top down, his vision threatened to reproduce what Du Bois once dubbed “the problem of the color-line.” The current Communist regime, in justifying their recent actions in Hong Kong through familiar, anti-imperialist rhetoric, seems to be drawing from the same playbook, while replicating the same problems of hierarchy and domination.
But the United States is limited in how it can address this situation. For decades, Black activists argued that race matters in foreign relations. Without a commitment to human and civil rights, U.S. diplomacy is an engine running on fumes. Only moral leadership, they believed, could reinvigorate democracy and prevent the world from spiraling into less favorable hands.
If China’s worldview risks substituting one form of domination for another, then the current Black Lives Matter movement, with its grass-roots, multiracial coalition, paints a more hopeful picture. Like their 20th century predecessors, the two have common cause: Both seek an end to racial subjugation and poverty on a global scale. But only the latter, in its inclusiveness and refusal to adhere to old hierarchies and racial boundaries, can move us beyond “the color-line,” toward a day when liberty and dignity can be enjoyed by all.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece listed the Boxer Rebellion as taking place in 1914. It actually occurred around 1900.