Setting off to spend a year teaching English in Zhejiang province in south-eastern China, I expected plenty of surprises. But what struck me most was something they tend not to tell you about in the guidebooks: the racism.
It started when I went around the classroom, asking pupils which city they were from. When I got to a slightly darker-skinned boy, his classmates thought it was hilarious to shout ‘Africa!’ It’s a theme. A girl with a similar complexion was taunted with monkey sounds; her peers refused to sit next to her, saying she smelt bad. I apparently erred when, teaching the word for wife, I showed my students a picture of Michelle Obama. The image of the then First Lady was greeted with exaggerated sounds of repulsion: ‘So ugly!’ they said. ‘So black!’
Such comments would have been treated harshly in a British classroom a quarter-century ago, let alone today. But my own protestations were met with confused faces — crestfallen that they’d disappointed their teacher, but clueless as to the nature of their mistake. And this stretches far beyond the classroom. To many Chinese, ideas about racial hierarchies are not outdated anathema but unquestioned belief.
In Britain, a politician who uses a defunct idiom like ‘nigger in the woodpile’ loses the whip. In China, racism is a standard undercurrent of public debate. A few months ago, Pan Qinglin, a Tianjin politician, announced to reporters that he had found out how to ‘solve the problem of the black population in Guangdong’ — a province with a small amount of African migration. Warning that the new arrivals brought drugs, sexual assault and infectious diseases, he urged local policy-makers to tighten controls to prevent China turning ‘from a yellow country to a black-and-yellow country’.
The Chinese don’t make a big deal about their racism: it’s so commonplace it can seem almost cheerful. An advert for a detergent shows a black man chatting up a Chinese woman, only for her to shove him in the washing machine until he emerges a fair-skinned Asian. The advert aired for months before it was picked up by an English-language website and caused uproar. The company, Qiaobi, apologised — to its non-customers. Its analogy of black skin and dirty laundry made perfect sense to the Chinese.
Chinese racism is, in part, the extension of a long-standing association of wealth and pale skin: a near-universal construct that is particularly acute in a country that was for centuries ruled by various subsections of its pallid northern population.
The history of China is also the history of proud isolationism: it has been keeping outsiders outside for generations. China was long the most developed country in Asia, and just as the Greeks stigmatised their neighbours as barbarians, the Chinese scorned theirs. The turn of the 20th century brought the grudging acknowledgement of western technological superiority, and with it a shift from the general policy of viewing all foreigners as inferior: an exception was made for westerners.
The racism begins with the assumption that all westerners are white. In the words of my black Cameroonian colleague, the Chinese are prone to think that ‘all blacks are from Africa, and everyone in Africa has AIDS’.
The notion of a black Briton is puzzling, when to be Chinese is to be Han and vice versa: the Party believes itself to be the legitimate government not just of all the Han in China, but everywhere else as well. In 2015, five Hong Kong-based Han booksellers were arrested for allegedly selling seditious works. One man was a British citizen and another a Swede, but their foreign passports did nothing, in the government’s eyes, to counteract their Chinese blood: both men were denied consular support. The Swede announced on state television, probably under duress, that ‘I truly feel that I am still Chinese’.
Conversely, a non-Han Chinese person is considered a contradiction in terms, and the Chinese apply the same logic to the citizens of other countries. When I showed my class my own school photograph, I expected them to remark on how terrible my hair looked. Instead, their first response was ‘Why are there those black girls in England?’
China’s government says it is ‘a unified multi-ethnic country’. It is not. To a British visitor, China appears astonishingly ethnically homogeneous: the Han ethnic group make up 92 per cent of the population, but walk the streets of almost any city and you’ll wonder where the other 8 per cent are hiding. The answer is: in ethnic minority enclaves on the fringes of some of the country’s poorest provinces. China has almost no citizens of non-Chinese descent: it is extremely difficult for expats to secure Chinese citizenship, so most are forced to leave as soon as their employment visas expire. China’s non-Han residents are members of the country’s indigenous minorities, who are almost always darker-skinned than their Han neighbours.
Treated variously as a security risk or as purveyors of quaint cultural curiosities, China’s minorities have been left behind by the economic progress of the last half century. Most work in the fields, and a few find employment performing folk dances to Han tourists. One study found that the per capita income gap between Han and minority Chinese increased by almost 17 percentage points between 1988 and 1995, when the Chinese economy began to skyrocket. While the incidence of poverty in China has decreased by a jaw-dropping 92 per cent in the past 40 years, almost half of those still living on less than $1.50 per day reside in minority enclaves.
When development does come, it is often seen as centrally imposed Sinicisation. Efforts to ensure that Tibetan children speak fluent Mandarin, for example, have resulted in the arrest of those who promote the local language. The approach to minorities is cruel and contradictory: most Han Chinese don’t see minority citizens as their fellow country-men, but still maintain that Beijing has a right to govern them.
My time in a Chinese classroom didn’t instil much hope of an enlightened next generation, but there are a few signs that things might be starting to change. Chinese teenage boys idolise the African-American basketball star Kobe Bryant, for instance — posters of him festooned the dormitory walls.
If China wants to realise its aspiration of replacing America as the country the world looks up to, it will need to sort out its race problem. It is an issue which fuels unrest at home, and damages the country’s reputation abroad. Xi Jinping has talked about a ‘Chinese dream’ — let’s hope it exports tolerance, not racism.