A well-intentioned Chinese Central Television (CCTV) comedy show went horribly wrong last month. CCTV brings out its best programming during the peak Chinese new year’s holidays, but one comedy sketch this year earned wide international media criticism for its portrayal by a Chinese actress in blackface portraying an African mother with stereotypical curves and mindset. Her appearance—coming at a time when China is actively building its business and diplomatic presence in Africa—was followed with another “African’ actor with monkey-like features. A single sketch threatens to damage the goodwill China has built up in Africa and has become a tempting target for international critics who claim that China is showing its traditional world view. The incident reflects two threats that the Chinese government faces as it tries to expand its global influence: its lack of racial education, and its own colonial tendencies.
This is not the first time that the Chinese media have been called out for racism. Another controversy in 2016 involved an advertisement for a laundry company that stuck an African-American male in a washing machine and made him paler and Asian-looking. While it is tempting to think that the PRC is deliberately inconsiderate, the closer truth is that the Chinese government—which supervises CCTV, the country’s most influential network—may not even know its flaws because there is no history of understanding racial context. And without that understanding, its censorship system doesn’t catch race-related mistakes. Since the Chinese government is focusing right now on its investment in Africa, the government doesn’t want to disrupt relations with the Continent by showing prejudice or discrimination. There’s simply too much at stake for China to have its central message of friendship and partnership distorted by racist stereotypes in its official media.
This kind of misguided humor should be taken seriously. As a society, China has stepped onto the world’s stage through its dramatic growth and prosperity of the last two decades, and its naturally increased global role in trade, politics, and humanitarian issues. Chinese media are also no longer just domestic. Maybe a couple of decades ago media could echo parts of society with derogatory terms for Japanese (ri ben gui zi) Koreans (bang zi), or Westerners (bai gui zi). Now the situation has changed as more foreigners starts to follow the activities of the Chinese society and media, but a lot of people in Chinese society have still not realized just how much some jokes and metaphors hurt other people. While many Chinese feel angry when foreign media or people use stereotype to describe Chinese, they don’t connect that with how other races feel when they are portrayed as monkeys.
Perhaps an even more serious problem is the colonialist tendency that has started to form in the Chinese mind. In the controversial sketch I mentioned above, Africans actors praised the railroad that the Chinese government built in Africa and expressed how much Chinese investments helped Africa. There are sentences such as, “When I became a train attendant, I have a different identity. I am so beautiful right now and I am able to marry a nice man. My life will be good from now on!” and “I want to study in China. I want to be like Chinese!” Chinese actors are teachers and travelers, while African actors are just students and servants. If we read the history of colonization of African in 19th century by English and French, we can find a similar theme and propaganda as the Chinese government is promoting now: we bring civilization to Africa and we are their savior. After one hundred years of humiliation by imperial countries, Chinese are becoming like their humiliators after Chinese are able to expend their power.
Du Mu, a Chinese poet in Tang （唐） dynasty, use the story of the rapid collapse of the Qin （秦） dynasty to warn people who do not learn the lesson from history: As the rulers of Qin were too busy to mourn their own destruction , posterity must mourn for them; but if in mourning the destruction of Qin posterity fails to learn the lesson, then posterity’s posterity will have to mourn for posterity itself. If the Chinese government cannot prevent the formation of an colonist mindset in Chinese people’s own hearts, the Chinese government will not only fail to “rise peacefully” but will also repeat the mistakes of the English and French colonialists.
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.