As a black woman in China, I’ve been relatively fortunate. My negative experiences have mostly consisted of being photographed and gawked at by Chinese people. While many of my fellow Africans have had much more traumatic experiences, my experience has been largely positive. I’ve encountered warmth, kindness, support and a real desire to engage from the Chinese people I’ve met.
Yet my understanding of China is being challenged by recent events that suggest a deeper level of racism that will complicate the future of China-Africa relations. “This is Africa” (这就是非洲) is the name of an exhibition in the capital of China’s Hubei province, Wuhan, that was pulled down recently after complaints by Africans in China. The exhibit showcased pictures of Africans compared with images of animals native to Africa.
The museum curator, Wang Yuejun, defended the exhibition by saying it sought to explore the relationship between humans and nature. He claimed it had no underlying racist message and that in Chinese culture being compared to animals is complimentary. For Africans and blacks who intimately know that comparisons of black people to animals have been used to justify the maltreatment and enslavement of blacks, such an exhibition is hurtful and infuriating.
To test the validity of the curator’s comments, I ran a little experiment. I asked several Chinese friends what their reactions would be if they saw pictures of ethnic minorities in China paired alongside pictures of animals local to their regions. Few thought it would be complimentary. I went further, asking what their reaction would be if they saw a Western magazine featuring pictures of Han Chinese alongside animals. Again, few drew the link to the complimentary value of animals but rather imagined it would be a politically charged statement.
“If the comparison was with tigers, panthers or mythical animals like dragons and phoenixes, I would think the implied meaning is that China is strong. But if it were other type of animals, I would think the museum didn’t respect Chinese people and thought the Chinese were beasts or weak,” one friend told me.
Some Chinese friends saw no immediate problem with the comparison to animals, urging me not to take it too sensitively. One friend said, “If you take away the social and cultural backdrop, and consider it from an artistic perspective it’s only highlighting the fact that humans have evolved from animals, and that we are similar to animals.”
The problem is that one cannot disconnect history and culture from such portrayals. Nor can we ignore the fact that principally one race has been used to highlight this closeness with nature. In featuring the faces of old African tribesmen, dirt-covered and snotty children paired with monkeys and giraffes, the exhibit suggests these people are more animalistic and primitive than those elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the museum curator said the exhibit’s goal was to “remind us where we came from.”
One also has to wonder about the impact of such portrayals. One friend, a middle class Beijing resident, said she thought the exhibit’s goal was to illustrate the hardships Africans face. “In our eyes, Africa has many, many people who live in really poor conditions: year-round blistering hot weather and droughts. Honestly, every time I watch any news articles on Africa, I’m extremely saddened.”
While her sentiment suggests concern, such shallow understandings of Africa as a place of poverty and helplessness is worrisome, especially given China’s growing economic involvement in Africa.
The image of Africa as poor and her people as helpless is further buttressed by popular portrayals, like China’s recent box office hit, Wolf Warrior II in which a Chinese special forces operative goes on a one-man mission to save Chinese nationals and innocent locals from local rebels and mercenaries in an unnamed African country.
Wolf Warrior simultaneously captures and reinforces stereotypes of Africans as uncivilized, backwards, and simple. Cue war, child soldiers, infectious disease, bonfires, helpless Africans, as well as Africans who dance and sing despite the chaos that rages around them. The African characters in the film are helpless and dependent on the benevolence of the Chinese. The portrayal of a weak Africa is used to highlight China’s strength and global ascension.
In another recent incident, the dictionary of WeChat’s messaging platform included a racial epithet as the translation for “black foreigner” (黑老外).WeChat apologized and said the entry was based on algorithms that match words to frequently used translations. But algorithms are written by humans and can be developed to purposefully exclude or ignore particular results. China is home to more than 50,000 African students. The fact that there was no sensitivity around such historically charged and derogatory words is telling.
I’ve often heard Chinese people say there’s no racism in China because China doesn’t have the same baggage as the West in terms of race relations. But these depictions clearly challenge that idea. They suggest that Africa holds minimal esteem in the minds of Chinese people. For Africans living in China who already experience racism to various degrees, such exhibitions and derogatory popular culture portrayals are hurtful and disheartening. They reinforce the perception that China’s attitude toward Africa and its people is not that different from the West, as much as China claims that it is.
The need for the Chinese to deepen their understanding of Africa and black people goes beyond sentimental and moral reasons. Chinese companies are increasingly looking to Africa’s growing youth population and consumer class. Alibaba’s Jack Ma visited Kenya and Rwanda earlier this year with a delegation of investors to scope out opportunities.
With slowing economic prospects and increasingly saturated markets at home, Chinese companies, like Alibaba, HNA, the parent company of Hainan Airlines, and WeChat, are looking abroad for growing, dynamic markets. For Chinese companies to succeed abroad, and for China to achieve true soft power, there is an impetus to avoid such blatant racism, to understand historical sensitivities and to humanize and respect those who are different.
China’s political and economic ties in Africa are long-standing and will likely continue to be important. Consequently, I believe Africans in China have the opportunity, even responsibility, to provide a nuanced understanding of Africa. China, which seeks to expand its global presence, has an even bigger responsibility.
To the credit of the curators of the ‘This is Africa’ exhibition, they responded to complaints and took down the offensive photos. That suggests some acknowledgement of the potential consequences of such portrayals. However, it’s also telling that no apology was made.
Zahra Baitie is a graduate student from Ghana studying global affairs in Beijing.