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Racism in China E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Chikki
“No, of course there is no racism in China.” “Really?” “Yes, really. You have it in Britain, but in China, no.” It all started innocently enough. Confusion had come into the classroom and the teacher decided to use race relations as means of unmasking the light at the end of the tunnel. In terms of her aim – to illustrate the fact that people and/or countries each have their own problems and can learn from each other – the example was a justifiable one.

Her subsequent comments were perhaps less so. “Do you know the word 偏见 (pianjian)?” “No.” “It’s what happens to Asian people when they go to Britain. You know, when British people treat them badly.” In fact 偏见 means ‘prejudice’, and 歧视 (qishi) ‘discrimination’, is generally seen to represent racism. However, whether your talking racial prejudice or racial discrimination, 种族偏见 or 种族歧视, it amounts to more or less the same thing. These discoveries only came post-dictionary consultation, though, so they aren’t too relevant to the conversation.

“Yes, there have been some problems in Britain. A lot of it’s to do with immigration, particularly illegal immigration.”

“It is a very bad situation.”

“Yes, but every country has problems with racism, including China.”

“No, it doesn’t…”

Obviously there was no point trying to argue that Britain doesn’t have a problem with racism. Abuse from the football terraces; a young black man in a nice car much more likely to be stopped for a police check than a young white man in a similar vehicle; Stephen Lawrence; post 9-11 persecution of Muslims; white-dominated upper echelons of business and government; playground jokes made at the expense of the kids wearing turbans and headscarves; reports of institutional racism in pretty much every kind of institution: the list goes on and on.

Is China really innocent of all this, though? In the modern world, is it possible to identify a country unscarred by prejudice based on skin tone, be it manifested in direct abuse or narrow-minded thought? Of course not. But there was nothing to be gained in catechising a characters teacher on the issue, particularly when she has in the past betrayed a slight sensitivity to any criticism of the mother country.

The UK’s problems are typical to any multiracial society, but China cannot be classified as one of these. Tensions between whites, blacks, Asians, Arabs, etc in Britain are the result of years of isolation (at times self-imposed) and mistrust. However, when a country has spent 30 years of its recent history virtually closed off to outside influence, its people’s response to different ethnic groups (not including domestic ones) will be very different.

Anyone who has a passing interest in China and come across a copy of ‘Wild Swans’ at some point in their life, will know that the black sailors with whom Communist China had dealings were regarded with great suspicion by the rank and file. Black people were seen in coarse, tribal terms, uncivilised creatures that couldn’t control their sexual urges.

Monkey! Monkey!

Of course, through greater contact came deeper understanding but these simplistic prejudices remained well into the 1990s. I remember talking to a well-travelled African student in a Shanghai hostel in 1998, and hearing his stories of living and travelling in China over the previous few years. In some places, the locals screamed ‘Monkey! Monkey!’ when he and his friends walked down the street, not realising their foreign guests understood what was being said.

This came as something of a shock to me. By 1998, the NBA had become so significantly rooted in Chinese culture that ‘Michael Jordan’ was the phrase most commonly uttered as my Trinidad-born teaching partner walked through the streets of Qingdao. Bearing in mind the esteem in which his ‘Royal Air-ness’ is held along the GMT +0800 axis, such comparisons amounted to a compliment of the highest order.

While the monkey chants have disappeared, does a residual discrimination still lurk in the Chinese psyche? The answer is yes. Even among the educated classes, you can sometimes detect a secondary meaning secreted in a passing remark or an assumption based entirely on racial stereotype. Maybe we should blame the school textbooks.

Last year, I took part in a television advertisement in Beijing promoting the Olympics (they send lackeys round the universities with camcorders searching for foreign students in need of a fast buck). Every effort was made to be as inclusive – the producers had clearly scoured the embassies in order to secure the broadest possible palette of skin tones.

When it came to allocating the roles, though, those in charge were undermined by their stereotyped views. A Russian, an American and myself – three whites – were to be businessmen in a (ridiculous French period-style) boardroom, drinking to the business success a Chinese Olympics will bring. Meanwhile the black guys who had been recruited were dispatched with a camera crew to the nearest running track.


Prejudice based on stereotype is not merely a black and white issue in China. As I have mentioned before, each nationality to be seems pigeonholed into particular categories. Russians – violent, Germans – drinkers, British – drinkers and football hooligans, French – romantics, Americans – rich and arrogant, Japanese – evil, etc.

No matter where you are from, no matter what generic characteristics have been attributed to your colour or nationality, you are a foreigner and will be treated as such. There is no gradual integration as happens with ex-pats across Europe, you are either in the club or you are out of it – and there is a clearly marked line drawn between the two groups.

From this another kind of prejudice sprouts. When the infamous ‘Frenchman A’ tangled with the cab driver, See: You'll never get a cab in this town again, a host of Chinese witnesses were willing to submit false statements in the interests of screwing over the foreigner. Market traders across the country are well known for their zeal in extracting the highest price possible from overseas customers.

My exchanges with shopkeepers often run along these lines:

“This is the lowest price I can charge, any lower and I won’t make any money on the product. This is the Chinese person’s price.”

“There is a Chinese person’s price?”


“And a foreigner’s price?”


“Why do they have to be different?”

“You foreigners are very rich.”


Yes, an extortionate price in China would still be a bargain back home, and yes, western salaries are much higher than Chinese ones. Therefore moneyed up tourists and those living in China on western pay scale are able to spend freely. But some foreigners have to exist on Chinese salaries, while others have to exist on no salary at all. Once again it is an issue of stereotyping: all foreigners are seen to have money, they are rich enough not to count the cost of a little overcharging. It’s worth mentioning that the growing numbers of Chinese able to indulge in domestic tourism are also preyed upon by unscrupulous vendors, however they are unlikely to be so brazenly exploited.

It has also been argued that the rip-off-the-foreigner mentality actually harks back to the old days when visitors from overseas weren’t allowed to use real money, having to make do with foreign exchange certificates. The price in exchange certificates was so far estranged from the price in RMB that the whole process amounted to state-approved extortion. Shopkeepers nowadays are merely operating within the bounds of old customs.

Whatever the reasoning, there is no disputing the fact that Chinese enjoy getting one over on the foreigner. It is like a national sport. As to where the motivation for this comes from, you could probably publish a series of books and still not do full justice to the issue.

In all likelihood, this particular trait in the Chinese national psyche was honed through years of isolation from most of the outside world, influenced by a foreign policy that often seemed to scream: ‘It’s us against the world! No one likes us and we don’t care!’ China spent parts of the last two centuries being mistreated by other nations – be it the Japanese pre-World War Two occupation or the British sacking numerous cultural relics and nurturing China’s opium habit during the 19th century – so perhaps a degree of dissatisfaction with world order is justified.

Anger and Resentment

But through artful representation and repetition of these facts, the historical injustices suffered by China were manifested as anger and resentment in its people’s minds. Look after number one became the order of the day. By fostering this sense of nationalism, the government could draw on a collective strength and ensure everyone was batting for the same team. Why look for the devil at home when someone has sign-posted Satan’s kingdom on another country’s shores?

Of course, we have seen evidence of these tactics being used effectively to this day. Japan is the old enemy and the fact it has trouble coming to terms with the less flattering parts of its history only adds fuel to the fire. Some disputed natural gas reserves and calls for Japan to be given a seat on the UN Security Council, and suddenly public demonstrations against an inaccurate history textbook are ‘not discouraged’. One could be forgiven for thinking that, in a basket of political vipers, this was the one issue on which the moral high ground could clearly be taken.

The current ‘devil at home’ in China can be seen as taking many forms, the majority of which can be distilled into two major grievances: disillusionment with government, particularly on a local level, and the growing gap between rich and poor. The have-nots see large quantities of money entering the economy, hear the government boasts of record growth, and then quite logically ask why more of the cash isn’t making its mark on their lives. This already dwindling public confidence isn’t helped when farmers are displaced to make way for an assortment of heavy industry, the bosses of which are exploiting government 关系 (guanxi – special friendships).

There have been a growing number of protests at local level against perceived social injustices: earlier this year, 30,000 residents of Dongyang city in Zhejiang province drove out an army of riot policemen in protest at a large slice of farmland being given to chemical plants; last month thugs acting on higher orders descended on Dingzhou in Hebei province after villagers refused to give way in a land use dispute; in the Yangtze port of Wanzhou last October, angry residents attacked policemen, trashed government vehicles and set fire to the city hall after a government official attacked a local man in the street; paramilitary troops were required to deal with 100,000 farmers in Hanyuan county, Sichuan province, last November who blocked work on an unpopular dam project.

Nearly 60,000 public protests in 2003 according to police statistics, an eight-fold rise on 1993, on issues ranging from land seizures to unpaid wages, ethnic tensions to unemployment. However, it is important to identify the circumstances out of which these protests arise. They tend to fall into two categories: desperation and flash incidents. Farmers whose livelihood is being threatened by land seizure are reduced to taking physical action against their troubles through a sheer lack of other alternatives. Meanwhile, showdowns in the street are not uncommon in a hot and crowded country where pride comes at a high price.


Most Chinese people – city dwellers not regularly driven into street-side skirmishes by unpleasant local liqueur – seem happy to moan about social injustices when appropriate. But they do this in the privacy of their own homes, not standing on a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. They care most about the issues directly facing them: how to pay the bills and how to make more money. If these domestic goals can be achieved with minimum fuss, then all is well – and, like a small business dodging VAT, they prefer to stay at arm’s length from the eye of the authorities.

Sometimes it is possible to detect traces of an inbred fear of the government, and for the older generations who can recall the Cultural Revolution, this is understandable. It would take an awful lot to incite the kind of mass-uprising against the government that some western newspapers get excited about (Jonathan Watts of the Guardian, take a bow). That said the Chinese do have a herd-like mentality, as the Japan demonstrations showed. Where some go, others will follow.

But was the Japanese textbook furore in any way a ploy to distract attention from unrest at home? Frankly, no. This was heavy handed diplomacy, making the most of an understandable prejudice against Japan and allowing it to be manifested in unjustifiable terms. What seems to certain, though, is that the government never expected the prejudice to reach such extremes and this explained the quiet but determined discouragement of demonstrations when the movement showed signs of spinning out of control.

The authorities didn’t foresee the role text messages and email would play in spreading the word and, in giving tacit support to the initial protests, they effectively kick-started a process that may come back to haunt them. For those involved, this was a highly informative experience and the lessons learned in fast and effective communication with large groups of people may well be put to good use in the future. The irony is that any future action will probably be against the government, not in tandem with it.

Prejudice on a domestic level

Like many countries, China also has problems with prejudice on a domestic level. This doesn’t just include the state-sanctioned mistreatment of assorted ethnic minorities, notably Tibet and Xinjiang.

During a recent discussion with a Chinese friend, she mentioned her latest pin-up boy – an actor of Japanese-Taiwanese origin. I dryly commented that such a choice of idol could be seen as inappropriate for a good little Communist girl. She was happy to remind of her political neutrality and warm feelings for all things from Japan and Taiwan. In fact the only people prejudice she was willing to admit to was towards China’s rural masses.

As a rule, larger countries tend to show greater diversity in terms of local cultures, accents and dialects. As a result, misunderstandings between people from different regions are more likely to give rise to distrust and prejudicial feeling. This is certainly the case in China, a country in which only half the population are believed to be proficient in ‘putonghua’, the official language.

Given the average income of residents in eastern China is more than three times the average in the west of the country, huge numbers of economic migrants roll up in prosperous cities such as Beijing and Shanghai each year. By 2020, 400 million people will have moved from rural to urban areas, half of these to cities along China’s eastern seaboard. Three key areas – Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and Bohai Rim – account for 40 per cent of China’s Gross Domestic Product, so when Xiao Wang decides to up sticks from Gansu, no prizes for guessing which streets he thinks are paved with gold.

However, these three key areas make up just three per cent of China’s land area and local residents don’t appreciate the added congestion. As a result, there is considerable ill feeling directed at these ‘peasants’ who don’t speak right, don’t dress right, don’t behave right, and clog up the streets. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that the lifestyles of people in rural China are so far estranged from those of their urban counterparts. “I just couldn’t marry a man who comes from a rural background,” was my friend’s assessment. “There is no way I could understand someone whose parents don’t have electricity or running water in their home.”

Once this fundamental incompatibility has been established, it’s very easy to compound the prejudice by dumping responsibility for all society’s ills on a single doorstep. There was a fight in the street? Oh, it was country people causing trouble again. They caught someone stealing in the shop? Sure to be one of those peasants. That’s disgusting! He’s certainly not from round here…

It’s not just in the UK that migrants get a cold reception.

TV show exposes racism in China

Lou Jing is a Chinese girl who sings Shanghai opera and speaks fluent Mandarin, but when she competed to be China's next reality TV pop star, it was not her voice that was criticised - it was her black skin. Read more about this here or here.


Our valuable Editor Chikki has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.
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+5 #1 Ross Baron 2011-01-05 10:09
Excellent article. Many intresting points made Chikki! Will you be sharing these thoughts with the Chinese government! :-)



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