While China attempts to portray itself as a different type of partner of Africa, state run media in China has consistently shown a deep ignorance whilst propagating deeply racist content. In fact, racist accounts on China’s largest social media platform Weibo echo American Alt-Right and Incel ideologies.
A recent investigation by BBC Africa Eye laid bare the racist practices of Chinese social media influencers in Africa. Reporters Runako Selina and Henry Mhango were prompted to investigate by a video circulating on Chinese social media depicting African children laughing and smiling whilst chanting in Mandarin, ”I am a black monster, my IQ is low”.
The outrage this video caused, largely amongst African social media users, led the reporters to uncover an industry that enriches Chinese content creators by abusing and demeaning young African children, for the amusement of an all too receptive Chinese market. Their findings raise important questions regarding the nature of Sino-African relations and China’s real commitment to a more just and humane relationship with Africa than the one between the continent and its western former colonisers.
In attempts to gain an economic and political foothold in Africa, China has tried to position itself as a vanguard of the Global South. A ‘”hearts and minds”’ campaign, starting in the 1960s, led to a state sponsored influx of African students in China. Racial clashes between Chinese and these Africans followed closely, despite the official Chinese Communist Party’s avowedly anti-racist and pro-Black public posturing.
Although this posturing made public expressions of anti-African racism by Chinese citizen an impossibility, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s saw flare-ups of racist incidents between Chinese citizens and Africans. Official Chinese excuses for racist incidents belied their commitment to anti-racism and these decades of incidents reached its zenith with the 1988-89 “racial turmoil” in Nanjing, which led to dozens of injuries of Chinese and foreigners. A common source of contention were relationships between African students who were overwhelmingly male, and local Chinese women. Both sides of the relationships experienced abuse at the hands of other Chinese people.
A New Kind of Partner
China’s 21st century ascendancy has led to Africa being a key economic and diplomatic partner. Wide-ranging economic and cultural investments in Africa, epitomised by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes on the continent, are a key part of China’s attempt to portray itself as a ‘”different type of partner from what Africa had with the [western] colonists”’. However, state run media in China has consistently shown, at best, a deep ignorance whilst propagating deeply racist content and reacting with defensiveness and conspiratorial thinking when called out on this. This state propagated anti-African racism however pales in comparison to the proliferation of racist content on supposedly highly regulated Chinese social media platforms.
In 2016 a laundry detergent firm in China came under fire for its racist commercial. The advertisement, which quickly went viral after it was shared on social media, sparked heated debate as internet users slammed it for its racist overtone.
And this is still the reality. Cheng Wei, known online as “African. Mr Hello”, is a Chinese social media influencer based in Zambia. He creates content that in essence monetises deeply racist and dehumanising ideas of Africans that obviously resonate with enough Chinese netizens to earn their creator millions of US dollars.
Complacent Towards Racism
Whilst the Chinese state purportedly stands against racism and is happy to use the treatment of Black people as a stick with which to beat their ideological opponents, they seem far less concerned with combatting rabid racism behind the “Great Firewall of China”. Contrast the ubiquity of “racial slurs on social media discussions about Black people” with any discussions mentioning the words “Tiananmen” or “Uyghur” and it is clear how “only when racism from the Chinese internet triggers backlash in Africa, […] does Beijing feel the need to act”.
As Human Rights Watch notes, the Chinese state’s lack of tolerance for debates or activism promoting “racial and ethnic equality and human rights, combined with ever-increasing nationalistic and chauvinist propaganda from the government” means that Beijing only has itself to blame for the proliferation of right-wing and racist ideas on Chinese social media platforms.
The Chinese tech companies, who have a legal obligation to censor hate speech and other ideas that the CCP have deemed undesirable, all take a cut of these earnings from racist content.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) established in 2014 and reporting to the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatisation (CLG), a body headed by the increasingly powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping and staffed by high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials. This body is seen as part of the CCP’s attempt to centralise and rationalise previously contradictory policies which were the responsibility of various bodies. The CAC’s showcase legislation, the Cyber Security Law (CSL), has since 1 June 2017, placed a burden of responsibility on online service providers in China that goes far beyond the laissez-faire approach of Western providers such as Twitter or META, and legislates that companies are responsible for the content that users create on their platforms. Service providers in China are further obligated to prevent the anonymous dissemination of online content by verifying the names of all users. Further amendments to the CSL have made individual users who “host public accounts and moderate chat groups liable for the content on their platforms”.
Online service providers have been required to massively increase human power and invest in technological advances to comply with the CSL mandates. It is within this centralised and highly surveilled context that the proliferation of racist content targeted at African people on Chinese social media platforms must be understood.
Widespread Racism in China?
A report by the China Global South Project shows how ubiquitous racist views amongst Chinese social media users are. They found that racist accounts on China’s largest social media platform, Weibo, which is owned by the megacorporation Tencent, echo ideas similar to the American Alt-Right and Incel ideologies. These social media accounts essentialise Africans as “barbaric” dangers to Chinese (Han) purity and follow a logic familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the discourses of fear mongering and hatred that have throughout history been weaponised against Africans, Jews, or even the Chinese themselves. Chinese (Han) who are seen as being supportive of racial equality are attacked as “race traitors” and Chinese women who engage in relationships with African men lead to a frenzy of racist, misogynistic, and ethno-nationalist diatribes familiar to all who have encountered Alt-Right/Incel culture.