At last China’s culture of racism is being contested by Chinese

Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to east Asia concluded in Beijing, where she made clear her opposition to the new anti-secession law and her view that Japan should be a permanent member of the UN security council. With Sino-Japanese relations deteriorating and unification of Taiwan with China regarded as non-negotiable by the Chinese, it is hardly surprising that these remarks did not go down well. But what has not been reported in the western media is the reception Rice was given.

One way of taking the temperature in China is the internet, a very important indicator of public opinion in a country where more traditional media are tightly controlled. The importance of – and recent upsurge in – nationalism, for example, has found powerful expression on Chinese websites. The internet response to Rice’s visit has been revealing. The racist character of much of it has moved liberals to protest, most significantly Liu Xiaobo, a veteran critic of mass movements in China since Tiananmen, who has written a response on the New Century Net website.

He says that of 800 messages he has read about her visit, no less than 70 involved racist comments about her colour: of these, only two were relatively moderate; the rest were vicious, describing Rice as a “black ghost”, “black dog”, “black woman” and “black bitch”. One stated, “You are not even like a black ghost, a really low form of life,” and another, “Her brain is even more black than her skin.” One writer said: “I don’t support racism, but this black ghost really makes people angry, the appearance of a little black who has made good.”

In fact, the reaction is not that surprising. Although it is rarely written about or commented upon, Chinese culture remains deeply racist. For the most part, the Chinese are in denial of their own racism, while white commentators, in their great majority, are either oblivious of it, or simply regard it as unimportant. Intended or unintended, this is an integral part of the white mentality, a product of the fact that whites never experience systemic racism and historically have meted out more than anyone else. Even liberals tend to look the other way.

There are, of course, exceptions: the best book on Chinese racism, The Discourse of Race in Modern China, is by Frank Dikotter, a British academic. But in the recent – and welcome – avalanche of Chinese coverage, especially the BBC’s China week, for example, you would have been hard-pressed to find any reference to racism, except in the context of Tibet or Xinjiang province. Hong Kong was a British colony for almost 150 years and yet the racist attitude of the Chinese there towards people of darker skin was virtually never remarked upon. Needless to say, the British made no attempt to introduce anti-racist legislation.

Chinese people commonly believe they are superior to those of darker skin. The attitude towards whites, as Liu points out in his article, is much more complex. They tend to acknowledge the historical achievements of the west, but at the same time resent western hegemony and despise aspects of western culture, many believing that at some point in the future the innate virtue of Chinese civilisation will again assert itself. The Chinese thus tend to display a combination of respect and envy, superiority and inferiority, towards western culture. It is difficult to think of another major culture – with the possible exception of the Japanese – that regards the west with such a sense of inner self-confidence. The fact that Rice is black in a country the Chinese view as essentially white must be profoundly confusing to a people – the Han Chinese – whose perception of their own nation is overwhelmingly monoracial.
In a country with such a profoundly racist mentality – a product partly of long isolation and partly of a Han Chinese ideology that dates back thousands of years – it is encouraging to see writers contesting these prejudices. Nor is this discussion confined to China itself: recently there was a vigorous argument about Chinese racism among Malaysian Chinese on Malaysiakini, an important Malaysian website.

The official position of the Chinese Communist party, of course, has always been anti-racist, but there is a world of difference between official attitudes and the deeply held prejudices of a people. The danger of not openly recognising such deeply held prejudices is that they are never seriously contested.

Britain remains deeply racist, but there is also a culture of anti-racism, which has led, over the decades, to the creation of a body of anti-racist legislation and which has helped to shift attitudes and move the boundaries as to what is acceptable and unacceptable. In contrast, the problem in Hong Kong, for example, is that there is a culture of racism without any countervailing culture of anti-racism. When challenged, they deny that they are racist; the denial is not malevolent, it is a true reflection of their own culture’s complete lack of self-reflection about the subject.

In an interview for the Guardian last week, a leading Chinese nationalist, Wang Xiaodong, described the attitudes of those who looked to the west and belittled China as “reverse racism”: “In my opinion, this is not very different from Hitler’s racism. The only difference between them and Hitler is that they direct this theory against their own race.” Self-denigration and the extermination of another race are entirely different matters, yet Wang conflates the two and thereby displays a disturbing ignorance concerning what racism actually is.

China’s isolation, at least until recently, has meant that Chinese racism has been little felt elsewhere, apart from east Asia. But as China’s power and consequent influence grow exponentially, this is bound to change. Chinese attitudes will become increasingly familiar to the world, not least their racism. Of course, it remains true that white racism has had a far greater effect on the world over the past 400 years than any other. Even now, the racist nature of the west’s historical impact is greatly underestimated, reflected in the revival of a view of liberal imperialism as some kind of benevolent civilising mission.

But nor should Chinese racism – and its concomitant nationalism – be underplayed. For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely to acquire or display the same ambitions of global aggrandisement and conquest that have typified western history, but its effects, uncontrolled and uncontested, could be extremely harmful. Racisms are not all the same; they vary according to the cultures they come from. Chinese racism, a product of the Middle Kingdom mentality, is distinctive and repugnant. It needs to be challenged by the Chinese themselves – and by the rest of the world.