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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Chinese Dialogue on Racism Emerges

November 16, 2009

The Wall Street Journal
November 15, 2009

BEIJING -- U.S. President Barack Obama's first
state visit to China comes as Chinese are, for
the first time, engaging in unusual public
dialogue about racism in a country where
prejudice has long been seen as a foreign problem.

In recent months, several incidents involving the
children of Chinese mothers and black fathers
have sparked a vigorous debate on what it means
to be Chinese. While many young people here are
inspired by what Mr. Obama represents in terms of
ideals of equality, the reality for Chinese
citizens with similar family backgrounds
sometimes involves outright racism and
discrimination, which in turn has led some to reflect on its sources.

Most Chinese have grown up in what is, at least
ethnically, a fairly homogenous society. More
than 90% of the population is ethnic Han Chinese,
and there is still little public discussion of
the underlying tensions that sparked anti-Han
ethnic riots among Tibetans last year and among Uighurs this year.

Although China has a history of racial incidents
involving ethnic-African expatriates-from large
protests targeting African students in the city
of Nanjing in 1988 to police detentions of young
African men in the capital ahead of last year's
Beijing Olympics-the existence of racial
prejudice within China was almost never talked about.

But as the country's economic might grows, it is
attracting more foreigners in search of
opportunity, from a 100,000-strong community of
African traders in Guangzhou to Middle Eastern
traders in the east coast manufacturing town of
Yiwu. At the same time, changes from abroad-such
as the election of America's first black
president and the growing popularity of African
American basketball players in China in the last
decade-have challenged entrenched stereotypes in
the country much the way they have elsewhere.

The changes are prompting some Chinese to
confront issues of racism and discrimination for
the first time. Attitudes towards black have come
into especially sharp relief in recent weeks,
thanks to an incident involving a nationally
televised talent show. One contestant on the
show, called "Oriental Angel," was a young
Shanghai woman named Lou Jing who is the child of
a Chinese mother and an African-American father-a
relatively rare combination in China. Her
participation in the show prompted a firestorm of
epithets from viewers-and criticism of that reaction from others.

"Reporters were asking everybody which school
they were from and what strengths they had," the
20-year-old university student recalls of her
experience on the show. "But when they got to me,
it was always the same question about my skin
color. It made me very angry." In China's active
online discussion forums, anonymous Internet
users attacked her and her mother with vulgar
terms. "Her mom's got a really thick skin," read
one of the tamer comments. "It may be trendy to
date a foreigner, but you still can't choose a black person."

Hung Huang, a publisher and writer who is one of
China's most famous media personalities, wrote on
her blog that she was distressed that, even as
Americans welcomed Mr. Obama into the White
House, Chinese people were still struggling to
accept a young woman whose skin color was
different. "It pains me to see that a people who
themselves were discriminated against by the West
and called "the sick man of Asia," would have
such short memories, and start discriminating
against groups that are in a disadvantaged position."

Ms. Lou says that growing up in Shanghai, she
didn't feel that different among her family and
friends. When dealing with strangers, she often
passed as a foreigner by speaking Mandarin
instead of her native Shanghainese dialect.
"People would often say, "you speak Mandarin so
well." I wouldn't explain because it's not necessary," she said.

But Ms. Lou says the Oriental Angel incident has
caused her to question her identity. "Now I
always wonder: am I really a Chinese?" she says.
"In the past, I never thought of going abroad,"
but now she wants to study in the U.S. or Europe
after completing her undergraduate degree in Shanghai.

Hu Jinshan, a professor at the Institute of
American History at Xiamen University, said that
there is still "extreme prejudice" in China,
which she attributed primarily to insufficient
contacts with diverse groups of people. "In the
future it will improve. We see the example from
America, and more Africans coming to China to do business."

Many young Chinese say they are inspired by what
Mr. Obama represents. As China's growing wealth
gap threatens to undermine one of the central
tenets of Communist Party rule -- the classless
society -- Mr. Obama is often cited as an example
of individual accomplishment within a more equal
society. He even gives some people hope that the
United States may one day elect an ethnically Chinese president.

In China's controlled media environment, the
public discussion on race and discrimination
remains largely limited to foreigners and blacks.
It doesn't extend to China's own ethnic
minorities, such as Tibetans and Uighurs, who
have taken to the streets to air their grievances
against Han Chinese. In those cases, the
government and most people alike tend to blame
the resulting violence on a small number of
instigators, and refuse to look further into the
homegrown sources of ethnic strife.

Jeremy Goldkorn, a white South African in Beijing
who co-produced a 2006 documentary on African
soccer players in Beijing and who runs a popular
Web site on Chinese media, described the
prevailing attitudes toward black people in China
as "naïve racism." One typical example would be
the treatment of another half-Chinese,
half-African American celebrity, Ding Hui, who
earlier this year was selected for the Chinese
volleyball team, becoming the first black athlete
on national sports team here. Media reports on
Mr. Ding often include references to his white
teeth. During last year's U.S. presidential
campaign, a leading Chinese Web site dubbed the
U.S. president "Black Kid Obama" in a special
section that paid tribute to the then-candidate.

Indeed, there's still a long way to go before
China approaches the levels of political
correctness seen in the United States. On
Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang
said during a regular press conference that Mr.
Obama, as a black person, should be more
sympathetic to China's position on the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

"Dalai Lama is the chief of feudal serfdom. China
abolished serfdom in 1959. ... This is the same
with Lincoln's abolition of the black slavery
system in the U.S.," said Mr. Qin. "President
Obama should be more able to understand the
stance of the Chinese government against Tibet
independence and Dalai's international activities to break up his motherland."

* Ellen Zhu in Shanghai and Liu Li in Beijing contributed to this article.
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