By now, much of the internet has seen—and been rightfully outraged by—a very racist Chinese laundry-detergent ad. In the ad, an Asian woman uses laundry detergent to “clean up” a black man and turn him into an Asian one. The makers have apologized, but many viewers are still shocked at how blatantly racist the commercial was.
We shouldn’t be, says researcher Barry Sautman. In an article for China Quarterly, he says that anti-black racism in China has long been widespread, even leading to widespread demonstrations against black students.
These protests had roots in China’s long history of anti-blackness. Chinese beauty standards have always idealized fair skin and associated paleness with intellect, as evidenced by the phrase “white-faced scholar,” used in classical Chinese writing to denote a learned intellectual. This cultural bias, alongside rampant theories of scientific racism (or the idea that Africans are genetically inferior to other races), led to the idea that Africans were uncouth and lower-class, stirring elitist prejudice.
Interestingly, this elitist racism quelled somewhat as the Communists took power. The Communists praised the poor and the so-called non-intellectuals and farmers working in other countries, encouraging Chinese citizens to find ideological solidarity with people from other developing countries.
It was during this time, in the early 1960s, that African college students first came to China as part of a goodwill trip in which the government paid for the tuition of students from politically friendly areas. Though from developing countries, these students were also of the elite classes and given stipends far more than their Chinese classmates. Even so, they found themselves dissatisfied at the quality of life. The African students were much less worried about racism than they were focused on issues such as strained politics, low standard of living, and no social opportunities. Sautman notes, “the March 1962 beating of a Zanzibari by Beijing hotel attendants in a dispute over the sale of cigarettes led to sit-ins and hunger strikes by Africans, most of whom returned home.” Later on, some of the remaining African students went so far as to burn portraits of Mao in order to be deported.
In the 1970s, as China started to politically disengage with Africa, the old prejudices rose to the forefront. In December 1979, a fight at the Shanghai Textile Engineering Institute was the first of many such conflicts. The issue didn’t come to world attention until a decade later, with the Nanjing anti-African protests of 1989. In the Nanjing riots, thousands of Chinese students—spurred by false rumors that an African student had killed a Chinese one—broke into the African students’ dormitories and set fire to them. In the aftermath, some commentators claimed that the protests had an economic, and not racial, explanation, saying that Chinese students were simply frustrated at seeing the wealth of the African students. However, interviews with students showed that class envy was not the case, as many said that they saw prosperous white students as “contributing” to the culture, while they did not extend this same courtesy to Africans.
And as the laundry ad reminds us, anti-black racism is, unfortunately, alive and well in China.