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Has George Floyd sparked a 'racial awakening' in China?

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
July 14, 2020

China's Black community members speak out on how they experience race, racism and solidarity in the country. Black Lives Matter has also prompted more citizens to discuss the treatment of Chinese ethnic minorities.

Hong Kong: Participants hold placards during a rally outside of the Consulate General of the United States to protest against racism and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement
Image: Getty Images/A. Kwan

Born and raised in New York to Jamaican parents, Shanelle Glanville made the big jump to Beijing and then to Hangzhou to master the Chinese language and participate in a green energy fellowship program.

Following the killing of George Floyd, which saw anti-racism protests erupt worldwide, Glanville took time to reflect on her time in China. Despite Beijing's pledge of support to Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement — referring to racial discrimination in the US as a "social ill" that urgently needs addressing — Chinese civilians have not yet taken to the streets. But a lot has changed in recent years, Glanville said.

"I felt that the understanding of racism toward Black people has become more nuanced over time," she told DW, adding that the killing of Floyd has changed ways of thinking in China, triggering fresh debates on racism."George Floyd is obviously not the only Black man to have been unjustly killed in recent history, yet for the first time, my Chinese friends have come to me and brought it up in conversation, to express their support and ask how my family at home is doing," she said.

Read more: Sieren's China: Scapegoating African residents over COVID-19 fears

Floyd sparks Uighur debate

She recounted how when she was in China in 2013, things had been a little different. Random strangers would come up to Glanville to ask if she was from Africa, only to seem surprised when she said she was from the United States.

"I did not expect to encounter doubt in the existence of Black Americans," she said. But lately, Chinese citizens "were quick to raise the topic [on Floyd] and curious to hear my thoughts as a Black American."

Glanville said she found the reactions from Chinese citizens and the Chinese media on the killing of Floyd and subsequent protests "sympathetic," inspiring some "to bring up the treatment of ethnic minorities in China, which I have rarely heard mentioned before by people from China."

Additionally, she said, Chinese citizens have started taking to social media to openly talk about Beijing's handling of its Muslim Uighur minority population in Xinjiang province.

Read more: Opinion: Black Lives Matter protests are not enough for long-term results

Kenyan businessman Edwin Ndung'u
Kenyan businessman Edwin Ndung'u says "awesome people" far outnumber racists in ChinaImage: privat

On being foreigners

While the arrivals of lǎowài — or foreigners — have surged in recent decades, China remains a largely ethnically homogenous society and most Chinese have had limited exposure to people of non-Chinese origins. Han Chinese make up over 90% of the population and while the country is officially home to 55 ethnic minority groups, the majority of them are arguably visually difficult to distinguish. Meanwhile, migrants account for just 0.07% of the population.

"As a Black person in China, I felt that I stood out significantly," said Glanville. "Often when people came over to talk to me, they would mention that they had never met or talked to a Black person before me, and they were eager to hear me speak in Chinese."

While all the staring, hair and skin touching and unsolicited photos did make her feel uncomfortable, Glanville said she usually felt it was motivated by curiosity rather than hostility. She believes that as there has not been a long history of Black people in China, racism likely stems from negative media representations of Black people in other countries.

For college freshman Bryson Berry, China's homogeneity poses some challenges. While he has many Chinese friends who "don't care about race," there is "a lot of ignorance when it comes to anybody of a different race or ethnic background," he told DW. Berry, a Black American, has lived in Beijing for seven years, having moved with his family for his father's teaching job.

"There are racists everywhere," he said, "but in the US, racism is a lot more explicit… elements of racism have institutionalized within the American system. I think for China, it's more about ignorance or a general dislike of foreigners."

Read more: Coronavirus: 'Chinese-looking' Indians targeted in racist attacks

COVID-19 strains Sino-African relations

During the coronavirus crisis, however, Africans became stigmatized as carriers of the disease and reports began to emerge of heightened racial tension in Guangzhou's "Little Africa" community. According to official figures, the port city northwest of Hong Kong in Guangdong province is home to some 14,000 African nationals, but researchers estimate thousands more are there without documentation.

For Edwin Ndung'u, a Kenyan, the "real challenge" during the pandemic, came from locals in his work and residential life.

"There are times they hold their noses when you get into an elevator or into the same room as them. At times, they flatly refuse to get into an elevator with you," said Ndung'u, who has been in China since February 2019 and manages a trading company in Foshan, Guangdong.

Nevertheless, he says that "the few racist Chinese are far outnumbered by the awesome people," adding that his local shopkeeper always carries his supplies to his 15th floor apartment, while his local butcher enjoys delivering him his meat in person for a chance to chat.

Stephanie Idio
Stephanie Idio says the racism inspired by the pandemic began to make her question whether she should stayImage: privat

Liu Chang, who is from the central city of Xi'an, considers African nationals as his "brothers and sisters." However, "there are also a lot of people in China who don't like Black people – they are afraid of them," he said. Chang blamed social media for further spreading racist stereotypes, by distributing video footage that could easily be misinterpreted.

Last month, a number of Africans were allegedly subjected to mandatory coronavirus testing and an arbitrary 14 days of quarantine, regardless of their travel history. Many were also reportedly evicted by their landlords. Videos then went viral on Chinese social media platforms, showing large numbers of homeless Africans amid the outbreak, triggering panic and racist sentiments.

"Many people believe that we had the virus," explained Guangzhou-based Nigerian businesswoman Stephanie Idio. She said that although many Chinese helped to collect money and donate necessities like sleeping bags and toiletries, she began to question if she wanted to stay in the country. "The racism has put me at a crossroads. Am I safe?"

In response to the allegations of racism in Guangdong, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that all foreigners in China were being treated equally, and referred to China's "African brothers."

Read more: China hits back at US over human rights violations

@dwnews - Racist ad in China stirs social media

Not always a question of 'Blackness'

Black identity is complex, said Glanville. Though connected by solidarity, the multidimensional experiences of China's Black community cannot be boxed into one.

"Unfortunately, I think there is a difference in how Africans and Black Americans experience racism in China," she said. "Once people found out I was from the US, I sensed that they would adjust their perceptions of me," Glanville said.

"In most countries that I have visited, people perceive a certain innate level of prestige and prosperity in those who have an American passport, although Black Americans and Africans are both Black."

Africans in China are often held in lower regard than their Black American and European counterparts. The stereotypes are often derived from Chinese state media, which tends to highlight Beijing's foreign aid and mass infrastructure projects in Africa when covering the continent.

Read more: 'George Floyds of India': Outrage mounts over police custody deaths

"I used to have privilege in China as an African American. Any time the police stopped me, harassed me with questions of where I was going or coming from, or when I would apply for a job, having American citizenship eased their fears somehow," said Idio, who holds both Nigerian and American citizenship. As coronavirus spread, however, "my privilege ended and I was seen just like my African brothers and sisters, just Black with no Western privilege."

If she were to show her Nigerian passport instead of her American one, she said, she could be "racially discriminated against as an African, possibly deported, jailed, and highly mistreated by police. This is the truth about being African in China for many people."