A Chinese International Student’s Perspective on the #BLM Movement

A crowd gathered in front of the city hall of San Diego, hanging different posters: on these posters, slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd,” were written in bold capital letters. The protestors wore masks, some painted black to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement; some protestors even wore traditional African clothes. People of different ethnicities gathered for a collective purpose: to show their empathy for George Floyd, an African American who was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a police officer. Protestors were emotional but behaved quite peacefully, and as the parade moved through the streets, some police officers also used body language to show their support for the #BLM movement. This scene was a highlight of the #BLM peaceful protest in San Diego. I was one of many ordinary people who stood among the crowds, and who stood with the #BLM movement.  

As a Chinese student studying in the United States, why should I pay attention to the #BLM movement, and why should overseas Chinese pay attention to racial issues? I have been asked these questions a number of times. I answer with two stories, the first being an experience I had in Nairobi, Kenya during the summer of 2016. At the time I was an undergraduate student majoring in political science, and I was conducting a field research project about Africa-China relations. When I learned of the opportunity to spend my summer in Kenya, my family exhibited a series of concerns: “Is Africa safe?”, “Would there be terrorists?”, and my grandfather, a retired engineer, even asked me “Why do you have to do research on Africa? Is Africa worth your research? I only know there are a lot of African people in Guangzhou, and they are lazy, violent, and cause high crime rates.” 

Fortunately my family is well-educated: after I explained the importance of such an experience to my future graduate school applications, they allowed me to go. In Kenya, I interviewed more than 500 local people to ask their perspectives on the China-Kenya relationship. In the Mathare slum, multiple elderly respondents shared that “We appreciate the economic investments from China, however they mean quite little to us. We value our animal friends and our natural environment. The fact is, your factories and railways damaged the environment, also destroying the home of our zebras, giraffes, and lions.” These viewpoints were eye-opening.

The experience in Kenya pushed me to rethink the relationship between Chinese and African people. On the one hand, with the increase in Chinese investment and trade in Africa, economic ties between these two regions are strengthening; however, this prompted me to ask: Besides the government-executed economic programs, have Chinese people prepared themselves socially and culturally to welcome their African neighbors? According to my understanding, they have not, and there remains a long journey in doing so. Different cultural backgrounds have the capacity to develop entirely different narrations of history and diverging political views. If we, as Chinese, truly hope to develop a positive relationship with Africa, the first step should be listening to African voices, instead of using our stereotypes to judge them. This brings me to my second story.

During my time as a graduate student at UC San Diego, I heard of two news stories. The first piece of news reported that Shandong University, a reputable university in China, allegedly provided “super-national treatment” to the international students who study there, and many of the international students were Africans. Such “super-national treatment” included better accommodations, better healthcare, and special resources for them to learn the Chinese language. More notably, the comments section of the news report featured thousands of discriminatory posts. Most of the comments questioned the justifiability of such policy; some comments even went so far as to point out that some of these students came from small, impoverished African countries, and that China should not have to “waste resources” on them. Another news headline involved a Chinese legislative member publicly announcing that Africans in China were spreading AIDS and harming China’s public health system. 

Combining this news with my own experience in Kenya, and the Chinese public’s—including some of my own family members’—misunderstanding of and preconceived notions towards African people, I conclude that besides developing China-Africa economic relations, constructing less biased and more empathetic sociocultural relations between Chinese and African people is also critical for improving the China-Africa relationship. 

The government launching investment and trade programs, and universities providing better accommodations are laudable actions; however, true equality in said regional relations necessitates the elimination of discrimination and enhancing of intercultural understanding. Ignoring these aspects may negate the valuable outcomes of economic interactions. It also opens the door to global criticism of China as a neo-colonizer in Africa, an accusation adopted by even some African people. 

This is why I call upon ordinary Chinese people, even those who are not currently studying or working in the United States, to pay attention to racial issues and to stand with the #BLM movement. While primarily seen as a U.S. domestic movement, “Black Lives Matter” has global impact, and aims to heighten intercultural awareness. China should not exempt itself from such an issue. 

Chinese-projected racism and stereotypes against Africans, especially those located in China, are serious. Most of the time, such thoughts and actions are not government-instigated; instead, they sprout from the ignorance of some ordinary Chinese people. The stereotype that African people are violent or rude may provide some Chinese citizens with enough reason to take hostile actions, such as using discriminatory language or refusing to serve Africans in restaurants and shops. Such racial discrimination frequently targets a broader subset of minorities as well: Muslims, Gypsies, and Hispanics in China. 

Racially-based stereotyping and profiling lacks adequate statistical evidence. For example, Guangzhou possesses the most highly-populated African community in China, leading to many rumors that “African people cause higher crime rates.” According to the statistical data released by the Guangdong police department, the 2020 average crime rate for Africans in Guangdong matched the average crime rate for the predominantly-Han population in Guangzhou.  

Besides keeping an open mind to African people we encounter in our daily lives, understanding African culture, history, religions, and politics from a more diverse perspective is another thing Chinese people should learn from anti-racism movements. Born and raised in Shanghai, I gained exposure to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have A Dream speech in middle school. My academic training in political science also included discussions of what racism is and why racism is wrong. However, the broad strokes leave out subtle racial stereotypes that exist in films, literature, academic research, and popular culture. 

In most Chinese films, if the intention is to show an interracial marriage, casting directors would balk at choosing an African actor or actress for the role. Instead, African actors and actresses often play traditionally negative roles such as robbers and bandits. For example, in a 2018 romance drama that centers upon overseas Chinese students, The Way We Were (歸去來), all of the foreign positive supplemental characters such as professors, doctors, and scientists, were played by white actors and actresses. The drama’s only African actor was cast as a robber who shot a Chinese student studying in Los Angeles. 

In middle school history class, we learn that Columbus “discovered” the American continent; the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas are only introduced as a side note. In parallel, we are taught that the Chinese explorer Zheng He (鄭和) embarked on his great voyages seventy years prior. In discussing the relationship between ancient China and Southeast Asia, classes do not devote even a sentence to introduce the Majapahit, Srivijaya, and Mandala political models of ancient Southeast Asia. Instead, we tend to indulge in a “Chinese versus Western” narration when discussing history and politics. Largely left forgotten are Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Indochina, Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula, Arab nations, and the Pacific Islands.  

From the racial discussions and issues in the United States, Chinese people can learn numerous things. The education, popular culture and films in China sometimes seriously ignore the significant perspectives of minority groups. We may always be trapped within some generalizations such as “foreign people mean white people,” or “the Western world is the English-speaking world.” History has helped to construct such stereotypes, and we seldom acknowledge these ingrained perceptions. However, they may still be a form of systemic discrimination against minority groups.

As Francis Fokuyama said, the basic demand of identity politics is “the demand for dignity” . One way to fulfill such a demand is acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity. Chinese people can also benefit from this, as a more understanding China will in turn lead to a more understanding global community: one that can identify a more positive impression of China and its people. Showing dignity to minorities is a systematic process and becoming educated on the significance of racial issues should be the first step. 

From the variety of perspectives gained and observations made during my studies from Shanghai to Nairobi to San Diego, I have been constantly opened to insights that challenged my original thinking. While stereotypes and preconceived notions are difficult to eliminate successfully in one attempt, I do believe there is value in an education system, mass media, and culture that engage with these nuanced topics. From the racial divisions and misunderstandings rampant in the United States, and more recently the increasing momentum of the #BLM Movement, these issues should be understood as global ones.

Chinese international students, as well as Chinese citizens who never left the country, have the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson about racism and acknowledge its domestic presence. Effective China-African economic policies and partnerships are built on the foundation of strong interpersonal relations and positive public opinion. Teaching diversity and empathy from the ground up can benefit China’s engagements with developing countries, including those in Africa. Aside from my personal beliefs on the matter, this is a broader reason why I stand with the #BLM movement and why I encourage more Chinese people to do the same.

(Image: A protester at a #BLM protest; Source: Aaron Fulkerson)

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Henry Ch'eng

Henry is an alum of the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. He obtained his master's degree in International Politics at UC San Diego in 2020, and his bachelor's degree in International Relations & Political Science at Shanghai International Studies University in 2018. Now Henry is working as a research fellow at UCSD’s Department of History. His research interests include modern Chinese political history, cross-strait relations, Sino-Japan relations, and political reforms in China, Taiwan, & Hong Kong.

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