What Is It Like To Be Black In China?

Illustration black in china
Credit: Daisy Xu, Siyu Chen

We are excited to share with you an exclusive take on being Black in China. This story was produced by Daisy Xu and Siyu Chen.

In recent years fury over systemic racial profiling in policing helped set in motion the Black Lives Matter movement not only in the US but worldwide. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has exposed life and death level racial inequalities across the globe with racial minorities in the US, UK, and elsewhere disproportionately impacted and dying at higher rates.

While the global conversation on race is booming, China is just beginning its own mainstream debate. In April 2020, China had its own dilemma with race when pictures and videos emerged on social media channels of Africans sleeping rough on the streets of Guangzhou, a southern province home to China’s biggest African community. In many cases, Africans were being forcibly evicted from their homes and barred from hotels and restaurants. They were also being forcibly tested for coronavirus. None of this happened on any targeted scale to other groups of foreigners.

The event sparked a diplomatic spat and a hot debate on Chinese social media, where there have already been negative viewpoints about an increasing Black presence after the release of a draft law that could enable more foreigners to gain permanent residency in China.

This multimedia project hopes to show some of the diverse voices and happenings within this fresh debate and highlights the voices of Beijing’s Black community, including students, educators, entrepreneurs, and artists share how they have encountered race, identity, relationships, racism, and solidarity as Black people living and working in China.

As some of the people featured in the video above pointed out, Black people living in China have to battle against a negative sentiment of anti-Blackness both floating on Chinese social media and in real life. On the flip side, as Dr. Keisha A. Brown, Assistant Professor of History at Tennessee State University pointed out, anti-Blackness is not unique to China and could be traced back to European imperialism and colonialism in the 1500s. As Dr. Brown wrote in her article about the history of Black Americans in China, there was a lot of bonding with African countries in the early PRC period. However, the anti-white supremacy sentiment gradually shifted away after the 1970s. “We see a larger shift away from global solidarity among people of color to ‘normalizing’ political relations between different countries, and one good example is China and the U.S.” That is to say, political and economic development in many countries makes the Black populations targets of oppression and appropriation.

In 2018, the Chinese government pledged another $60 billion into African nations, enlarging the One Belt One Road initiative. In 2020 August, post-COVID-19, China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) flow increased by 18.7%, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Organizations such as the Jack Ma Foundation also aim at transforming Africa’s economy and empowering businesses. China’s contact with the world will only increase and more foreigners, including the Blacks, will be attracted to come. With the growth of the Black population in China, is the current somewhat fragile Sino-Black relations getting better or worse?

“It’s a hard question,” Dr. Brown laughed, “I hope it gets better, and I think it can get better if we have some sort of communal dialogue.” In Beijing and nationwide, there are in fact, many community members actively engaged in empowering the Black community and enlarging its influence on non-Blacks, and their efforts are creating energy and diversity. Africa Week in Beijing brings people together and includes art, businesses, food, and panel discussions to open up conversations about Africa and China; BlackLivity China is an online platform dedicated to “documenting 360° of Black experiences both in China and in relation to China” and “elevating the voices of Africans and members of the African diaspora on China”. Meanwhile, a WeChat public account showcasing many African students’ talents, Phronesis Media has garnered 7,000 followers and is hoping to reach 10,000.

Olivia Nadine and James Sserwadda, featured in the video, are the cofounders of BlackEXPO, a physical market that showcases Black businesses to enable them to reach a larger audience than their own organic networks. “Coronavirus reminded us that we need to be versatile. So we’re expanding into an e-commerce platform so that we can reach not only the diaspora that’s based in China but also the diaspora spread out around the world,” said Nadine.

More education could also contribute to peaceful coexistence. “I’m not sure how many institutions in China have African-American Studies and Africana Studies at the undergraduate level,” said Dr. Brown, “how can we get students started in thinking about these questions before they move on to professional development and careers?”

For Delisa McPherson, an international high school teacher, who also featured in the video above, diversity curriculum could start even earlier at international middle and high schools in China. “Also Chinese public schools will probably look at that and try as much as possible within their borders to mimic,” she said, “we then could see a big change and shift in ideas.”

View the full experience of this project for more multi-media details. This story was re-published with written permission from the authors.

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