Race and SensitivityWritten by Julen Madariaga on September 16th, 2009
The discussion about racism in China keeps coming back every once in a while, and each time it arouses the strongest passions. This is a post I’ve been wanting to do for some time, following the interesting comments we had in March, and as a conclusion to the Xinjiang series.
The story that sparked the debate this time is that of Lou Jing, a Chinese half black participant in a TV talent show who has been the object of racist remarks on the internet. I don’t think this is in itself significant, netizens of all countries are well known to post outrageous comments that they would never utter in real life. But quite apart from that, it is clear that there is a particular attitude to race in China that shocks many in the West, and this bears some reflection.
Because it is not just immature netizens, but also respected people with names and surnames who support jokes like this, or write comments like this. Of course, in many cases what we see is just a visceral reaction to accusations coming from the West. It is ironic and surely annoying for many Chinese to think that, even in a field where China has always fared better than them, the arrogant, patronizing Westerners still feel justified to give them public lessons.
But after the first wave of heated comments has passed from both sides, it is worthwhile to look at things calmly, and see what is the reality behind these misunderstandings. And the reality is that it is all too common in China to hear such statements as “Uyghurs are dangerous” or “Africans are less intelligent”, or even, surprisingly enough, “whites are more capable than Asian”. All of them rather startling comments to a Western ear, but which Chinese never ascribe to racism.
In fact, most seem to follow the simple logic: “there is no problem in China because, unlike Westerners, Chinese are not racist”. This idea clearly comes from the fact that the large majority of Chinese have no experience with different races other than the studio material produced by the propaganda department, where nations are smiling children in colourful costumes. And behind it all is the “Union of the Peoples” inherited from the communist doctrine, which still stands on what might be described as the center of the country:
Mao: “For the union of the peoples of the World, hurrah”
I am not implying that this communist ideal was not sincere. It was, and it probably still is for many people. The problem is that, while some decades ago this surely was in the vanguard of tolerance and respect, in the globalizing World of today it just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Because sure enough, the Chinese are right to say that it is not for Westerners to dictate acceptable racial attitudes. But neither is this a prerogative of the Han. Ultimately it is the peoples that feel discriminated, be it Africans or Uyghurs, who should have a major say. For in any dispute, it is not the offending, but the offended party who decides (within some reasonable limits) what words or attitudes are insulting.
Ultimately, the development of new racial attitudes in China will have important consequences for the whole World, and in particular for its own national interests. The process is still in its initial steps, but already some key challenges are apparent: internally, as more minorities are questioning their treatment by the Han; and externally, as China tries to expand its influence in strategic regions like Africa and South America. All the soft power obtained in these areas will be worthless if the Chinese fail to show convincing respect to the peoples living there.
And again, is China racist?
So is there really a problem, and if so, what can be done to solve it? As some Chinese would have it: Is it wrong just because we say that Asians are better at math and black Americans better at basketball? In other words, is China racist?
From my own observation, China is in essence no more racist than most other countries. Which is to say, very much indeed. Because that is how most of the World is today, and how it has always been. If there is a notable difference between China and the West, it is just one of appearance: we are better at hiding our prejudice.
Indeed, in the West we censor ourselves to a point that it is hardly even acceptable to ask questions like the one in italics, which boils down to: “Do different races have on average different sets of skills?” The non-prudish answer to this is obviously yes, as can be learned from simple observation. Different races, just like different genders, tend to have slightly different characteristics, and this diversity has never been a problem for honest, open minded people, but rather the opposite.
The problem comes when obtuse individuals choose to focus partially on these differences, and then theorize them in a way as to satisfiy some low psychological needs. And at times such individuals have even convinced enough people to be able to rule their country, invariably leading it to ruin and to shame. From old Sparta to imperial Japan, history shows that short-sighted ideas of ethnic purity do not yield best results, groups based on those premises consistently falling behind the creative power of diverse societies.
So, knowing that in every country the obtuse are legion, what has the West done to prevent those outbreaks which oppose diversity and “brought untold sorrow to mankind”? Recognizing that human stupidity knows no bounds and cannot be eliminated, Western societies have instead learnt to sweep it under the carpet. And in an amazingly short period of time, in the second half of the XX century, they have developed a series of norms to regulate speech, enforcing them through the power of the socially acceptable. This non-written code, derisively known as PC, ensures that individuals can remain as prejudiced as ever, but will refrain from making it public, or else face social exclusion.
In the meantime, China’s insular society has never really felt up to now the need to develop these restraints, and so its racial prejudice is able to run free in conversation, shocking the sensitive ears of the occasional foreigner, and earning little goodwill from the peoples they are supposed to befriend.
Should China follow the West?
There is a natural resistance from the Chinese to adopt any kind of PC solution, mostly because they don’t feel the problems described apply to them: in the history of racist madness, they were mostly on the receiving end. And it is fair to say that, as a people, Chinese have always been one of the most tolerant, accepting different religions and cultures at a time when their counterparts in the West were already going berserk to eliminate the infidel. Why would such a civilized society need to apply the same rigid standards of restraint as the wild West?
It should not, in my opinion, and China is right to ignore upfront many of the Western over-reactions. In a healthy community there is nothing essentially wrong with calling a black “black” or a yellow “yellow”, like Chinese and other peoples do. The complex, guilt-ridden American style PC is best suited for the conditions of that particular country, and should not be forced onto the Chinese.
But this is not to say that the system should not be improved. From my observation of some of the affected communities in China, it looks like the present state of affairs is far from ideal. Chinese should work to modernize their rusty, communist era conceptions and little by little come up with a more realistic, more equal and less condescending racial attitude that will be key for the success of the coming challenges, internal and external. And the State alone cannot undertake this modernization. Like in the West, it is society at large, with its authors, and celebrities, and other public role models that should join in the effort.
Chinese have a golden opportunity now to build their racial attitudes starting almost from scratch, from intelligence and generosity rather than from guilt, and to regain the image of tolerance and good sense in international relations that their country has deserved.