Racism with Chinese Characteristics7 min read

How China’s imperial legacy underpins state racism and violence in Xinjiang – Magnus Fiskesjö

Due to incidents last year in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where Africans were evicted and forced to sleep on the street simply because they are African, there is a growing realization around the world that Chinese racism exists. Despite the government’s denials, racism against Africans in China is often blatant. In one widely circulated clip, one can see a white and a black woman both trying to enter a shopping mall: only the white woman is permitted, and both leave in disgust. Just as in the West’s past, in China contempt for Africans is also often mixed up with patronizing exoticization. Chinese comedians wear blackface on state TV. In Shenzhen’s Windows on the World theme park, dark-skinned ethnic minority people are choreographed to perform either as primitive Africans, or as primitive themselves.

Chinese racism is also systemic, rooted in China’s history as an empire”

All such racism is serious, as are incidents of street racism against Muslims in India and against Asians in Western countries that have taken place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This is to say nothing of the continued racism and police brutality in the United States. But as for China, we must also include the ongoing mass racist campaign run by the Chinese government, in Xinjiang, western China (or East Turkestan depending on whom you ask). Millions of people are being targeted solely because of their ethnicity – textbook racism. These are Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minority people: over 12 million people who are not foreigners, but native inhabitants in their own land. They are also citizens of China, who on paper have a constitutional right to be culturally different. Yet since 2017, their nations have been put under a draconian program of racist profiling which discriminates and denigrates their ethnicity, culture, language and religion. The Chinese state deploys ominously biologistic terminology directly recalling the Nazis, and has detained at least one million people in extra-legal mass camps for “re-education” (that is, brainwashing). Many have perished inside; able-bodied ones are sent to forced labor.

As has been widely documented, this campaign systematically targets people because of their identity. And precisely because of how these millions of people are being victimized without legal recourse and based solely on their identity, one of the first international alarms was sounded by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Why then have these atrocities not been more widely recognized and condemned as racist, when it so plainly is? And how was it possible for some of the same African nations that now protest the racist maltreatment of their citizens in China to endorse China’s much worse racist policies at the UN? Some have argued that this is due to economic dependency. But that did not prevent the current outrage against China for their treatment of Africans. Others point out that some of the countries are themselves repressive dictatorships. But that isn’t true of Nigeria, one of Africa’s biggest democracies. Why then?

Perhaps the answer is that until now, most people around the world have not realized that Chinese racism is also systemic, rooted in China’s history as an empire, just like other empires. Chinese racism, like many of its other forms, arises from self-supremacy cultivated by imperialists. It is expressed in prejudice against the conquered and colonized others – often more dark-skinned people – who are construed as primitive, stupid and backward. This strand of racist prejudice is what we see in Xinjiang today. In many ways, Xinjiang is a modern Chinese colony, complete with a settler-colonial Han Chinese population that is often prejudiced against the indigenous natives. That is also reflected in the vicious online racism in China against Uyghur activists in exile.

Yet in modern times, with the conquest of huge swathes of the world by European colonialist powers in the 19th and 20th century, this older strain of Chinese racism has been overshadowed. Open racism became something Europeans did to non-Westerners. Since then, modern Chinese governments persistently tried to paint their country as a victim of imperialism, refusing to acknowledge and confront their own imperial history of bloody conquests, which gave China’s map the shape that it has today. Its territory was doubled during the last official empire, the Qing dynasty. It was subsequently re-cast as a modern nation-state, and the legacy of Qing imperial expansion has never been resolved, even tabooed. Today’s schools teach that China was “always peaceful,” which is of course a ludicrous lie.

China has persistently tried to paint their country as a victim of imperialism, refusing to acknowledge and confront their own imperial history”

Chinese elites up until the 19th century actually described themselves as “white” (bai). Jesuit missionaries and others went along with it. This Chinese ‘whiteness’ was formulated not only in distinction to darker ‘barbarians’, but also in the social contempt for people who are dark-skinned because they work outdoors, such as farmers. The Chinese became described as ‘yellow’ only later, when the Western global race-scheme of black, white, red and yellow was invented in the 18th and 19th century. China’s new ‘yellowness’ was grafted onto the worship of the Yellow Emperor, whose descendants the Chinese suddenly became.

Historical confrontation with the West also brought something else to China: “scientific” racism and social Darwinism, which dominated the minds of many Westerners. Its tenets were adopted by many Chinese (and Japanese), including the basic fallacy that there are ‘races’ (as in biologically distinct human subgroups) which can be ranked by intellectual ability – an idea which has been progressively debunked by science. There was also the equally dangerous idea of nations as biological organisms, vying for space in the world and rightfully displacing less worthy stock. In the West, this idea was taken to its extreme in Hitler’s Germany, which had admired and copied the racist-genocidal US extermination of Native Americans as “Manifest Destiny” in the 1800s, and the continued American oppression of the descendants of slaves brought from Africa.

This deeply flawed “race-nation” idea never went away in China, either. It is pervasive among many Chinese today, especially among officials, who frequently speak of the nation’s biological essence – its “blood”, “DNA” and so on – as if it was real. This Han-supremacist and racist-nationalist ideology is the conceptual foundation of modern China, and it is also the reason why even today Chinese officialdom refuses to accept non-Chinese immigrants as citizens – or to accept that some Chinese may choose to reject their Chinese passport and change to another nationality.

Han-supremacist and racist-nationalist ideology is the conceptual foundation of modern China”

This pervasive Chinese racism is further accentuated by the collapse of the regime’s erstwhile socialist ideology, and its new economy defined by the survival of the fittest (or of those best connected to state power) alongside a public neo-nationalism built on fusing Communist patriarchy with nativist Confucianism, the worship of ancient emperors, and the rejection of foreign ideas.

Before the Communists took power, their declared ideology was “internationalist” and anti-imperialist, even promising to restore independence to all peoples conquered by the Chinese empire, including the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hmong, and so on. But after 1949, official Communist mythology reclaimed all these groups as genetically “Chinese” peoples who cannot split away from the fatherland. Today, the erstwhile ideal of equality between indigenous nationalities in what was once the Chinese empire is being shed altogether. In Xinjiang it has been replaced with a Nazi-style purification of the nation, intended as a final solution that will obliterate China’s ethnic and cultural diversity inherited from the Qing empire. Unfortunately, this state racism is not likely to go away until it is broadly recognized and rejected – including by the Chinese people. ∎

Header: “A transformation through education camp in Zirefu Xiati Tajik Ethnic township” by Bitter Winter (Flickr/licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)