Essays

Racism with Chinese Characteristics

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.

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.