With Blackface and Monkey Suit, Chinese Gala on Africa Causes Uproar

A still image from China’s Lunar New Year television show, in which a Chinese actress in blackface and giant fake buttocks depicts an African character.

BEIJING — A lavish four-hour Lunar New Year show televised to millions across China on Thursday night set off a flood of indignation with its caricatures featuring blackface and African men in animal suits.

The gala, televised by China’s state broadcaster, featured a well-known Chinese actress as an African woman with exaggerated buttocks, a large chest and a face painted black. Carrying a platter of fruit on her head, she was accompanied by an African man dressed as a monkey.

Many found the portrayals offensive.

Hannah Getachew, 30, a law student at Peking University who is from Ethiopia, said that while an apology from CCTV would be welcome, the damage had already been done.

“For all of his faults, Bill Cosby hired a Harvard professor of psychiatry to consult on almost every episode of ‘The Cosby Show’ to ensure that there wasn’t a single stereotype of people,” Ms. Getachew said. “China should consider similar action. What we need now is a clear signal that this sort of event will never occur again.”

The show, designed to celebrate China as an economic and cultural powerhouse and rehearsed many times before senior propaganda officials, is one of the most watched in the world, with an audience estimated at 800 million. The skit was intended to highlight relations between Africa and China.

The skit was set in Kenya, home to a new Chinese-built railroad between the capital, Nairobi, and the coastal town of Mombasa that is part of China’s Belt and Road development initiative.

Dancers dressed as zebras, giraffes, lions and antelopes opened the sequence before the actress Lou Naiming appeared with her outsize rear and voluminous dress.

Amid banter and confusion about a blind date for her daughter, the character expresses gratitude to Chinese doctors who once saved her life and says that “China has done so much for Africa.”

Ms. Lou, her face covered in black makeup, gushes: “I love Chinese people. I love China.”

Repeated requests for comment to an audience feedback hotline established by the broadcaster, CCTV, went unanswered Friday.

CCTV chose Africa as a main focus of the New Year show in order to please the Chinese leadership as it forges strong relationships there, said Liu Haifang, associate professor of African history at Peking University. A summit meeting of African leaders is scheduled in China this year.

“China has made a lot of contributions in Africa in the past few years,” Ms. Liu said. “That’s why CCTV was confident Sino-African relations could be a good topic to perform.”

The choice backfired. The African Students Association at Peking University said in a post on WeChat, the popular social media platform, that while the woman on stage was an unfair representation, the students were most troubled by the men in the background.

“Let’s not even talk about the black men wearing monkey suits,” the post said.

China has been bolstering its relations with African countries since President Xi Jinping came to office, outspending other powers on big infrastructure projects and buying oil and iron ore. In March 2013, on his first trip abroad as China’s leader, Mr. Xi visited three African countries: Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo.

But China has been admonished by many Africans for repeating the economic practices of the white colonial powers: extracting natural resources and flooding African markets with cheap manufactured goods.

A human rights lawyer in Kenya, Gitobu Imanyara, said of the skit, “What is disgusting is that we won’t hear any official complaint from African governments who are complicit in the recolonization of Africa by China.”

To offset such criticism, and to strengthen its foothold in Africa, the Chinese government offers training programs and scholarships to thousands of students from African countries every year.

Many major Chinese universities host African students and have opened programs dedicated to the study of Africa. About 100,000 African students study and work in China, according to some estimates.

With China’s broad contacts across Africa, the producers of the New Year show should have known better, said Lina Benabdallah, an Africa specialist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

“If CCTV was in some small, rural area, we can say this is naïveté,” she said. “This is at a bigger level. Whatever the intention, it’s not acceptable. There are tons of Africa study centers in China, tons of people for CCTV to check with.”

The dean of one of China’s African studies centers said that by Chinese standards the show was not racist.

“In China’s cultural context, animals represent many good qualities,” said the dean, Liu Hongwu of the Institute for Africa at Zhengjiang Normal University. “Blackface was not used to muck up the black people but rather because the Asian actress needed to perform an African woman.”

In Kenya, where the skit was set, some voiced a weary recognition of old caricatures. Several Kenyans said it was clear why the Chinese broadcaster could not see its mistake.

“China is walled off except for economic interaction,” said Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist at The Daily Nation in Nairobi. “There’s no Google, it’s very policed, all social media is denied them. Their ideas of what goes on outside their borders is distorted.”

Other recent Chinese depictions of Africa have also gone awry.

In 2016, a television commercial for a Chinese laundry detergent, Qiaobi, featured an African man with paint splattered on his face and T-shirt. After being placed in a washing machine with the detergent, he emerged with pale skin. The commercial was pulled after complaints emerged on social media.

In October in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, a photographic exhibit drew complaints with images of African animals — baboons, cheetahs, gorillas — juxtaposed with close-up photos of African faces. The Hubei Provincial Museum closed the exhibit.

And “Wolf Warrior 2,” a wildly popular Chinese movie last year, was given a drubbing by African critics for its portrayal of an anonymous African country as a helpless, war-torn place that needed to be saved by brave Chinese soldiers.

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