A skit on China’s largest Lunar New Year TV show on Feb. 15 has sparked widespread criticism and accusations of racism.
In what is probably one of the world’s most watched non-sports live broadcast with an estimated viewership of 800 million, a Chinese actress appeared in the Spring Festival gala in blackface and prosthetics that exaggerated the size of her buttocks and breasts.
The plot of the 13-minute skit sees the presenter’s African friend ask him to pose as her date to avoid a blind date her mother had set up for her.
The mother was played by renowned actress Lou Naiming in blackface with a basket of fruit on her head.
And that’s not all.
She’s accompanied by a monkey, which is played by… *drum roll, please*… a black actor.
Skit praises Chinese-African cooperation
According to the BBC, the skit was set around people working on the Nairobi-Mombasa railway project.
It was intended to highlight the success of China’s One Belt One Road policy that has seen numerous infrastructure programmes and Chinese investment in Africa surpass the US and UK.
It praises Chinese-African cooperation, showing how much Africans benefit from Chinese investment and how grateful they are to Beijing.
However, it also exposes an uncomfortable truth of how skewed their relationship has become, with the African characters in the skit portrayed as ingratiatingly grateful to the Chinese characters, according to a report by Quartz.
The character of the African mother even exclaims: “I love Chinese people! I love China!”
China has stepped up investment over the past years into many African countries.
However, when faced with the suggestion that it’s involved in neo-colonialism, China insists that it comes not to exploit, but in partnership with and for the mutual benefit of its African partners.
Skit not intended as offensive to Africans
Some observers have pointed out that this sketch was not intended to be offensive to the African people.
According to the South China Morning Post, awareness of blackface and its dubious connotations in the West are low in China and other Asian countries.
This has been the default explanation thrown up over the years each time the Chinese face accusations of racism over their portrayal of black people.
Chinese portrayal of other ethnicities
This isn’t the first time Chinese entertainment shows have caused controversy with their portrayals of people from other countries.
In 2016, a laundry detergent advertisement saw a black man have his skin colour scrubbed off, causing outrage both within and outside China.
And in 2017, a Chinese exhibit compared Africans to animals in side-by-side comparisons.
But while it seems like China’s soft-power project is still a work in progress, every country has its faux pas — as long as there are clueless people.