Let’s Talk About… Racism in China

So is China racist?

Yes it is. Very much so. And it pains me to say it. In this day and age, when the West has worked so hard to stamp out racism we shouldn’t really be having this conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing China for the sake of it. If you’ve been following my writing at all, you’ll know how much I love the place. I’ve spent almost a third of my life living and working there. But nothing is perfect, and we are all just works in progress. Unfortunately, China has a few faults, and today I’m going to address one of them. It will make uncomfortable reading for some, but it’s necessary for the greater good I think. Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the issue won’t resolve anything.

China’s, shall we say, intolerance for other cultures and belief systems has been well-documented in recent times (see the ruthless crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, the forced eviction of black residents in Guangzhou during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and the continuing ill treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang). There have been enough column inches relating to those issues, written by people much more qualified than me, so I’ll leave that to the experts and focus instead on my own personal experiences.

This isn’t so prevalent these days, but when I first went to China in 2007 and for a couple of years after, the general animosity towards visitors was prevalent. I was stared at wherever I went. It wasn’t unusual to walk down a street and see dozens of people stop what they were doing to look at you. This might seem like a trivial thing and true, I know people have been through a lot worse, but the staring was indicative of something deeper. There was a level of resentment sometimes bordering on outright hatred. You could see and feel it. How much of this was based on suspicion of outsiders or a general fear of the unknown is unclear, but it was definitely there. And no, all the staring wasn’t down to ‘curiosity’ as people have suggested.

A lot of the treatment foreigners have to endure in China is indirect and subversive, and this fucks with your mind. You constantly question whether you are over-thinking things or being hyper-sensitive. For example, take the word ‘laowai’ which anyone who has spent any amount of time in China will be familiar with. It literally means ‘outsider’ but comes with a lot of negative connotations. It’s rare for anyone to call you laowai to your face. That’s because it is often seen as rude or confrontational, especially in these supposedly more enlightened times. Some more clued-up foreigners take instant offence to it and at the very least it can be said that the term reinforces this ‘us against them’ attitude propagated by the government.

The fact remains that foreigners living in China are treated differently, and that isn’t even seen as wrong. It’s just the way it is. There are Chinese people, and then there is everyone else. There is a popular saying in mandarin that roughly translates to ‘You know China.’ Usually reserved for people who have spent time there, maybe learned some of the language, on the surface it sounds like a compliment, or at least an acknowledgement. But like so many other things in China, there is a deeper meaning lurking beneath the surface. The sentence comes with an unspoken suffix. What people actually mean when they say that is, ‘You know China. But you will never be Chinese.’ In other words, no matter what you do, you will never be truly accepted. That makes it exclusive, rather than inclusive.

The Chinese attitude toward black people is especially distasteful. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, in a hushed conspirational tone, “Hey, do you like black people?” I always feel like they’re hoping or expecting I will say no. On more than one occasion I’ve had to point out to students that they can’t use the ‘N’ word. It shouldn’t really need saying, but the fact that they even know the word is evidence that it has been, to some degree, normalized in Chinese society. It isn’t just ignorance. The way they keep it all on the down-low suggests they know this behaviour is fundamentally wrong. It also kick-starts your paranoia. If Chinese people are running up to me asking if I ‘like’ black people, they are probably asking black people if they ‘like’ whites. This behaviour only drives wedges between people.

As far as being treated differently is concerned, one thing that always springs to mind is the practice some places in China have of operating two pricing systems, one for locals and one for foreigners. This is not seen as being unfair. In fact, quite the opposite. The businesses that do it think they are just making adjustments according to the relative wealth of foreigners. The preconception that all foreigners are on high salaries and can therefore afford to pay more for the same products as the locals is, of course, completely wrong. This, I think, is down to simple naivety and lack of not only education but common sense. And greed, of course. One example that springs to mind is the little family-owned convenience store near my apartment in Changsha. In my first couple of weeks in the city I stopped there almost every day to buy cigarettes. The brand I smoked was Honghe which cost 7 RMB a pack (I always had expensive tastes). I was happy to pay it, as it was less than 20% of the price of a pack of cigs in the UK. Happy that was until I bought the same pack in a different shop and found out everywhere else only charged 5 RMB. Yes, it’s only 2 RMB difference, but it’s the principal that counts. Those 2 RMB hits will mount up.

I went back to the store and asked why they were charging me more than other places were for the same thing. At first they pretended to not understand what I was saying, which is a common tactic in China which the locals use to escape uncomfortable situations like this one. I know the woman I was talking to spoke some English because we had chatted before, something I quickly reminded her of. She eventually relented, and admitted I was being charged ‘foreigner prices.’ I never went to that shop again. So for the sake of a few quick 2 RMB hits, they lost out on two years of business from me. This short-sighted approach to money grubbing is another common Chinese trait. This kind of stark cultural difference comes as a shock. We just don’t expect to be treated that way. It’s in total contrast to our (supposedly) enlightened way of western living where we endeavour to treat everyone equally and face trial-by-media or industrial-scale legal action awaits if we don’t. Not that the west is perfect. Racism exists there, too. The difference is that we are actively trying to stamp it out whilst the Chinese government seems happy to promote it. If you’ve ever read a Chinese newspaper, or even seen a Chinese movie, you’ll instantly notice how skewed everything is towards favouring the ‘Motherland.’ The propaganda is so powerful it promotes and encourages extreme patriotism. Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself. We should all be proud of where we come from. But not if that pride comes at the expense of knocking other people and places just so you can feel superior to them.

Something else that feeds into how the Chinese treat foreigners is the infamous one-child policy which created a huge gender imbalance in China. There are a lot of single, bitter men in China, and if they see a foreigner with a Chinese girl they take it as a personal affront. As if us laowais were fishing in already-depleted waters. A friend of mine was beaten up in Beijing once because he was with a Chinese girl and those stares I mentioned earlier are more profound when you are out with a girl. Weirdly, in those situations, the girl becomes a victim of it, too. One of my Chinese exes said she felt the guys staring at her were trying to make her feel guilty, almost like she was ‘betraying’ China by chooseing to step out with a foreigner rather than a local. Even after the policy’s dissolution, there’s no sign of the gender imbalance being rectified anytime soon because in 2019, there were 114 boys born per 100 girls. That’s 14 angry, disaffected Chinese guys who can’t find partners and can’t have a family. If we assume for argument’s sake that 2% of Chinese women have foreign partners, then that figure rises to 16 angry disaffected Chinese guys for every 100 Chinese girls. As the population of China is rapidly approaching 1.4 billion, that’s an awful lot of angry, disaffected Chinese guys. This animosity invariably extends to your Chinese girlfriend’s family. As friendly and accepting as they may outwardly appear, make no mistake, they would much prefer it if their daughter hooked up with a nice, (preferably rich) local guy. There is a stigma attached to openly dating a foreigner, but more than that, this attitude is self-serving in the extreme. For the older generations in China, kids essentially life insurance policies. They look after you, physically and financially, when you get old. And nobody wants to see their insurance policy up and leave to set up home on another continent. I think there might also be an element of jealousy involved. The parents and grandparents are resentful that their kids and grandkids have opportunities they never had. Let’s not forget that until the early eighties most of the country lived in extreme poverty. The Chinese have long memories.

Sadly, the animosity extends to all foreigners, not just those from different ethnic pools. Because of a history of warfare and things like Unit 731 and the Rape of Nanking the Chinese, perhaps justifiably, reserve most of their hatred for the Japanese. They have a fair amount for India, too. It seems nobody is safe from Chinese racism, most of it government-approved, but I really think it’s time they grew up.

My new book This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications.

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