While opposing “any form of racism,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed widespread criticism of the use of blackface in the state broadcaster’s lunar new year variety show on February 22. The Foreign Ministry also stated that any criticism of the skit is an attempt to drive a wedge between China and Africa.
The comedy sketch featured a Chinese actress as an African woman with overblown buttocks, a large chest, and a black-painted face. It also featured an African actor dressed as a monkey. The skit was originally intended to celebrate the growing relationship between China and African nations, but it has unsurprisingly caused great uproar and criticism.
The sketch appeared on February 15 on state-run CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, a variety show broadcast on the eve of Chinese New Year. The show had nearly 800 million viewers, making it the world’s most-watched television program.
Users of social media in China and abroad criticized the skit as racist and offensive. Chinese Twitter user @iamHuizit tweeted, “CCTV’s racist show during Spring Gala shook me and made me so ashamed of China and my people. They literally had blackface on stage, had an African actor play a monkey and an African actress yelling ‘I love China!’….” The African Students Association at Peking University said that, while the blackface was problematic, they found black actors in monkey suits in the background to be the more offensive part of the skit.
While the use of blackface is controversial in the West, awareness of the negative connotations of this practice and of racism against Africans remains low in China and in many other parts of Asia.
According to Liu Haifang, associate professor of African history at Peking University, CCTV chose Africa as a main focus for the Spring Festival Gala to show the growing friendship between China and Africa. Liu said, “China has made a lot of contributions in Africa in the past few years. That’s why CCTV was confident Sino-African relations could be a good topic to perform.”
When asked about the controversy surrounding the play, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called it “a diplomatic issue” and claimed that “China condemns any form of racial discrimination.” However, he dismissed the criticism of the skit and suggested that the Western media is attempting to sow discord between China and African countries and that such attempts are futile, arguing, “The Sino-African friendship is unbreakable and both sides have benefited from mutual cooperation.”
Relations between China and many African countries have grown rapidly in importance in the past few years, especially since Xi Jinping became president. China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects and natural resources in Africa and will host the China-Africa Summit later this year to promote trade and investment on the continent. However, many Africans have also criticized China for extracting their resources and dominating African markets with Chinese manufactured goods, which is—to some extent—reminiscent of European colonialism. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders have called their investments in Africa a form of “win-win cooperation.”