Chinese embassy denies racism in 'blackface' skit

A screenshot from CCTV of the skit celebrating China’s Lunar New Year, 2018. Some viewers deemed it racist but China was quick to defend it, saying it was meant to depict the good relations and cooperation between it and Africa PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The Chinese Embassy in Kenya said Western media started the reports.
  • It said the show was vetted by government officials before airing.
  • Any perception of ill-will was from people who are not happy with Beijing’s cooperation with Africa, a spokesman said.
  • The skit was meant to depict good relations between China and Africa, he said.

The Chinese Embassy in Nairobi on Sunday fought back claims of racism in a skit aired on Thursday by China’s national broadcaster.

The embassy said any perception of ill-will was from people who are not happy with Beijing’s cooperation with Africa.


Mr Zhang Gang, a spokesman of the embassy, told the Nation that the reports of malice were “ill-intended, totally distorting and smearing”.

He said the show was vetted by government officials before airing.

In Mr Gang’s view, Western media started the reports on racism.

“We are not happy to see Kenyan media follow the Western media report,” he said. “Kenyan people should have their own judgement.”

The controversial skit was aired by China Central Television (CCTV) during an annual gala to mark the Chinese New Year.

The gala is said to be the most watched TV event, with more than 700 million people tuning in.

This year’s show was themed around the strengthening relations between China and Africa.


However, in a performance that was to depict a scene in Kenya of a Chinese man involved in the construction of the standard gauge railway (SGR), a Chinese actress who played the role of a Kenyan mother raised eyebrows.

She painted herself black and stuffed her undergarments to look like she had huge behinds.

And she showed up on stage with a monkey walking by her side. Reports say the monkey was an African man in a special costume.

Many observers thought the dramatisation reeked of racism, but Mr Gang said it was a misreading of the action.

“This play tells the story of China-Africa friendship in joyful and harmonious atmosphere. However, some people do not like to see the deepening cooperation between China and Africa,” Mr Gang said.


The very fact that the SGR story was included in a performance for the Chinese audience, he said, was proof of its importance to the Chinese officials.

“We are happy to see that when Chinese people were celebrating the Spring Festival, a play about the SGR was staged on the Chinese New Year eve TV gala,” said Mr Gang.

On Sunday, reactions continued to flow following the play that was staged on Thursday 8pm Beijing time (3pm in Nairobi).


Ms Stella Adhiambo Agara, an international relations student at the Atlantic International University, told the Nation that the depictions in the skit itself should make Kenyans think about how the Chinese perceive them.

“The scenes in the skit depicting Kenya in racist derogatory impressions add to the obscurity of whether Kenya is truly a valuable trade partner to China or is just another cow they are milking.

“From a post-modern deconstructionist perspective, I am convinced that China holds Kenya and Kenyans in very low regard to the extent of consciously using universally accepted racist impressions to depict Kenya,” added Ms Adhiambo.

Ms Adhiambo, a widely-travelled activist, said the skit had the potential of denting Kenya-China relations.


But according to Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations, such a skit has no chance of ruining the bilateral ties; much as it is worrying.

“That the Chinese . . . have strange stereotypes about Africans is not news.

“It is similar to [US President Donald] Trump saying Africa was a human waste depository.

“Neither of the two annoying expressions of anti-African sentiments will affect the fundamentals of the relations between countries in Africa and either China or the US,” said Prof Munene.

The Chinese embassy spokesman, commenting on whether China’s ties with Africans would waver after Thursday’s show, took a philosophical approach.

“We will work with our African friends to build a community of common destiny for all mankind. Justice naturally inhabits man’s heart. Who is sincerely helping Africa? Who is Africa’s trustworthy partner? We could draw a fair conclusion from the facts,” said Mr Gang.