Chinese broadcaster CCTV opened its annual four-hour-long Lunar New Year variety show Friday with a “multicultural” dance performance featuring ethnically Han Chinese performers in black skin paint pretending to be African. The use of blackface prompted global ire, as it was not the first instance of it appearing in the program.
CCTV prompted a similar backlash in 2018 when airing a comedy sketch featuring a Chinese actress in blackface pretending to be an African woman who loved Chinese people. On that occasion, the actress accessorized her brown body paint with artificially enlarged buttocks and a plate of fruit on her head.
The 2020 use of blackface occurred as part of a larger performance in honor of several countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure plan that heavily indebts developing countries to the Communist Party. In addition to the dancers wearing blackface — which appeared to include children — Chinese dancers wore traditional outfits honoring Russia, Spain, Argentina, and Egypt. In the latter case, dancers wore what appeared to be an attempt at belly dancing outfits and dance uniforms inspired by ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The performance ended with traditional Chinese music and dance.
The performance is part of a program known as the “Spring Festival Gala.” The incoming year on the Chinese calendar is known as the year of the ox. It was the opening showpiece performance of this year’s program. According to the South China Morning Post, the gala had received 1.8 billion views online by the end of Thursday local time.CCTV
“Blackface” is the use of dark paint, and often falsified body parts like lips and noses, meant to make white-skinned people look African. It is inherently offensive to black people as its origins are in “comedy” programs, the main joke of which is ridiculing the appearance, voice, and culture of African and other black people.
“The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.”
While the Communist Party heavily regulates Chinese social media, Reuters reported Friday that some criticism of the sketch made it onto Weibo, the nation’s most popular social media outlet. One user referred to those organizing the dance as “stupid and vicious;” another compared it to “white people slanting their eyes to make fun of Asians.”
Black Livity China, an organization of African nationals living and working in China, issued a statement calling the dance “extremely disappointing.”
Blackface once again at the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV – not the first time, and extremely disappointing to see. We cannot stress enough the impact scenes such as these have on African and Afro-diasporic communities living in Chinahttps://t.co/uNJPEtRAcZ
— Black Livity China (@BlackLivityCN) February 11, 2021
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a defensive statement to Reuters, accusing those offended by the use of blackface of distance African nations from the Communist Party.
“If anyone wants to seize on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala programme to make a fuss, or even sow discord in relations between China and African countries, they obviously have ulterior motives,” the statement read.
The Chinese communist regime spent much of 2020 fielding accusations of outrageous racism against its large African community in southern Guangzhou city. At the height of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic there, officials claimed to residents that foreigners were responsible for the return of the virus after the government claimed to have contained it in its origin city, Wuhan. As African nationals are easiest to identify as foreign in China, Chinese businesses, landlords, and police officers targeted them for needless coronavirus testing. Hotels and apartment buildings expelled black people without reason, leaving dozens to sleep on the street despite having the money for shelter. Restaurants, including the American restaurant McDonald’s, placed notices on their doors stating they would not serve black people. Africans in Guangzhou protested that white Europeans did not receive similar treatment despite also being clearly “foreign.”
The Chinese Communist Party dismissed the incidents as “misunderstandings.” The state-run propaganda newspaper Global Times warned the victims, “some Africans in Guangzhou need to readjust their way of thinking. … they need to respect and comply.”
Chinese officials regularly use their international platforms, including at the United Nations, to accuse the United States of rampant racism against black people. This week, the Global Times claimed that America’s Chinese coronavirus vaccine drive, among the most successful in the world, was plagued with “structural racism.” Some of China’s attempts to portray America as a racist nation have included extremely offensive political cartoons against black people.
Sup China, an online outlet that follows Chinese culture, noted that the 2020 CCTV Spring Festival Gala also “offered up its traditional sexist stereotypes about women and uncomfortable jokes about single people.” One of the sketches referred to a single woman as a “single dog;” in another, the outlet noted, “a divorced man jokes about his ex-wife looking like Voldemort when she does not have her makeup on.”