The Elephant in the China Shop Race in Sino-African Relations

The long history of Sino-African relations would not be complete without a reference to Zheng He. Zheng He was a fourteenth-century admiral who completed several voyages to the historic kingdoms of Mogadishu, Brava (Barawa), Juba (present-day Somalia) and Malindi (present-day Kenya) along the East African coast. Relics of these voyages have been discovered through the expeditions of scientists, such as the 600-year-old Chinese coin unearthed on the Kenyan island of Manda in 2013. According to legend, a group of shipwrecked Chinese sailors settled in one of the Kenyan islands, eventually intermarrying with Kenyan women and leaving descendants who can still be found in Kenya today. DNA analysis has also proven the Chinese heredity of a number of descendants, who were offered university scholarships to study in China. These accounts are frequently used as counterarguments to the ‘China Threat’, to suggest that China has always had peaceful relations with Africa and still does. Although the story of the first Chinese people in Africa has been well publicized by Beijing, very few people know about the first Africans in China. Their story highlights an aspect of Sino-African relations which no politician, African or Chinese, wants to engage with: race.


From as early as the seventh century, Arabs provided an important link between China and Africa largely through Arab conquests of East African lands. During this period, the Arabs established a significant hub for slavery which allowed them to consolidate their empire. The Arab empire was on good terms with China and, for centuries, thousands of Arabs merchants lived and traded in the southern parts of China. Guangzhou, in particular, was an active hub for Arab merchants dealing in the African slave trade and was where many Chinese encountered Africans for the first time. Some wealthy Chinese households even had East African slaves serving as doorkeepers. In The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-skinned People and Africa before 1500, Julie Wilensky shows how Zhu Yu, a scholar who lived during the Song dynasty (960-1279), described some of the images associated to black people in Guangzhou. According to Zhu Yu,

‘Many of the wealthy households in Guangzhou raise devil slaves. They definitely have strength and can carry several hundred catties of weight. Their languages and preferences are not the same as ours, [but] their temperament is honest, and they do not attempt to run away. They are also called wild people. Their coloring is black like ink, their lips are red and their teeth white, their hair is curly and yellowish. A type of wild man who comes from a place near the sea and who can enter the water without closing his eyes is called a kunlun slave…’

‘Colourism’ in China predates the presence of Africans. ‘Milky’ or fair complexions have always been considered superior and an indicator of high social and economic status. Today, Chinese media hardly features darker-skinned actors; tanning is frowned upon and it is not uncommon to find cosmetic creams with whitening components sold to women. However, ‘colourism’ evolved into a form of unnamed racism with the presence of the first Africans in China. The term ‘Kunlun’ in Zhu Yu’s quote above was initially used to describe Chinese people with darker skin tones but gradually evolved into a range of meanings with negative connotations linked to dark skin: wild, uncivilized, animal-like almost mystical. These connotations became attributes associated with black people from as early as the tenth century. However, it is important to note that the geographical concentration of Africans in China in relation to the entire land mass meant that most Chinese would have little to no chance of seeing a black person in the flesh. European imperialism and colonization would also hinder opportunities to forge Sino-African relations free from Western influence. As a result, China’s knowledge and understanding of black people was distorted by the Western lenses of slavery, its own nascent racism, and colonialism. Through these three key forces, black stereotypes were fostered and passed down through generations of Chinese till today.


Between the fifteenth century and the late-twentieth century, China had no incentive to correct or even address its harmful perceptions of race. Understandably, the Middle Kingdom had more pressing issues: large parts of China’s territory fell under foreign rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Opium Wars opposed China and the British Empire (1839 – 1842, 1856 – 1860) had significant negative impacts on the Chinese economy. In 1820, China had the world’s largest economy but within a decade of the Second Opium war, China’s share of global GDP had fallen by half. Weakened by these two wars, China was forced to hand over key trade ports and spheres of influence to Western powers. For centuries, China had thought itself to be the most unique civilization on Earth and the Chinese Emperor would receive tributes from neighbouring countries. This was the first time that the kingdom had been brought to its knees and China would emerge from this period of economic and political interference with a bruised ego. In China, this period is referred to as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and likened to colonization in Africa.—an unwarranted comparison. However, the period fostered a bond between newly-liberated African nations and China as the two regions joined hands as part of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.

After experiencing ‘white’ economic and ideological imperialism, in the 1950s, China began to associate itself with other ‘victimized’ world regions. African leaders became recurrent guests of Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong, who sought to make himself the leader of the ‘Third World’ and preached the gospel of independence for African nations. China’s Mao effectively made use of the ‘race card’ in order to get support from African nations against Soviet and Western quests for hegemony. China provided military support, agricultural aid and more to Africans and officially took a stand on racial issues such as Apartheid in South Africa. Nonetheless, the sense of superiority which China felt towards coloured people was still present in the many state propaganda posters from this period. Although these posters are meant to foster a sense of equality and brotherhood in struggle, they still connote the idea of ‘saviour-ism’ whereby China provides ideological, political and economic aid to savage, yet noble, Africans.


Today, China’s president, Xi Jinping, does not talk about ‘aid’ anymore but rather ‘win-win cooperation’. The Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), is the official discussion forum between China and all African nations and holds annually, alternating between China and an African country. One of the key objectives of FOCAC, ‘Cultural and People-to-People Exchange’, is to bridge the gap of understanding and cultures between Chinese and Africans. However, it is questionable that China can achieve credible, shared cultural understanding with African countries without addressing the topic of race. Race is seldom mentioned in Sino-African relations and this is problematic.

Racism and discrimination are often cast as a Western concept, not applicable to China due to its own experience with imperial Europeans’ plight for racial hegemony. However, racism is not limited to European imperialism, as recent events emphasize the necessity of addressing race within the context of China-Africa relations. In February 2018, the Chinese New Year Gala, a tele-broadcasted event watched by around 800 million people, featured a famous Chinese actress wearing fake buttocks with her face painted black, supposedly impersonating an African woman. Was this impersonation racially insensitive? Racist? Or simply a display of ignorance? Regardless, the subsequent backlash was severe enough to warrant Chinese censorship of all related online video coverage of the event. Earlier in the year, an exhibition in Wuhan, comparing photographs of black men and women to animals, affirmed the idea that China has a long way to go in letting go of old stereotypes.


When discussing race in China-Africa relations, it is important to base arguments on fact rather than sentiment. For example, evidence supports that Chinese contractors working in Africa do in fact hire more locals than myths suggest. According to a 2017 McKinsey report, 89 per cent of Chinese firms surveyed hired local labour, with 44 of their managers being African. But we must also consider the many instances of alleged racism against local African workers on Chinese operated projects. In clear cases of racial discrimination in employment, it is worth asking if African legal systems ready to defend their citizens. We must also hold the Africans leaders and contractors negotiating these projects accountable, asking if, for instance, they include sound and legally-binding terms that would oblige Chinese contractors to hire local labour as opposed to import Chinese workers for these projects.

Ignorance is often used as an excuse to justify and defend China’s racial insensitivity, discrimination and racism towards Africans. Despite the increasing migration of Africans to study and work in China, most Chinese will never meet an African nor acquire any knowledge of African countries beyond existing stereotypes portrayed in arts, popular medias and school curriculums. Chinese geography textbooks dedicate entire chapters Europe and America but only a page or two to the African continent, which is larger than Europe or America. The only black people many Chinese will ever see will be the ones on the TV screen in American blockbusters; cast as dangerous, murderous, drug-dealing villains, and the occasional basketball player. Mainstream news on Africa is often limited to stories related to war, epidemics and political coups, despite Chinese media routinely shaming the U.S. for its treatment of African-American citizens and police brutality. These comments are often more of an attack against American democracy than an endorsement, or genuine understanding, of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. China’s alleged ignorance regarding race may ‘pale’ in comparison to America’s police brutality records but does not excuse the reality of the many Africans living in China today. Africans represent the largest growing population of international students in China and are subjected to the common predicament of the foreigner in China: picture taking, finger pointing, whispering. This is often harmless, and written off as mere curiosity, but can quickly escalate into fetishization and/or exoticization. Most importantly, it can take a toll on the mental well-being of these students who find themselves as the centre of a daily circus around their skin complexion in return for a better education.

Relations between African countries and China are one of the most important dynamics of the twenty-first century and, thus, deserve a place in history books and academic curriculum. If ignorance is truly the reason why race is not addressed in Sino-African relations, increasing the knowledge about Africans for the Chinese context is a necessity. Just as China builds up its soft power through its Confucius Language Institutes, African leaders should encourage more extensive teaching of African history, geography and languages in Chinese schools. There is also room for African destinations to welcome more Chinese tourists, in order to increase the cultural understanding of Africa in China. In the same way, African bias and stereotypes against Chinese need to be addressed. Simply advocating that Chinese in Africa should leave the continent is not realistic or feasible; for better or worse the ties fostered by globalization and interdependence have made this a long-term union. China needs Africa’s resources, its huge markets but also its political support in multi-lateral institutions like the United Nations or the World Bank. African countries urgently need infrastructures, loans, scholarships and non-interference in its affairs; China is uniquely capable of providing all of this.

Whether they are political, economic or cultural, relationships between Chinese people and Africans will only deepen in the future. But until there are spaces for Africans to interact and exchange with Chinese people, especially beyond the African continent, race will remain an unspoken and problematic issue in Sino-African relations. So far, such platforms for exchange do not exist beyond elite spaces, where it is rare to encounter the full extents of racism or racial tension. An African student at one China’s best universities would find it easier to encounter Chinese peers with international exposure, and who may have even lived and worked in an African country. Multi-cultural academic institutions may facilitate mutual understanding between Chinese and Africans but what about the local Chinese man on the streets of Chengdu or Kampala who may not have been exposed to such multi-cultural institutions? The wider populations of Chinese people and Africans do not get a chance to interact with one another because there are no spaces that exist for this purpose. There is a vacuum which needs to be filled and it is our responsibility today to strategize and implement solutions that will drive the Sino-African relations in the right direction. It is unlikely that Africa’s relationship with China will ever evolve into a truly multi-cultural, mutually beneficial partnership if the current realities of migration, race and identity are not adequately addressed