“I reached the international city of Shanghai in July, with the sun beating down on the Bund […] I did not know a soul in the city. But hardly had I climbed into a rickshaw than I saw riding in another along the Bund a Negro who looked exactly like a Harlemite. I stood up in my rickshaw and yelled, “Hey, man!” he stood up in his rickshaw and yelled, “What ya sayin’?” we passed each other in the crowded street, and I never saw him again.”Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (1934), quoted in Gao (2021)
It has been nearly a century since the late Black American poet-intellectual Langston Hughes wandered the streets of Shanghai. Although his visit was brief, it left a profound imprint on Hughes. He would write empathetically of Shanghai’s struggling rickshaw pullers – whom he had been warned to avoid – and child labourers in the textile industry facing abuse, discrimination, and exploitation (Gao, 2021). Likewise, his travels and subsequent writings would leave a lasting impression on his hosts too. Hughes’ poems would be reviewed and translated in the journals of leading Chinese universities in the years following his visit; as celebrated and admired as they were critiqued. Hughes was revered by Chinese intellectuals and labelled a “vanguard fighter against petit bourgeois and bourgeois literature” for the way his eloquent prose narrated racial and class struggles resonating in both the U.S and China (Gao, 2021, p. 696).
What the writings of Langston Hughes reveal are global connections and cross-cultural dialogues that are seldom mentioned in today’s accounts of Black life in China. And although the recent “long-term consolidation of a Black diaspora in the People’s Republic of China has captivated the imaginations of people in China, Africa, and the world over,” accounts have often peddled stereotypical assumptions about migration and Blackness from a Western perspective (Castillo, 2020a). Guangzhou – the bustling metropolis of 13 million in the southern province of Guangdong – and its vibrant commercial district of Xiaobei, is the centre of Black life in China today. In this context, the significance of returning to the writings of Hughes is that it accentuates the long history of Black presence in Chinese cities and implies that the relations we often read about in news articles or on social media today might not be all that they seem.
For the last two years, stories of Black life in Guangzhou have been dominated by headlines describing the mistreatment of African migrants during the Covid-19 lockdown. After five Nigerians linked to a Xiaobei restaurant tested positive for coronavirus in early 2020, authorities in Guangdong province allegedly ordered a brutal ‘clampdown’ on the community, evicting African tenants and leaving some homeless (Kirton, 2020b; Marsh et al., 2020). This prompted widespread condemnation from several African ambassadors and a slew of media reports decrying China’s blatantly racist actions (Kirton, 2020a; Jin, 2021). However, without diminishing the severity of these particular events, the reporting on China’s ‘racist’ Covid-19 response nevertheless represented yet another example of a problematic – and inaccurate – understanding of race and racism in China.
Firstly, dominant (read: Western) media portrayals of racism in China have often positioned the Chinese as the ‘racialisers’ and Africans as the ‘racialised’ (Castillo, 2020b). Not only has this negated a discussion of African agency, such accounts simply mirror the way race relations have historically operated in the West by replacing whiteness with Chineseness. This often encourages reductive debates of “which is worse?” which always seem to appease ‘white guilt’ (Lan, 2019; Castillo, 2020b). The problem with conflating the Chinese state’s brutish strategies of population control during a global public health crisis – as violent and unjust as it might have been – with four centuries of forced enslavement, segregation, and subjugation of Africans at the hands of European colonial powers is that it obscures much more than it purports to reveal. In the first instance, this narrative dangerously diminishes the historic and ongoing violence of whiteness. But further, it also closes off any possibility that racial thinking in China develops under a different set of historical and contemporary circumstances. This is not to say that racism does not exist in China, or that Western narratives do not influence daily life. Rather, it is to signal the potential pitfalls of conflating instances of Chinese anti-Blackness with that of the West.
Indeed, racism comprises only one part of racial thought. As Monson (2013) argues, concentrating “on racism as an incident rather than on racialisation as a process may even obscure the ways that race thinking has been historically constructed.” As it turns out, ‘Blackness’ has a very particular history in China and has at times been ascribed to various non-African groups, including non-Han Chinese, Khmers, Malays, and South Asians (Wyatt, 2012). This historical fact opens up the possibility of considering the marginalisation of internal migrants for matters of comparison. Due to China’s hukou system of citizenship, internal migrants often share similar conditions of exclusion and mistreatment (Lan, 2019). Although China is often imagined to be a largely ethnically homogenous society, the reality is much different (Wasserstrom, 2010). In fact, there are approximately 56 ‘ethnic groups’ currently recognized in China (Carrico, 2017). Despite this, there has been a tendency to imagine Xiaobei as a distinctly ‘African space’ positioned in contrast to an otherwise ‘fixed’ local Chinese population (Castillo, 2015). If you were to spend any time in Xiaobei, you might find the reality to be far more complicated.
On any given day, a complex choreography of negotiation and cooperation plays out on the streets of Xiaobei. Uyghur Muslims from central China serve halal meats and grill fish ‘African style’, Hui men and children operate clandestine currency exchange stalls for African traders working informally, and hotels owned by Hunan migrants house African newcomers, forming a complex milieu that turns simple-minded assumptions of race relations in China on their head (Castillo, 2014). Whilst Chinese and Western media push confusing narratives of either a ‘Black threat’ or Sino-African friendship, in Xiaobei, alternative meanings of race are cultivated through grassroots interactions between differentiated individuals sharing similar struggles. Admittedly, Xiaobei is by no means a utopia of racial harmony, and the dominant racial discourses of mainstream media do often creep in. Nonetheless, this still complicates how we might perceive ‘race’ in contexts outside the West.
Research by Shanshan Lan (2019) differentiates between two types of racialisation occurring in Xiaobei: presumptive and interactive. The former originates from secondary knowledge that is often a mixture of Western constructions of Black inferiority and Chinese colour-based prejudice. The latter, though, is produced through daily life interactions, which yield various and often contradictory constructions of both Blackness and Chineseness. In Xiaobei, Lan finds mutual constructions of racial thinking. For instance, in her research, Lan recounts one interaction where a Chinese worker was shocked to find that the blood of a Nigerian migrant was the same colour as his own. Equally, the Nigerian migrant conflated the workers’ Chineseness with whiteness, even though none of Lan’s informants identified as such.
Interestingly though, alongside these fairly familiar accounts of difference, Lan also finds the conflation of ‘Blackness’ with foreignness, which is mainly associated with exoticism as opposed to inferiority. In the Chinese context, ‘foreignness’ often conveys wealth and privilege, which gets reinforced by African traders’ class position in relation to poorer Chinese migrant workers (Lan, 2019). As such, internal Chinese and African migrants alike often differentiate along the lines of class in addition to race, yet this is rarely acknowledged in mainstream accounts. Although these interactions still reinforce familiar racial stereotypes, shared class positions between the two heterogeneous groups can, at times, enable relatively harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships.
Beyond much doubt, the legacies of China’s Covid-19 strategy will alter the ways these complex processes of mutual racialisation take place. Nevertheless, what these examples show is the construction of race as a localised process in China, which can be markedly different from a Western understanding and produce altogether different outcomes. Wrongfully assuming that race in China mirrors race relations in the West risks flattening the complexities seen in Xiaobei. While the shadow of Western whiteness still hangs over these grassroots interactions, shaping the cultivation of hierarchies and peddling discourses of Black inferiority, shared struggles nurture new forms of solidarity and mutual understanding. It should go without saying that not all Chinese or African residents in Guangzhou are the same, but problematic racial stereotypes have thrived as a result of simplistic explanations that have refused to present a sufficiently granular picture of migrant life in Xiaobei. Just as the writings of Langston Hughes had implied, there are complicated class and racial differences on the ground in China that mirror – but also refuse – the history of racialisation in the West. As Africans and internal migrants contend with an increasingly hostile Chinese state, these nuances ought to be remembered.
Carrico, K. (2017) The great Han: race, nationalism, and tradition in China today. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Castillo, R. (2014) ‘Feeling at home in the “Chocolate City”: an exploration of place-making practices and structures of belonging amongst Africans in Guangzhou’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 15(2), pp. 235-257.
Castillo, R. (2015) ‘Landscapes of Aspiration in Guangzhou’s African Music Scene: Beyond the Trading Narrative’, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44(4), pp. 83–115. doi: 10.1177/186810261504400405.
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Kirton, D. (2020b) In China’s ‘Little Africa’, a struggle to get back to business after lockdown. Reuters, June 26. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-africans-idUSKBN23X0HO
Marsh, J., Deng, S., Gan, N. (2020) Africans in Guangzhou are on edge, after many are left homeless amid rising xenophobia as China fights a second wave of coronavirus. CNN, April 13. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/10/china/africans-guangzhou-china-coronavirus-hnk-intl/index.html
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About the author
Fraser Curry is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Development at King’s College London where he researches housing precarity and racial capitalism in the context of Hounslow, West London. He recently completed his MSc in Urbanisation and Development at the LSE, where he conducted research with migrant property guardians in Dakar, Senegal. Fraser’s broader interests lie at the nexus of critical urban theory, postcolonialism, displacement, and political ecology.