Race debate in China

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MARCO WERMAN: President Obama's arrival comes in the midst of a controversy over racism in China. It erupted this summer when a biracial contestant appeared on a televised talent show. The contestant is the daughter of a Chinese woman and an African-American man, an unusual combination in China. Scores of hostile comments flooded the Internet following her debut. And as Phillip Martin reports, that's fueled debate over how the world's fastest growing economy negotiates issues of race in its quest to become a global power.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Think American Idol but many times bigger, and that's what describes Oriental Angel. The contestants are almost always fair skinned, but Lou Jing, one of five women chosen this summer to represent Shanghai is brown. Shortly after Lou's first appearance, email began pouring in. Viewers wrote comments such as:

VIEWER 1: Ugh, yellow people and black people mixed together is very gross.

VIEWER 2: Is it possible that she is Obama's daughter?

VIEWER 3: I can't believe she's so shameless that she would go on TV.

MARTIN: A tearful Lou later told reporters she knew some would comment on her skin color. After all, the show's producers dubbed her "chocolate girl", but she said she never expected to be a target of hate. Even keen observers of Chinese society, like sociologist Guoli Dong of Shanghai University, were surprised by the mass reaction.

GUOLI DONG: Chinese people are not used to seeing a Chinese mother have a black daughter or black son. It's beyond our experience. But the response from the Internet is quite beyond my imagination.

MARTIN: But University of Houston historian Gerald Horne says that kind of anti-dark skin attitude should come as no surprise. It's the logical conclusion, he says, of a traditional veneration of light skin across Asia.

GERALD HORNE: One way is to look at it as a reflection of labor, that is to say that those who had skin burnt by the sun were working in the fields, and so therefore the whitening of the skin was a reflection of labor status.

MARTIN: But Horne says skin color attitudes are also partly rooted in the outcome of the Second World War.

HORNE: An aspiration of many in Asia towards whiteness is a reflection of the idea that the North Atlantic Powers were the quote, winners, unquote, and therefore they need to be imitated.

MARTIN: And the implied losers? Anyone with dark skin says Horne, a perception that influences attitudes, public policy and stereotypes. This is Beijing's San-li-tun entertainment district. Just before the 2008 Summer Olympics, bar owners here were told by authorities to refuse service to black foreigners and Mongolians. Several months before that, police rounded up and allegedly beat a group of African immigrants. Some African students lingering outside a popular cafe here still remember the incident. One, from Ghana. He doesn't want to give his name. He says he's either harassed or ignored by Chinese.

AFRICAN STUDENT: Yeah, tourist, they see us different. They see us different from others. It is bad. We are all human, right?

MARTIN: African students began arriving in China in the 1960s. Since then, China has forged close diplomatic and commercial ties with Africa. But person-to-person relationship are still often trained, even hostile, says Beijing-based writer, Lijia Zhang, because for many Chinese, blacks represent the antithesis of what many consider good.

LIJIA: There's also a term describing the skin as hebruto, kind of a murky dark, you know. And in extreme cases someone that's really dark is called a black ghost.

MARTIN: But sociologist Guoli Dong says it's more an issue of ignorance than racism. He thinks Chinese need to travel more, and not on packaged tours where they tend to stay with other Han Chinese, but individually, where they might actually experience cultural and ethnic differences. Dong also thinks that President Obama's visit will have a positive impact on Chinese perceptions of darker skinned people.

GUOLI DONG: And the fact that President Obama helps Chinese people to open their minds to accept different races. And if we think black as the lower class, how should Chinese rank ourselves? Is the white on the top? The yellow in the middle and the black in the lower? I don't think so. People should be equal.

MARTIN: And Dong says that if Chinese and other Asians tend to emulate the winners in society, what better model of individual success than the brown-skinned leader of what is still arguably the most powerful country on Earth. But other China watchers caution that President Obama does not have the same star status in China as he does elsewhere, and his appeal may not be enough to puncture deeply engrained prejudices. For The World, I'm Phillip Martin.

WERMAN: For more on this story, come to theworld.org. This is PRI.