Saturday, June 4, 2016

June 4, Racism, and a Chinese Allusion to State Violence in Africa

This blog has been quite persistent in posts remembering the June 4 pro-democracy protests in China every year, and this year is no different.  It is only unfortunate that with each passing year, the memories of the events fade, with a younger generation, both in China and abroad, too preoccupied with contemporary issues to be mindful of the sacrifices made by idealists of 20-odd years ago (as they continue to do so, quietly, today).  It is not surprising that this is the case considering China of today is a much more different place, with a twisted civic society that imbue new, darker issues.

One of those issues have been a persistent problem of racism against people of darker skin color.  Unfortunately, racism is not at all a new phenomenon in China, where lack of exposure to foreigners and a traditional preference for lighter skin color has made racism not an entrenched cultural trait that is not recognized as a problem.  But the issue came to a head again with the airing of a detergent ad in China, where a black man, cleaned with the said detergent, reemerged as a fair-skinned Chinese man.  The ad instantly went viral, outraging black populations everywhere, including here in Africa.

The ad certainly is not the first of the kind from China, where commercial enterprises use whatever ways necessary to attract attention in a landscape full of competitors, and this particular one is not at all any different.  But it can be speculated that this particular one received the amount of attention it did here in Africa because China, and especially the Chinese, is becoming a common presence for ordinary Africans, in ways Chinese nonchalance toward blacks in commercial sphere can easily be transferred to similar attitudes held in the country's relationship with African countries and people.

So far, it has been easy to tie Chinese racism to behavior of the Chinese on the African continents.  The stories of Chinese firms only hiring Chinese workers abound, and many Africans seem convinced that the reason behind irrational avoidance of African workers is fundamentally racist.  When behaviors of the Chinese suggesting such racism, like muted reaction of the Chinese toward an obviously racist detergent ad, is exposed, African suspicion of unchangeable Chinese racism in Africa is only much more justified, increasing support for forceful dealing with Chinese behavior.

And it is here the comparison with the events of June 4, 1989 in Beijing becomes relevant in the African context.  State violence of similar magnitude in Africa is not unusual.  Two weeks from now, South Africa will celebrate 40th anniversary of Soweto Uprising, a clash of black protestors with apartheid South African government.  And two months from now marks Uganda's forceful expulsion of its entire Indian minority population.  Both cases display the state's willingness to resort to violence against civilians to achieve political goals, not unlike those experienced by Chinese students.

The major difference in the African cases, however, is how race, rather than political ideals in the Chinese case, was used as justification for state violence.  Such zero-sum game of different races for political power or economic benefits has led to outright stripping of rights, properties, livelihoods, citizenships, and indeed, very lives of the defeated.  Violences of recent years, such as ongoing Hutu-Tutsi clashes in Burundi, suggest that such tendencies for different races to resort to violence in settling scores remain a common method of the state.

For the Chinese (and other Asians), this could be a cautionary tale as their presence in Africa continue to expand.  As superior funding and business acumen help the Chinese become a wealthy minority, it is only a matter of time before they become primary targets for race-based state violence.  The more that the Chinese resist actively to the efforts of the states to curb their influence, the more heavy-handed the methods of African states will likely to become in restricting Chinese activities to further increase their wealth gap with black Africans.

In the experience of other non-black Africans, taking up local citizenships and paying taxes, by themselves, may not readily help abate hatred of the impoverished black majority.  Very much as June 4, years of mutual resentments and quiet conflicts will boil over to one major confrontation, where one side will emerge victorious through sheer force.  In the African case, the Chinese minority, without political influence or military force, is unlikely to ever become the victor.  To prevent that major confrontation, any allusion to race, in the form of viral ads or otherwise, should be toned down.

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