BEIJING: The rhetoric of solidarity has long papered over talk of ethnic unease in China. But two young citizens have sparked a novel debate about what it means to be Chinese. Earlier this year, China picked Ding Hui, a young man from Hangzhou, for its national volleyball team. Last month, a 20-year-old Shanghainese, Lou Jing, triggered national controversy when she made the last 30 in the Chinese version of Pop Idol. Neither event would have attracted unusual notice but for the one thing the two young people have in common: they are in a small, and for China, novel category of mixed-race citizens, children of black fathers. Their emergence into the
limelight has forced the country into an uncomfortable and often shocking
debate about what it means to be Chinese.
Both have been widely discussed on the Chinese internet in terms that have not been publicly acceptable in the US or Europe for half a century. Both Lou Jing and Ding Hui have been treated as frank curiosities: netizens comment on their white teeth, Ding Hui’s athleticism and Lou Jing’s sense of rhythm. On the show, the presenters repeatedly referred to Lou Jing as “chocolate”. Contributors to the nation’s websites indulged in altogether cruder epithets, as netizens indulged their imaginations on the subject of sex between a black man and a Chinese woman.
Lou Jing was brought up by her mother, a single parent, after her African American father had left China for reasons not explained. The crude abuse directed at her mother on the internet uncovered a deep well of prejudice that comes as no surprise to foreigners living in China, but which for years has been papered over by the official rhetoric of socialist solidarity with the developing world, including Africa.
Solidarity, however, does not necessarily denote acceptance or equality, let alone full citizenship. China has not been a country of immigration: its ethnic diversity has come from expanding borders rather than inward migration. Who is really Chinese is not the easiest question to answer in a country that officially has 56 ethnic groups — and in reality many
more — but in which one group, the Han Chinese, is so dominant that it has the power to define the cultural and racial content of nationality.
The non-Han citizens —Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans and the many other cultural and ethnic groups — suffer accordingly: they are regarded as “civilised” to the degree that they come to resemble the dominant Han majority. Many among that majority regard the relationship between the Han and the others as one of frank tutelage in preparation for assimilation. The Han, in other words, have a civilising mission to the more backward corners of the empire.