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From Campus Racism to Cyber Racism: Discourse of Race and Chinese Nationalism*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2011

Yinghong Cheng
Delaware State University. Email:


As Sino-African engagement keeps developing, racial relations have emerged to concern people on both sides. The recent Chinese cyber discussions on Africans have shown a blatant racialism against Africans. Comparing this with the campus racism in the 1980s and contextualizing it in China's modern history and, more importantly, China's recent rise as a global power, the article argues that racial discourse has become an important component in Chinese nationalism without public awareness of it.

Special Section on the Internet in China
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2011

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1 The Chinese student anti-African protests were almost the only organized mass display of social discontent parallel to pro-democracy movements in the 1980s, with major ones in Shanghai (1979), Tianjin (1986), Nanjing (December 1988) and Beijing (1989). Only the Nanjing incident received considerable media coverage in the West because of its level of violence and turbulence (see e.g. Chinese students hold racist rally,” New York Times, 27 December 1988Google Scholar and Chinese students continue to protest Africans,” Washington Post, 30 December 1988Google Scholar).

2 Academic publications concerning this racism and its relationship with broader social discontent appeared in the mid-1990s. The China Quarterly devoted a forum to the subject (“Focus on race and racism in China,” No. 138, 1994), including Frank Dikötter, “Racial identity in China: context and meaning” (pp. 404–12); Barry Sautman, “Anti-black racism in post-Mao China” (pp. 413–37); and Michael J. Sullivan, “The 1988–89 Nanjing anti-African protests: racial nationalism or national racism?” (pp. 438–57). Crane's, George T.Collective identity, symbolic mobilization, and student protest in Nanjing, China, 1988–1989,” Comparative Politics (1994), pp. 395413CrossRefGoogle Scholar, also joined the discussion. Lufrano, Richard witnessed the event and published an analytical narrative “The 1988 Nanjing incident: notes on race and politics in contemporary China,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (1994), pp. 8392Google Scholar. Much later, M. Dujon Johnson, an African-American, revisited the subject and connected it to the racialism in the 1990s based on his experience living in both the mainland and Taiwan. Johnson, , Race and Racism in the Chinas (Bloomington, IN: Author's House, 2007)Google Scholar. Jacques's, MartinWhen China Rules the World (New York: Penguin, 2009), pp. 244–52Google Scholar synthesized the above discussions.

3 Youwei, Kang, Datongshu (One World) (Beijing: People's University Press, 2010), pp. 6980Google Scholar.

4 Lufrano, “The 1988 Nanjing incident,” p. 84.

5 Sautman, “Anti-black racism in post-Mao China,” pp. 429–37.

6 Sullivan, “The 1988–89 Nanjing anti-African protests,” p. 445.

7 Sautman, “Anti-black racism in post-Mao China,” p. 424.

8 Johnson, Race and Racism in Chinas, pp. 104–05.

9 Lufrano, “The 1988 Nanjing incident,” p. 84.

10 Sullivan, “The 1988–89 Nanjing anti-African protests,” p. 444; and Sautman, “Anti-black racism in post-Mao China,” p. 417.

11 While the local media played down the incident, foreign reporters were not permitted to enter the city and foreigners at Nanjing University had to get written permission to leave the city. Lufrano, “The 1988 Nanjing incident,” p. 87.

12 Foreign ministry spokesperson discusses the Nanjing Chinese–African student incident,” Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 6 January 1989Google Scholar.

13 Dikötter's book was translated into Chinese and published in China in 1999. After years of silence, Modern China Studies (Jindaishi yanjiu), published a review by Xie Wei (No. 5 (2007), pp. 7990)Google Scholar. While admitting that race had indeed been neglected by Chinese scholars, the author did feel Dikötter at times exaggerated racial implications in his interpretation of Chinese materials. Others openly questioned Dikötter's intent. For the latter, his “discourse of race” used post-modern rhetoric and sounded euphemistic but he really meant racism, and his purpose in writing this book was to show that China is just as racist as the West, “so why blame the West alone for racism?” Longji, Sun, “Dikötter on the Chinese racism,” Southern Metropolitan Weekly, 4 January 2009Google Scholar.

14 Lufrano, “The 1988 Nanjing incident,” p. 83.

15 Dikötter, Frank, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 82Google Scholar.

16 Hevi's, EmmanuelAn African Student in China (London: Pall Mall, 1963)Google Scholar revealed the author's experience as one of the first African students in the PRC who suffered from Chinese racism against blacks. After a Zanzibari student was beaten by a Chinese hotel worker in March 1962, African students protested and most returned to Africa.

17 Johnson, Race and Racism in Chinas, pp. 76–77, 144.

18 Sullivan, “The 1988-89 Nanjing anti-African protests,” p. 440.

19 I adopt “campus racism” from Dikötter who in “Racial identity in China” used the term once. “Cyber racism” was coined by Les Back but was systematically examined as a major form of white supremacy in the digital age by Daniels, Jessie in Cyber Racism, White Supremacy Online and the Attack on Civil Rights (Lanham, MD; Rowman & Littlefield, 2009)Google Scholar.

20 To what extent and how cyber materials can be treated with scholarly seriousness is an ongoing debate. The anonymity of the participants is one issue and that they tend to be more dramatic encouraged by identity protection is another. A major portion of the discussion examined in this article, however, is not anonymous (Liu Zhirong's two provocative online articles came with his true identity, occupation and even photographs). Where discussants were anonymous, the anonymity helps reveal true feelings and offers opportunities for more candid expressions on politically sensitive subjects.

21 ‘Chocolate city’ – Africans seeking their dreams in China,” The Southern Weekend, 23 January 2008Google Scholar. An earlier report was published by Guangzhou Daily on 13 December 2007, entitled “A survey of the survival and life of African tribes in Guangzhou.” The reports published after the African protest include Many thousands illegally reside; wholesale purchasing low-end merchandise while hiding from the police,” Global Times, 20 July 2009Google Scholar; Very close yet very alien – a survey on Guangzhou people's views of Africans,” Southern Metropolitan Weekly, 17 August 2009Google Scholar; Between love and pain: real life of African merchants in Guangzhou,” a series report by The Southern Weekend, from late July to early August 2009Google Scholar; and Blacks inhibit Guangzhou, creating five serious social problems and making race a potential hazard,” Southern Metropolitan Weekly, 17 August 2009Google Scholar.

22 “Chocolate city.”

25 The Chinese cyber discussion on Lou Jing, see

28 Translated and shortened by Xuyang Jingjing.

29 This World Bank project is named “Ethiopia – second road sector development support project,”

30 Liu said Badel hoped China would help to build a second Douala bridge on the river of Bonabéri in Cameron's capital to ease traffic pressure. When Liu told him the bridge would cost €30 million and China's per capita GDP was not much higher than Cameroon's, the minister simply repeated that “China's total GDP is high, your foreign currency reserve is number one in the world,” and therefore “you are obligated to help Africa.”

31 Written for Deutsche Welle's Chinese Service by Gu Xuewu, a Chinese professor of international politics at Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum, the article was pasted on numerous Chinese web pages and said to be a “German opinion.”

37 No longer accessible online.

38 This originally appeared at, a web page claiming to serve Chinese in Africa, but was later pasted at, a popular web page often visited by Chinese who claim to be “patriots” or “nationalists.” The Chinese name of the website means “iron and blood.”

39 In Chinese it reads, “非洲小国吼一吼, 中国也要抖三抖, 非洲小国放个屁, 中国也要倒吸气.”

40 In the incident, about 70 Chinese were rounded up and sent to a detention centre to check their passports and visas. A few Indians and Pakistanis were also included but released shortly afterwards, while all the Chinese were held in a basement for most of the day without water or food in the hottest season of the country. After handing over cash as bail or immigration fees, most were released by the end of the day. and

41 Michel, Serge and Beuret, Michel, China Safari, On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africa (New York: Nation Books, 2009)Google Scholar, especially the conclusion. Also, many authors of The China Quarterly's forum on Sino-African relations (No.199, 2009) discussed the issue.

42 Dobler, Gregor, “Chinese shops and the formation of a Chinese expatriate community in Namibia,” The China Quarterly, No.199 (2009), pp. 707–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I thank Dr Dobler for allowing me to read his article before publication.

43 The ministry of commerce: a significant amount of Chinese products exported to Africa are fake and inferior,” 21st Century Business Herald, 9 October 2009Google Scholar.

45 Chinese foreign ministry website,

46 Examples of illegal or indecent conduct are: “Violating the host country's laws by buying and selling contraband, fake or substandard products; evading taxes; bribing foreign government officials; etc.”; and “ignorant of local custom and code of behaviours; acting in confliction with local religious and customary taboos that generate disputes and anti-Chinese sentiments among some local folks.” Qingtian county government website,

47 One example of such accusation and counter-accusation is the discussion in the wake of the alleged Tanzanian anti-China incident (see n. 40). An online essay penned by “a Chinese of justice” criticized the Chinese embassy for “taking no action” (buzuowei). Later a poster, also in essay style, by “a true Chinese,” defended the embassy's response and questioned the intent of “a Chinese of justice,” saying that this criticism sounded like the falun gong and overseas political dissidents.

48 In online discussions, popular Chinese terms referring to non-Chinese are often racially explicit, such as wokou or xiaoguizi for Japanese, gaoli bangzi for Koreans, laomaozi for Russians, hongbizi a san for Indians, yangguizi for Westerners and huigui for blacks.

49 For the web discussion on the incident, see

50 Sautman, Barry, “Peking man and the politics of paleoanthropological nationalism in China,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 60, No. 1 (2001), p. 96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 For more discussions on the subject, see Schmalzer, Sigrid, The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and her “The very first lesson: teaching about human evolution in 1950s China,” in Brown, Jeremy and Pickowicz, Paul (eds.), Dilemmas of Victory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Chinese media coverage of Zhoukoudian's role in patriotic education, see;

52 The “River Elegy” claims “This yellow river, it so happens, bred a nation identified by its yellow skin pigment. Moreover, this nation also refers to its earliest ancestor as the Yellow Emperor. Today, on the face of the earth, of every five human beings there is one that is a descendant of the Yellow Emperor.” Dikötter suggested that “narratives of ‘race’ attempt to root culture in nature, to equate social groups with biological units, to primordialize the imagined or real congenial endowments of people,” and such narratives often do not recognize the common origin of human being.” Dikötter, “Racial identities in China,” p. 404.

53 Sautman, Barry, “Myths of descent, racial nationalism, and ethnic minorities in the People's Republic of China,” in Dikötter, Frank (ed.), The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan (London: Hurst, 1997), pp. 7591Google Scholar.

54 The song was composed by Hou Dejian, a college student in Taiwan, in 1978. It was immediately acclaimed as signifying Taiwanese nationalism in the young generation. But since the early 1980s and with Hou fleeing to the mainland, it has been enormously popular in China and won official recognition, even after Hou's involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement (he was one of the four intellectuals, including Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who joined the students' hunger strike at Tiananmen Square). Hou himself wanted to replace the line “black eyes, black hair and yellow skin” after he visited north-eastern China in 1983 and encountered non-Han ethnic minorities, and announced the change in May 1989 at a mass rally in Hong Kong supporting the Tiananmen student movement. He particularly referred to Wu'er Kaixi, the student leader who is a not Han but Uyghur Chinese, for the change. The line has remained unchanged in the song's officially recommended version. See Dejian, Hou, Huo tou zi zheng zhuan (Autobiography) (Taipei: Lianjin publisher, 1991)Google Scholar. For the 100 “patriotic songs” recommended in May 2009, see People's Daily website

55 Some of the songs created after Hou's include “My Chinese heart,” “The Chinese,” “The Chinese nation,” “I am Chinese,” “The hymn to the Chinese,” “We possess the name ‘Chinese’,” “The youth, the Chinese heart,” “The Chinese language” and “Roots and arteries.”

56 For the song's lyrics in Chinese, see One netizen changed the lyrics on the ground that the Olympics were over but the song should stay forever. “5,000 years” was changed to “300 years” to indicate that China only lagged behind in modern history, more in line with mainstream historical narrative. The changed lyrics are laden with hatred and violence.

57 Lin, M., Women liu zhe bu tong de xueye (We Have Different Bloods) (Taiwan: Qianwei publisher, 2010)Google Scholar. The author is the founder of Taiwan's blood bank and blood transfusion system. Mainland patriotic scientists have denounced her as supporting Taiwan independence by providing pseudo-scientific data.

58 Mosse, George L., “Racism and nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1995), p. 167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar