Magazine article The Nation

The Anti-African Protests; More Than Just Chinese Racism

Magazine article The Nation

The Anti-African Protests; More Than Just Chinese Racism

Article excerpt

Large racial demonstrations in China, like those that took place in Nanjing recently, seem inconceivable. Anyone who has spent a year there - as I did, teaching American politics-would not expect such events to happen in that remote city, much less make world headlines. When you're there, you get the sense of being isolated from the rest of the planet; printed news and mail from abroad arrive a week late, and the BBC and Voice of America broadcasts are filled with static and beeps.

So, in a way, was U.S. news coverage of the demonstrations. Much of it came from Beijing, hundreds of miles from the angry clashes in Nanjing, and left many gaps. To try to fill them in, I called several old friends at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanj ing University Center for Chinese and American Studies and asked many questions. Their answers may be surprising to those who remember the old China under Chairman Mao. My friends argued that official accounts dismissing the demonstrations as "isolated incidents" were incorrect. Nor were the protests purely or only a manifestation of virulent racism, even though this is undeniably widespread in the People's Republic.

The demonstrations had other roots. The 140 African students at Nanjing universities - vestiges of the old revolutionary commitments of Chinese foreign policy-were a convenient, if misplaced, scapegoat for the great strains and frustrations that have accompanied economic reform and modernization throughout the country, including Nanjing. Nine years ago the Chinese Communist regime introduced free market reforms that have produced the new affluence so evident to Chinese and foreign visitors. But in Nanjing and elsewhere the reforms have also swelled the urban underclass of unemployed and underemployed young people. While Chinese television and the press are full of success stories that would make Horatio Alger blush, there are many who have been left out in the cold by reforms that make it harder to get and keep a job, receive a decent education or assume a respectable place in Chinese society.

It was those Chinese who had lost the most, my friends reported, who assembled outside the Hopkins-Nanjing Center the night after Christmas, demanding to know if the center was "sheltering Africans." And the same groups of discontented young people surrounded the Nanjing train station after the African students took refuge there. Youthful protesters also formed the majority of those milling around Gulou Square singing, of all things, the "Internationale" and chanting for vengeance on African students for the alleged violence committed at a party at nearby Hehai University. The demonstrators resented the privileges supposedly accorded African students but not Chinese citizens.

The real target, however, was the Chinese government and the new economic order it has brought about. If capitalism is now a good word in China, democracy is not. In its absence, the safest way to embarrass the government is to avoid direct confrontations with the party and state and instead target those who are most dependent on the government for protection and special privileges. Chinese society is divided into those who enjoy such privileges and those who don't. Those who do are the new stratum of entrepreneurs and the old stratum of party officialdom. They have things like motor scooters, cars, foreign-made color televisions and the freedom to travel abroad, thanks to access to foreigners or to hard currency.

While the Nanjing demonstrators were almost all young, they were a varied lot, apparent in the different emphases of what they shouted. The most prominent group was of university students-those most likely to sing the "Internationale" and downplay the narrowly racist elements of the demonstration. …

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