Are Chinese Racist or Simply Politically Incorrect?

Barack Obama, U.S. presidential candidate, (Flickr photo/PEEL)

, U.S. presidential candidate, (Flickr photo/PEEL)

Allen Yu from Fool’s Mountain: Blogging for China comments on a recent Times article about the U.S. presidential candidate, Barack Obama, and in Asia, and debates whether it is or political correctness:

It’s common knowledge that when it comes to racial remarks, Chinese people (and perhaps Asians in general) are not the most politically correct people in the world… Recently, I came across an interesting article in Times Magazine (in relation to the U.S. Presidential politics) regarding racism in Asia. Unfortunately, I believe the author falls into many pitfalls that many Westerners make when it comes to Asian racism.

The article started out fair enough:

“Early this year my wife and I watched Venus Williams, one of the world’s finest tennis players, compete in Hong Kong. During the match several young men sitting near us kept referring in Cantonese to Williams as “black demon,” as well as another unprintable epithet. They shut up when my wife, an American citizen who is ethnic Chinese, berated them for their racist language. (Williams, by the way, won the tournament.) What, I wonder today, would those men say about Barack Obama, who soon could be the U.S.’s first African-American President?”

While the term “black demon” (黑鬼) can be used as a derogatory term for black people (equivalent terms for white people include 洋鬼子 (western demons) and 鬼佬 (foreign devils)), in the South, especially in the Canton area, the term 黑鬼 appears to have been incorporated into daily language and currently carries no derogatory connotation.

To really carry negative connotations in the Cantonese dialect (one of the most “colorful” of Chinese dialects), you would have to add explicit expletives as in 死黑鬼) – i.e. “damn black demon.”

And while misunderstanding of racism by a Western journalist is understandable, the history of is not completely unfounded. The original Times article by Zoher Abdoolcarim continues on the anti-racism law in Hong Kong and the idea of institutional racism in other Asian countries:

In many countries, ethnic divisions are institutionalized, with strict laws governing what one race can and cannot do. In largely homogenous Japan, it’s extremely difficult for a non-Japanese to become a citizen even if born there. In Malaysia, an affirmative-action program gives preference to Malays over the country’s sizable Chinese and Indian populations in everything from university places to government contracts. In Pakistan, Punjabis, the dominant ethnic group, are favored for key positions in the powerful military and civil service. Government leaders argue that these kinds of measures help maintain harmony. Maybe so, but it is a superficial harmony that reinforces stereotypes and hinders the creation, in the long run, of genuine tolerance and understanding.

Even Hong Kong, one of the world’s worldliest cities (and where TIME has its Asian headquarters), can be astonishingly parochial. For instance, Hong Kong enacted antidiscrimination legislation only very recently. Before, it was perfectly legal for a landlord to deny renting an apartment to an otherwise qualified tenant simply because of his or her skin color. One of my colleagues, an Indian national who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two years, still gets stopped by police for no given reason and told to present his ID. When he complains, the cops merely shrug. In Asia, it is acceptable to be racist, or at least unapologetic about being so.

A similar argument on race and the U.S. presidential race has been debated in Japan in the Asahi Shimbun.

While the Times article comments on general racism, more news stories have focused on ethnic minority discrimination.

Read also CDT’s stories on Chinese racism and the Chinese reactions to the current 2008 U.S. election.

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