I’ve been spending the last week sitting in my apartment in Shanghai watching yet another explosion of anger against racism in American society. This time the epicenter was less than a ten-minute walk from where I used to live. I’ve got a whole mess of emotions about everything that I’m not going to write about here. Instead, let’s learn a little bit about the interesting history of the movement for Black power and China.
Resolutely support Black Americans in their righteous struggle
Back in 1963, Chairman Mao gave a speech entitled “Statement Supporting the American Negroes in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism.” During the speech, Mao highlighted the events of the American Civil Rights movement. From the fight for school desegregation in Little Rock to the murder of Medgar Evans in Mississippi.
He called for “the workers, peasants, revolutionary intellectuals, enlightened elements of the bourgeoisie and other enlightened persons of all colors in the world, whether white, black, yellow or brown, to unite to oppose the racial discrimination practiced by U.S. imperialism and support the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination.” He finished saying “the evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people.”
Other speeches and pamphlets by the Chinese Communist Party supported the Black Power movement in China. Explicit parallels were drawn between the plight of African-Americans and the plight of pre-revolution China as a semi-colonial country.
According to Joseph Stalin, and thus the USSR, African Americans were a separate nationality. They had the right, like any nationality, to secede from the US and form their own country if they wanted.
Mao, on the other hand, argued that African-Americans should not form their own country. Instead they should unite with the poor and working class of other races to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. In 1968 he said “the black masses and the masses of white working people in the United States share common interests and have common objectives to struggle for.”
I have to admit I agree with the chairman here. However, it can be (and has been) argued that he was saying this based more on domestic political needs rather than a matter of principle. Mao and the CCP were trying to build a national identity in a massive country full of ethnic and cultural diversity. But who knows? I’m not going to try and guess what was going on in Mao’s head.
China and the liberation of Africa
After World War II, the former European colonies collapsed and former colonies in Asia and Africa struggled for independence. China fully supported many of these struggles, arguing that they shared “a common interest in the wiping out of colonialism.”
Millions of dollars and weapons were sent to African liberation movements, from Algeria to Zambia, to help fight against imperialism. Chinese doctors treated wounds, and Chinese experts in guerilla warfare helped train soldiers. China was also an early supporter of the ANC in South Africa. The U.S., on the other hand, supported the Apartheid regime up until pretty much the end.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union were also involved in these independence struggles. The U.S. was busy promoting a smooth transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism, where free markets and business interests could prosper from independence. China initially promoted itself as a global opposition to not only old colonialism, but the U.S.’s neo-colonialism too.
However, after China split with the USSR, it found an unlikely ally in the United States. The two countries worked together to undermine Soviet influence in Africa. China even went as far as to briefly cooperate with Apartheid South Africa to aid groups fighting against the Soviet backed MPLA in Angola. Was it an unfortunate but necessary deal with the devil or evidence that the support for Black power of China in Africa wasn’t all that pure to begin with? I don’t know. History is messy.
Things were messy in China, as well. Despite the pro-Africa stance of the government, there were clashes between regular Chinese people and Black people in the country. In 1979 there were physical confrontations between Chinese and African students in Shanghai. In 1988 in Nanjing, 300 Chinese students attacked an African students’ dormitory after two African men showed up to a party with Chinese women.
Black power and China in America
Still, the massive support China gave to African independence movements registered with many African Americans. Mao and China earned a lot of respect and admiration among more radical members of the Civil Rights movement.
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, toured both China and the Soviet Union in 1958. He celebrated his 91st birthday in Beijing and met with Mao personally. The Black Panthers famously raised money by selling Mao’s Little Red Book on the street corners of Harlem.
Elaine Brown, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers, went to China in 1970 and talked about how impressed she was with the country’s achievements. “Old and young would spontaneously give emotional testimonies, like Baptist converts, to the glories of socialism.”
Founding Panther, Huey P. Newton, described his experiences in China as a “sensation of freedom—as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense or pretense or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life—completely free among my fellow men.”
Newton also seemed to agree with Mao’s view of the struggle of Blacks in America. “Blacks in the U.S. have a special duty to give up any claim to nationhood now more than ever,” he said. “The U.S. has never been our country; and realistically there’s no territory for us to claim. Of all the oppressed people in the world, we are in the best position to inspire global revolution.”
The article “Black Like Mao” gets into more details about Mao’s influence on African American radicals during the 60s and 70s. The authors argue that China provided a powerful ‘non-white’ counterweight to the feuding U.S. and USSR. Radicals viewed China as a leader in the global movement for third world liberation. It also probably didn’t hurt that the Chinese Communist Party supported the Black Power movement in the U.S. loudly and vocally.
The leaders of the Black Panthers were invited on an official visit to China a full year before U.S. president Richard Nixon. That’s a pretty powerful statement.
Big trouble in Little Africa
The support of Black power in China might have died with Mao. I somehow doubt that China’s going to be inviting leaders of Black Lives Matter to Beijing any time soon. Maybe they will, what do I know. But, much like history, things are also complex and messy today.
Thousands of Africans live in the city of Guangzhou, in a neighborhood referred to as “Chocolate City” by some, “Little Africa” by others. Guangzhou, of course, was the site of numerous discriminatory incidents last month, in relation to rumors about the coronavirus. You can read more about it here.
The government and the Communist Party have since issued numerous statements reiterating that all people are to be treated equally under Chinese law. Guangdong province (where Guangzhou is located) issued a decree saying businesses “shall strictly offer equal services in accordance with laws and regulations to all Chinese and foreign nationals in Guangdong.” Even in Shanghai, a government statement encouraged parents to teach kids not to discriminate. China’s got a lot of trade with Africa now, and doesn’t likely want to fuck it up by pissing off the Africans living in China.
But, as we know in the U.S., even the best government intentions to prevent discrimination don’t always trickle down to the people. Now, I’m not Black, so I can’t speak directly to that experience. There are a couple interesting blog posts here and here.
These seem to sum up what I’ve heard from talking to people. One woman I met at a bar once was pretty frustrated with the microaggressions she faced on a daily basis in China. On the other hand, a friend of ours who lives in Beijing laughs it off and for the most part has nothing but good things to say about China. Again, I can’t speak directly to those experiences.
Day to day racism in China
I have, however, heard some racist statements from Chinese people. One of my students, referring to a Black teacher at our school, actually said “I think she’s ugly because she’s Black.” Another parent got upset when that same teacher filled for her daughter’s class. America has been pretty good at projecting a very white-washed image of itself to the world, and many Chinese people have a hard time believing that someone with dark skin could be an authentic American.
Rachle is very white, and the parents love her. She constantly gets comments from Chinese people in stores or on the streets about how pretty her skin is. Skin whiteners are common beauty products. Chinese women add whitening filters to their selfies. I’ve heard this is a thing in Korea and Japan too, but I don’t know for sure, or really know where it comes from.
On the other hand, people here absolutely love Obama and LeBron James. There’s a pretty big hip-hop subculture here in Shanghai too. And nobody here is getting lynched or shot by the police.
A part of me also wonders if Trump’s anti-China policies will swing the Chinese in support of Black Lives Matter. Thus far, the attitude of the government and most Chinese people seems to be along the lines of “how the hell can the U.S. lecture us on human rights when this is going on in their country?”
Who knows how race will factor into things as China moves further from communism to capitalism? Or socialism with Chinese characteristics?
Still, in the 60s, the FBI was investigating civil rights leaders, and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most hated men in the country. On the other side of the world, the Chinese Communist Party was putting up posters with Black power slogans throughout China and the Black Panthers toured the halls of power in Beijing.