Tinted prejudice in China

American Kris Derban, who has lived in China for eight years, pictured at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Story highlights

  • Non-white foreigners living in China report more instances of prejudice
  • African Americans report greater difficulty getting cabs, suspicions of criminal behavior
  • Study: Chinese perceptions have improved since election of U.S. President Barack Obama
  • The signing of celebrated black athletes to Chinese teams is also improving relations
A Caucasian American businessman gets into a cab in Beijing. At first he's relieved-- the last few taxis passed straight by him, which is not unusual-- it can be difficult for non-Chinese nationals to get a cab. But then comes an uncomfortable question from the driver: "Isn't it difficult living in a country with so many black people?"
A question that highlighted another issue: while non-Chinese nationals can have trouble getting a cab, it can be even worse for those with darker skin.
Project manager Kris Derban has lived in China for eight years. He long suspected that taxis were not picking him up because he is an African-American. Recently his suspicions were confirmed when he asked a driver why he had hesitated to take him. "The driver said, 'I worry Africans will run off and not pay.'"
But catching a cab isn't the only problem. Another common misconception Derban has to contend with is that he is a drug dealer, he said. "I'll be with a group of friends and someone specifically comes up to ask me if I have drugs. At first I was offended. Now I tease them and say: 'No, do you have drugs?'"
Derban laughs off such incidents, finding humor in the ignorance. Others have been less fortunate.
Liberian student David Johnson moved to China just two months ago. He said he has already been subjected to several racist remarks. "One time I was walking down the street and someone called me a stupid black c***," he reported.
"Maybe it was because I was with a Chinese girl and they don't like that."
Reports of this kind of racism date back to when Africans were first welcomed into China to study at Chinese universities in the 1960s. And in 1988, a violent, 300-strong mob broke into an African students' dormitory at Nanjing University and destroyed their possessions while chanting "down with the black devils."
An Indian businessman at a wholesale market in Yiwu, China, where tensions flared between Indian and Chinese traders earlier this year.
The number of Africans and foreigners living in China has risen significantly since then. Communities have grown up in major cities such as Guangzhou, where 20,000 Africans now live, according to official figures. Some scholars, trying to account for the number of undocumented migrants, put the estimate at around 200,000.
However, "even in those cities where there is now a concentration of black people, still most Chinese have little to no contact with them," said Barry Sautman, a professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology who specializes in the issue of race in China. As such, their ideas about blacks are largely shaped by the media, Sautman, said, adding, "In the media, Africa is portrayed as a house of horrors, with a huge number of people dying from diseases, wars and extremely high crime rates."
Cultural bias against dark skin
But it is not just Africans and those of African descent who report prejudices in China; others with darker skin are also affected.
Hatim Shah from Mumbai in India has worked in finance in China for six years. He recalled Beijing's visa crackdown on foreigners working or living illegally in the city around the time of the 2008 Olympics.
"I was set to move into a house, but when I went with the landlord to the police station to register, he told me I couldn't live there because the police didn't want brown people in the vicinity," he recalled. "My white South African roommate had no problem." Although Shah believes the situation has since improved, he still feels that "if you are brown here, you are not equal."