One of the most remarkable things about the Chinese government is its shamelessness in arguing with its critics. Any criticism can be rebutted, even if the rebuttals contradict themselves.
According to the regime, China cannot be racist, because it has 536 ethnicities and respects them all equally, even the Uyghurs. China is a peace-loving nation which is only building installations in the South China Sea for science and research. Oh, and because it owns the whole sea. Honest. There might be huge armaments there, but China is a peace-loving nation which would never invade another. China is both an upholder of international free trade, according to Xi at Davos, and a socialist state opposed to imperialism and exploitation everywhere, according to Xi in the Communist party journal Qiushi.
Of course, Vietnam in 1979 might argue otherwise, while those manning Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese fishing boats and Japanese embassies may also object. And there was certainly little peacefulness during the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and 1989 democracy protests (which occurred nationwide, not just in Tiananmen Square).
Then there is how China protests when its media is blocked in the US in the name of free speech, even after hundreds of Western outlets and social media sites are blocked in China itself.
Any argument will do. Logical gaps and contradictions don’t matter, as spokesmen and spokeswomen alike manage to somehow stop themselves noticing that what they are saying applies to China. Perhaps this might be called “bricolage”, after Derrida’s essay, “Structure, Sign And Play In The Discourse Of The Human Sciences”, according to which:
“The bricoleur, says Lévi-Strauss, is someone who uses “the means at hand,” that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary.”
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Or perhaps it is just sheer brass neck and chutzpah. Certainly, the more aggressive style brought by foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian doesn’t suggest a great deal of quiet self-examination or care for diplomatic niceties.
Either way, Chinese official pronouncements can verge on the ludicrous. The recent dismissals of a series of allegations (often backed up by video footage) of racist incidents towards Africans in China recently has been a case in point.
“We do not have discrimination in China against African brothers,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “It is irresponsible and immoral for the U.S. to sow discord. Its attempt to drive a wedge between China and Africa will never succeed.”
The US had warned that Africans were facing discrimination in China.
The incidents stemmed from what is itself a fairly remarkable turnaround: the Chinese government’s attempt to suggest that the coronavirus originated from outside China, with spokesman Zhao Lijian floating the idea that it came from the US army. As part of this narrative, China swiftly moved to record the number of coronavirus infections coming from outside China, to instil the sense of it being an external problem.
As a result, foreigners were barred from shops and restaurants as they began to reopen following the coronavirus lockdown. And when five Nigerians tested positive for COVID-19 in Guangzhou, China, the government ordered a 14-day self-quarantine for all residents of African descent.
But some businesses went further, as reports emerged of Africans sleeping on the streets after being evicted from their homes and video footage showed shops and restaurants refusing entry. This led to a formal protest with a letter from African Ambassadors in Beijing “immediately demand[ing] the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.”
This was shameful but not surprising. China’s racism towards Africans has long been obvious, but it tends to go under the radar. Most Chinese do not accept it is a problem, but there are no laws prohibiting racial discrimination. There have been occasional outcries, as when an advert for soap powder saw a black man magically “washed” to become white. There’s also a grinning black man toothpaste brand. Job adverts for foreign staff in China regularly explicitly exclude non-white applicants.
Serious racial tensions in Guangzhou, home of the largest African population in China, meant riots broke out in 2009 and 2012, which led to immigration controls being tightened.
One institution at least took a stand for truthfulness and apologised for its role in these incidents. McDonalds apologised for its branch in Guangzhou refusing to admit Africans, saying, “Immediately upon learning of an unauthorised communication to our guests at a restaurant in Guangzhou, we immediately removed the communication and temporarily closed the restaurant.” It added that it had subsequently conducted “diversity and inclusion” training in the branch.
So it turns out that the incidents had occurred after all. Somehow it has come to the point where a burger vendor, with its own patchy record in truth-telling, is more open and honest with the public than the government of the People’s Republic of China.