The forgotten alliance between Black activists and ChinaBreaking News
tags: racism, China, African American history, international relations
Chang Che is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.
At the recent Emmy Awards ceremony, Asian actress Sandra Oh lent her support to Black Lives Matter, donning a jacket with the message “Black lives are precious” in Korean. Her gesture of support offered a glimpse into contemporary expressions of Asian-Black solidarity. Over the past few months, such expressions of solidarity have come from all corners of the globe. In the aftermath of nationwide protests against police violence and anti-Black racism, for example, inhabitants of both Tokyo and Seoul extended an international call for racial justice.
Yet the most vocal support for Black lives from Asia came from the representatives of Beijing. State-run media outlets such as the Global Times and the China Daily published hundreds of articles related to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest. Lijian Zhao, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, described the United States’ race problem as a “social ill” and argued that “Black Lives Matter and their human rights should be protected.” Another spokesperson, Hua Chunying, affirmed a now common refrain of the movement by tweeting, “I can’t breathe.”
China’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement seems opportunistic, given its own poor record on human rights. But throughout the early to mid-20th century, China’s leaders and Black activists did find common cause on the issue of racism. They collaborated to challenge global racism, drawing on their shared experiences and histories. Their solidarity represented one thread in a global tapestry of anti-racist activism — an elaborate network that joined Black Americans at home to the struggle of colonial subjects abroad. That history of Black internationalism, and its arrival in China, is what Communist leaders seek to exploit today. It serves as a stark reminder of a timeless truth: that the United States’ racial legacy is as much a form of diplomacy as it is an arm of domestic politics.
Black internationalist affinities with China began during the age of empire. In 1911, when the Qing dynasty collapsed under repeated foreign incursions, Black activists saw commonalities in the experiences of Chinese people, who had also endured racial subjugation under Western imperialism. Like White anxieties about Black emancipation during Reconstruction, China’s resistance to colonial rule triggered a fear of a “yellow peril” to White Christendom. Edward Cooper, a prominent Black journalist at the time, wrote that he “did not blame the Chinese for resenting the interference of foreigners.” According to the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, a prominent Black newspaper, China’s subsequent transformation into a Western-style republic was the embodiment of a quest for racial parity from an “Oriental’s — and aye, a colored man’s — point of view.”
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