On this year's Spring Festival Gala on CCTV a tasteless comedy skit about China-Kenya relations got all the attention. Because the controversy that surrounded the skit touched on multiple areas of my research, I decided to write a piece for The Conversation, a platform that publishes commentaries mostly by academics, but aimed a general audience. My contribution was subsequently picked by Quartz and accumulated over 59,000 hits. I don't know if that is a lot or not, but it seems quite an impressive number, if one considers the limited audience of most of my research papers. Anyway, as usual, I decided to publish here an early draft of the commentary.
For most Chinese people, the Spring Festival is a time to honour family ties, friendships and acquaintances.
This is what producers of this year’s Annual Spring Festival Gala on China’s national broadcaster, CCTV, probably had in mind when they agreed to include a comedy skit about the growing ties between China and African countries called “Celebrating Together” (同喜同乐).
In a celebration of Sino-African friendship, what could go wrong? In fact, quite a lot.
The 13-minute long skit opens with dozens of African performers, alongside antelopes and a lion, dancing to the tune of Shakira’s “Waka Waka”, all rejoicing over the opening of the China-built Nairobi to Mombasa Railway. They are joined by a group of Kenyan train attendants and the female lead, a Gabonese actress speaking fluent Mandarin.
And, then, a well-known Chinese actress in full blackface comes on stage.
In less than 12 hours, descriptions of the skit were all over international media -- always ready to run a “China, the foe” story. Turning to the Twittersphere, the public opinion thermometer of the twenty-first century, journalists found a divided audience: many called it racist, others argued it was not.
While the skit was clearly not ill-intentioned, it was both culturally and racially insensitive, it reeked of propaganda, and relied on all the stereotypes about Africa that Chinese media claim to be debunking in their public diplomacy activities in the continent.
Chinese representations of Africa
It is not the first time that a Chinese State-sanctioned production misrepresents Africa and African people is such a grotesque manner. Last summer, the movie Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing Chinese film ever, managed to bring together in a single movie all the clichés of Hollywood’s White-saviour subgenre: an unnamed African country affected by a deadly disease descends into chaos as civil war erupts. That is, until a Chinese mercenary comes to the rescue.
All film scripts in China must be pre-approved before production starts and need to receive a final green light before they are released. CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala also goes through multiple stages of supervision. Sometimes, movies and TV acts are tossed out because a red flag is raised. None were risen this time.
Neither Wolf Warrior 2 nor the Spring Festival Gala were conceived with global audiences in mind. They are cultural artefacts that speak to domestic audiences and, as such, they are tuned to the so-called main melody. Culture in Socialist China needs to be aesthetically attractive to the masses, but remain politically aligned with the doctrine of the Communist Party.
For global audiences, China has a different repertoire of media. Part of Beijing’s quest to improve its image overseas, it has promoted the expansion of companies such as CGTN, Xinhua, China Daily or StarTimes. All these have a strong presence in Africa, where they claim to be presenting a different view of the continent and its people.
These efforts, welcome by many, are hit hard every time a gaffe, such as the CCTV’s skit, goes on air.
Africa in the media and China’s rise
In China, as elsewhere, media portrayals of Africa tend to err on similar sides. The continent is routinely treated as a single unit, erasing its linguistic, racial and cultural diversity. It is too often associated to essentializing colonial imagery, such as savannahs and safaris. And its transformations over the last thirty years reduced to a market logic, under the tagline of “Africa rising”.
While misrepresentations of Africa are not an exclusive problem of Chinese media, two things set China apart.
As the release of Black Panther has shown, many in the United States are ready to engage in an open discussion about how the US movie industry has, for decades, failed to address racial biases.
In China, criticism of the CCTV African skit on social media has been censored. This is not surprising, given that, every year, Chinese censors work hard to erase negative comments of a show that has gone from being a must-watch for many Chinese families to a source of memes and jokes for younger generations.
However, online or offline, China needs to have a conversation about racial insensitivity, which is, too common and too often dismissed as cultural specificity. The argument goes on like this: while something might be considered offensive in the “West”, it is not in China. End of the debate.
In its media strategy, Beijing has long kept a double narrative, one for domestic consumption and another one for global audiences. This worked in a pre-Internet era. Today, the domestic and the global cannot be kept separate.
If China truly aspires to be regarded as a responsible global actor, it needs to find appropriate mechanisms to prevent controversies like the one created by the offensive CCTV skit. There is no shortage of Africanists at Chinese universities, whose expertise could be sought regularly by media companies.
More importantly, when errors are made, and Chinese leaders need to accept that nobody is infallible, Beijing needs to be ready to acknowledge its mistakes.
Foreign companies, and sometimes foreign media, are forced to issue an apology when their actions are deemed to hurt Chinese people.
Will CCTV be offering one?