“Racism for Sale” Investigation Rekindles Debate Over Exploitation in China-Africa Relationship

This week, BBC Africa Eye released a documentary titled “Racism for Sale,” an investigation by Runako Celina and Henry Mhango into the Chinese video-making industry built on the exploitation of vulnerable Africans. Celina and Mhango traveled to a village in Malawi to track down the Chinese producer of one viral video, in which young African children are made to repeat the lines: “I am a Black devil. I have a very low IQ. Yeah!” Videos like these are part of a niche market that has expanded during the pandemic, with some agents recording up to 200 videos per day, as the customers in China who commission them seek entertainment or diversion. But their exploitative origins and racist themes, newly exposed by the BBC, have outraged both African and Chinese netizens who now demand accountability.

The BBC investigation uncovered an abusive system behind the creation of these videos. Interviews with dozens of Malawians revealed that the video producer, Lu Ke (known in the village as “Susu,” or “Uncle”), incentivized the children to skip school in order to make the videos, paid them less than one US dollar per day while he earned tens of thousands of dollars himself, and even beat them if they made mistakes. The children, some as young as three years old, did not understand what they were saying in Chinese, nor were they learning the language, contrary to Lu Ke’s claims. In an undercover meeting, he openly shared racist views about Africans, and offered advice such as “No matter their family situation, never pity them.”

Malawian officials have expressed their indignation and vowed to take action. Minister of Foreign Affairs Nancy Tembo said she was “disgusted, disrespected and deeply pained.” In a press conference on Monday, she stated: “This can’t be happening. Not in this era and certainly not on our land. […] Our children deserve better.” Minister of Gender, Community Development, and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati stated: “The director of child affairs is already on the ground investigating the matter. This is an abuse to Malawian children and Malawi as a nation.” On Monday, Malawian police began an investigation.

Malawian civil society groups were the most vocal in speaking out, and some were dissatisfied by the government response. Sylvester Namiwa, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI), said “There is nothing akin to seriousness and urgency in their statements,” and warned against “any attempts to downplay the issue or help the suspect to beat the long arm of the law.” In local outlet Malawi Voice, Iommie Chiwalo reported on the CDEDI’s demands of the Malawian and Chinese governments

[A]ccording to CDED’s investigations, the suspect, who, reportedly, was previously charged with human trafficking offences, is no longer in the country.

[…] CDEDI has therefore given authorities seven (7) working days to bring to book Mr. Lu Ke and that if the suspect has really bolted as feared, the onus is on the Chinese Government to bring him back to Malawi to face the law.

[… Namiwa] has also demanded that the Chinese Ambassador must make a public apology to Malawians, in particular the black community.

Additionally, the CDEDI boss has given state agencies such as the Immigration Department, the Malawi Police Service and the Malawi Trade and Investment Centre 48 hours to flush out all Chinese nationals staying or doing business in the country illegally. [Source]

Thursday, June 16, happened to be the International Day of the African Child, whose theme this year is “Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children.” The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) released a press statement that day that explicitly chastised Lu Ke for “exploiting vulnerable children locally to produce racist videos,” and called on the Malawian government to “swiftly investigate and prosecute those involved in this violation.” In local Malawian outlet The Nation, Lloyd Chitsulo described how other civil society groups demanded protection for Malawi’s children

University of Malawi Child Rights Legal Clinic under the [University of Malawi] Faculty of Law yesterday described the video as disgusting and further said they expect authorities to use relevant laws to ensure appropriate remedies are applied to the damage done to the children.

[…] “We expect the State of Malawi in line with its duties under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its own laws to ensure that the State of China takes measures to remedy the damage done to the children in the video and undertake that its nationals will not engage in such racist, exploitative and degrading actions against the children of Malawi.”

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has urged relevant authorities to do a thorough assessment of the facts exposed by the documentary and seek further information to establish the full extent of child rights violations. [Source]

As pressure mounted and progress stalled, some groups decided to take action into their own hands. On Thursday, Child Rights Legal Clinic supervisor Garton Kamchedzera announced plans for a mass protest on June 21, “starting from Njerwa where the exploitation took place and [ending] at the Chinese Embassy, where we will deliver a petition to Chinese authorities in Malawi.” On Friday, the MHRC announced it was launching its own investigation, criticizing both Lu Ke and the Malawian government for failing to respond two years ago when the “black devil” video first emerged.

The collective outrage was picked up by media outlets in Malawi and across the African continent. Local outlet Malawi 24 cited its own Twitter poll suggesting that Malawians favoured Lu Ke’s prosecution over immediate deportation, and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation ran multiple TV segments covering the incident. Beyond Malawi, Kenyan outlet The Standard published an editorial blasting the racist abuse by “Chinese beasts” and calling for the law to be applied “mercilessly”:

That is unacceptable. China is our development partner, but its citizens in Africa must be guided by the laws of their host countries. In Kenya, for instance, our laws emphasise zero tolerance to discrimination and segregation. Any foreigner who does not respect our sovereignty and abuses Africans must face the full wrath of the law, not deportation. We must stop treating Chinese monsters with kid gloves.

Racist and dehumanising treatment have no place in today’s world. Africans might be poor, but we hold our heads high. What separates us and the Chinese is the colour of our skins and geographical locations.

African governments must stamp their feet down and say no to such misconduct. Any allegations of racism must never be brushed aside […] The law must be applied mercilessly on those found culpable. Failure to do so will only embolden more barbaric racial bigots from the Orient. [Source]

Commenting under the BBC documentary on YouTube, many Malawians and Africans living in China shared their reactions of pain, sadness, and disgust at the exploitation:

Emmanuel Mwanyongo: As a Malawian, it’s very painful to watch this documentary. It’s high time Africa and its leaders rose up and defended our dignity.

Andrew Inglis: As Malawian its really disheartening to watch this  These kids deserve Justice

John Chapola: As a Malawian this has hurt me deeply, to ask these children to say that and take these videos for profit is quite shocking. I hope justice is served for these kids.

Natalya Mariette: As a Malawian I am deeply disturbed and heartbroken at the fact that someone comes here pretending to help these beautiful kids and ends up exploiting them,demeaning them and abusing them verbally and physically just because they’re African and poor? This is so heartbreaking, I’m at a loss for words.

Ernest Sebastian: As a Malawian citizen, I am in tears… I can’t believe this is happening in broad daylight without us saying a word. And somebody had to come all the way from a very far country just to educate us on this??

254 short trendy stories: As an African living in China I totally agree with the issues raised on this documentary,it’s really disgusting and saddening that most of us have aired these concerns in the Chinese media but still ignored,ridiculed more and most of all labeled all sorts of racist slurs especially on (douyin) a Chinese media platform same as TikTok.i applaud these journalists who took that step to travel all the way there and Shame the devil .

roman shao: As an African living in china this video is so devastating and it’s high time for us as  African to stand up and work for the goods of our continent .. there’s no one from outside Africa that will come to help and save us. [Source]

Some Malawians on social media also directed their anger towards their own government. One journalist accused the police of hypocrisy for reacting too slowly compared to other less explosive cases. Another journalist pointed out that the Malawian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after being inactive on Twitter since June 2, tweeted on Wednesday not about the incident but about a Chinese scholarship opportunity, one day after the Foreign Minister met with a Chinese delegation. Netizen comments under the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Facebook post sharing the documentary called for accountability and expressed frustration that their own government and domestic media had failed to detect the abuse:

Cee Captain Cee Sparrow: It takes a British Broadcasting corporation to find out this bad behaviour happening in our own country while MBC is busy doing the propaganda 

Evance Shawa: So pathetic and disgusting knowing that our local journalists failed us to the point that we’re hearing this kind of thing from foreign reports

Vincent Alfred: Such people deserve stiffer punishment. I would be very disappointed if these guys are still enjoying fresh air out there

Luke Wa Chimwaza: Immediate action needed.

Azeze Soko: He must be arrested, sentenced and imprisoned before deportation [Source]

In China, the BBC documentary garnered a notable amount of sympathy from netizens. Some were deeply critical of Lu Ke’s racist behavior and called on Chinese expatriates to stop exploiting African children. One Weibo user posted: “For this kind of issue, discussion is a positive thing, because it gives people a clearer understanding of racial issues, China-Africa relations, and the role of Europe and the United States. It also makes them realize that they need to accept responsibility. Burying our heads in the sand isn’t conducive to raising awareness or avoiding such odious incidents in the future, for these incidents harm the relationship and hurt people’s feelings on both sides.” Popular science writer and noted “debunker” Fang Shimin tweeted about China’s “perverse industry” shown in the BBC documentary, and many Chinese comments, translated by CDT, expressed outrage and noted that this sort of behavior will hurt China’s global image:

@Larry04400765: At first glance, this kind of video makes people uncomfortable, but the fact that it was able to develop into a mass-production industry is truly ignorant and in terrible taste.

@YW64279938: More injurious even than the Great Translation Movement.

@YifeiPei: A few days ago, I saw that someone reposted this video, but I didn’t dare to click on it. I watched it today and it made me so furious I cried.

@AachenHugo: China is so big, there is nothing too bizarre! The explosive news of this incident will have serious consequences and negatively impact perceptions of China among Africans and people of African descent. I predict that the long-vaunted Sino-African friendship will, at least at the grassroots level, completely collapse!

Put it this way: China is a country with very serious problems of regional discrimination, ethnic discrimination, and racial discrimination, especially towards Black people. They are considered “inferior human beings” in the minds of many Chinese people, and some Chinese people even feel that they should be eradicated. [Chinese]

But not everyone was ready to condemn racism. Some Weibo comments alleged that the BBC had fabricated the story, and claimed that Lu Ke had a Taiwanese accent. Other comments, translated by CDT, highlighted how the comment sections were still rife with attempts to sidestep issues of racism and to instead challenge the credibility of the documentary. Some linked this deflection to the misogyny behind the beating of a woman in Tangshan that kicked off a recent storm on Chinese social media.

Yang-Xuanying玄英闲人: What if it BBC produced [that video] itself? Peddling its own inventions. // 数知实验室: That possibility hasn’t been ruled out. If that is the case, we need to clarify the situation before we can fight back.

欺詐師_狸貓: Most of the comments below still don’t take this matter seriously, and are complacent, content to let chauvinism run rampant. Sooner or later, we’ll lose even the principles on which our nation was founded, those words written on Tiananmen Gate. [“Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples,” 世界人民大团结万岁, Shìjiè rénmín dàtuánjié wànsuì.]

到荒野去: The comments section is a good illustration of the adverse consequences of rampant male chauvinism in East Asia. Not only do Chinese men regard women as their own private property, they also imagine that black men might want to steal these marital and reproductive “resources.” The reality that these [Chinese] men need to face up to is that women have freedom over their own bodies, including the freedom to choose whether or not to have children. Chinese men’s hatred of black people is actually a fear brought about by natural differences in people’s reproductive organs.

Metapoesia_: You can see from the comments that there is a high probability that Chinese people [made these videos] themselves, and are proud of their prejudice. [Chinese]

While Chinese media remained silent, Chinese officials attempted, unsuccessfully, to quell the anger. On Monday, the Chinese embassy in Malawi tweeted its concern and condemnation of racism, but “also noted that the video was shot in 2020,” and the Chinese ambassador to South Africa tweeted that China-Africa relations “will by no means be affected by bias &ill-intentioned publicity stunt” (referring to the documentary). The Chinese embassy in Malawi released a brief, official statement on Thursday further distancing itself, stating: “The isolated case by a fool individual does not change the whole picture.” These messages incited a wave of online criticism arguing that China was deflecting responsibility. 

Wu Peng, the Director-General of African Affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that “China has been cracking down on those unlawful online acts in the past yrs,” and further elaborated that “Shortly after the video first appeared early 2020, Chinese relevant authority was very concerned& immediately urged the platforms to remove it and to punish the video maker.” CGTN and China’s former ambassador to the African Union chimed in to reiterate Wu’s claim about China’s zero tolerance for racism. But South China Morning Post’s Jevans Nyabiage reported suggestions from other quarters that these videos would have been deleted had the political will truly existed

Heidi Haugen, professor of China studies at the department of culture studies and Oriental languages at the University of Oslo, said the Chinese government had not done enough to crack down on the videos since Chinese censorship apparatus knew about them for years. They had been suppressed in the past on some platforms, only to crop up on other platforms.

“If the political resolve is there, offensive content is removed from all platforms, permanently. The Weibo account with these videos was devoted solely to racist jokes, it was easily identifiable,” Haugen said. “But cracking down on such offensive videos has not been a priority.”

Haugen said the foreign ministry was wise to take this seriously now while it severely harmed China’s image abroad. [Source]

If anything, Chinese authorities appear to have censored discussion of the controversy instead of censoring the videos themselves, which are still thriving online, as Wenhao of VOA News described in a Twitter thread:

In another Twitter thread, Alexandria Williams of DW News described how there is an algorithmic incentive to sustain this industry of racist videos:

Without real political and social pushback, as Runako Celina argued for News 24, Chinese digital platforms will remain a toxic ecosystem that reinforces racist prejudices of Africans and facilitates their exploitation on the continent:

To me, it’s a human zoo of sorts, reimagined for this new, digital, socially-distanced age. Where humans, from elsewhere in the world can gawk at the foreignness and often visible poverty of the Africans featured – all through the comfort of their Iphones and favourite social media and messaging apps. It places a distance between customer and costumed-performer that allows the former to avoid questions around the morality and regulation of this trade.

[…] In China, the majority of people know very little about Africa and its people – their primary point of reference will be media – mainstream, most traditionally, but increasingly social media.

[…] Content creators like Susu are able to position themselves as authorities on Africanness. They, collectively, are in complete control of the narrative they choose to spin – and to anyone who knows no difference, this then becomes an acceptable truth.

[…] Without [an honest, open dialogue about anti-Blackness in a Chinese context], I fear that the specific brand of racism that has underpinned the exploitation of African children in this industry, will only continue to be one of China’s biggest exports. [Source]

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