China refusal to apologise for CCTV blackface skit all wrong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 7:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 7:24pm

Beijing yesterday said it was against any form of racism but dismissed widespread criticism of state broadcaster CCTV’s annual holiday variety show as an attempt to drive a wedge between China and African nations.

SCMP, February 23

My colleague Michael Chugani earlier wrote about this incident, suggesting it provided a good opportunity for Beijing to show that it can apologise for its own blunders as well as demanding that others apologise for theirs.

He now has his answer to his suggestion.

In the new year show in question, which can attract as many as 800 million viewers, a skit featured a Chinese actress in blackface and giant fake buttocks depicting an African character and a black performer playing a monkey.

It was racist. Let’s make that plain. As Michael put it: “Imagine if a major American TV network aired a show featuring white actors with painted yellow skin, slant eyes and a stereotype Chinese accent. You can bet there would be deafening outrage from the mainland’s army of netizens demanding an apology.”

To my mind the greatest offence is not so much the skit itself as the refusal of the relevant authorities to apologise for it directly or make CCTV do so.

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I accept that all professional actors are prone to gaffes. Not only are such things more easily noticed among them as they are so prominently in the public eye, but it is often their job to portray characters with whom they have little in common or for whom they have little sympathy.

Unless keenly aware of the social boundaries with which they deal, they can occasionally overstep the mark. It is, as the saying goes, a very short step from the sublime to the ridiculous, or from the funny to the offensive.

A quick and abject apology then goes a long way to ameliorating the offence and, if that offence is not repeated, it is usually forgotten.

But what we have here is no official response for several days and then a foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, denying outright that the skit was racist.

“... any efforts to use this as a pretext for making a fuss and driving a wedge between China and African countries are futile,” he said.

Wrong, all wrong – particularly the implication that people who objected could only be acting out a hidden agenda to create friction between Chinese and Africans.

China dismisses criticism of CCTV blackface skit

What was needed was a straight, unqualified apology, made either by the foreign ministry or CCTV.

I recognise how highly unusual it would be for CCTV to do any such thing on air, how big a loss of face that might entail, but there was no hint even of a private apology to the embassies of African nations.

If the foreign ministry was trying to create just that wedge with Africa which it disavows I cannot imagine a better way of doing it.

I imagine CCTV has privately and forcefully been told that there is to be no repeat of this incident.

Blackface skit a sign that rising China needs to combat racism

I also expect that Beijing diplomats will forestall any possible official protest with pleas not to pour fuel on this fire. This still leaves the fire burning, however, when it should have been put out.

It is just all wrong at a time of a “Belt and Road Initiative” that is supposed to encourage relations with Africa. African governments may say nothing, what with the immense official investments China makes in their countries, but racist friction, and there have been other complaints of it, discourages reciprocity.

Whatever it is that Beijing expects from its investments, unabashed insult of the host countries is certainly no way to get it. The diplomats of these countries will know, as will the leading politicians even if the general citizenry does not.

And the worst of the insult is that Beijing has made it clear it will not apologise. That stings.