Everyone is a little bit racist. After all it’s nice to feel superior to others at the end of a hard day at work – office politics; the irritation of the commute … you can let out all your frustrations by grumbling to a sympathetic friend about an entire ethnic group. Who hasn’t done that? I have. I mean, honestly, who doesn’t make a bit of a generalisation every so often about people just on the basis of their race? Who can honestly say they haven’t maybe kicked and punched a few foreigners or maybe even stabbed them? And who hasn’t committed a little bit of genocide once or twice? I know I have.
Expatriates are terrible whingers, aren’t they? Moaning away. They never realise they’re offending people. When I was in the Beijing office, my Australian friend Shane used to grumble about China to our head of IT, a lanky Beijinger called Zhang. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you go back to ‘Australia’?” Zhang would say, doing air quotes with his fingers for the word Australia. This gave Shane a chance to make everyone laugh by pointing out that Australia is a real country and doesn’t need air quotes, but Zhang was right: no one likes hearing their own country being criticised. Is that really racist, or is it just normal annoyingness?
Westerners think it’s fine to make remarks about the Chinese in a way they certainly wouldn’t about other ethnic groups. The logic seems to be that China is a political state and not an ethnic group – but that isn’t the way many Chinese see it. And for Americans, the confusion is compounded by the fact that their ethnically Chinese friends (known as “Asians” in the US) are often far ruder about mainland Chinese than anyone else, not realising that to the average whitey from Whitesville, Oklahoma, they’re all just Chinese guys.
Hearing this sort of anti-Chinese talk from a Chinese person, the white guys then think it’s OK to be just as critical. It isn’t. The rapper C-Murder once sang a song called Down 4 My Niggaz, which has a chorus of people singing “My niggaz” at the end of each line. It’s lovely. The point is, it’s only OK for Mr Murder to do this because he is black. Many black people don’t like his offensive language, but his vocabulary is a matter of personal choice and is therefore just about acceptable. It would not, however, have been acceptable for the Bee Gees, who are white, to sing the same song. (I’m not saying the Bee Gees would have wanted to, and anyway I can’t think of a song by the Bee Gees where a racist chant would fit.)
Most Western expats instinctively know that it is not OK to make racist remarks about black people, but they’re a lot less sensitive when it comes to Chinese people. They think that as long as you don’t use words like “Chinaman” or “Chinky”, you’re not racist. But who under the age of 90 would use those words anyway? The real problem is crass generalisations.
Listen when expats talk about China and its problems. These guys could fix anything, to hear them talk. Social unrest in rural China? Bring on the white guy. Ethnic trouble in Tibet? We need that white guy. Rule of law? The aggression of China’s Pacific fleet? Undervalued Renminbi? Too much spitting? There’s nothing the average white guy can’t solve.
And for many white people, having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse proves you’re not racist, no matter what else you say or do. Sorry, white person, that is not a recognised defence to a charge of racism. “Mr Perkins, you have been found guilty of ethnic cleansing.” “What, me? But my girlfriend is from Shanghai.” “Oh, OK then you’re free to go.” That is not how it works.
I pointed out above that no modern Western person would use words like “Chinaman”. That is what I thought … until I moved to Britain in 2015 and met a New Jersey lady who kept using the phrase “Chinaman Number One” to refer to China’s president. And a month later found myself consulting for a Midlands company whose CFO told me that the Chinese “can look you in the eye and lie to you”. So, quite unlike the English then, who never lie.
Of course, this view of China is often put about by Chinese “consultants” who set up companies around the Western world called things like “Gateway of the Dragon” or “Jade Panda Advisory” or “Great Walls of Fire”. These fellows make their money by telling everyone that in China, all business is taken care of by a mysterious oriental concept called guanxi of which there is no equivalent in the rest of the world. Luckily these consultants are friends with the brother of the local vice-mayor of Pingzhou, so they can get things done. Consultants like these encourage a stereotypical view of China, so I suppose you can’t completely blame foreigners for repeating it.
What do Chinese people view as expat racism? Well, here’s the thing. The Chinese are the most tolerant people on earth when it comes to anti-Chinese racism. In fact, Chinese people love stereotypes. Whole sections of the Chun Wan gala (in the old days, when people used to watch it) were devoted to stereotypes of people from different parts of China: Shanghainese calculating, Dongbei people pugnacious, Beijing people verbose ….
No, if you want to find people who are oversensitive about racism you have to go to the US, where being easily offended is taught in junior school. Asian people in both Britain and the US get tremendously sad if an actor who isn’t Asian plays the part of someone who is Asian. Matt Damon had to apologise for appearing in a fantasy film about the Great Wall, even though he was playing a European. He should certainly have apologised for the film, because it was moronic, but not for some sort of weirdly perceived racism.
Perhaps the most important distinction is between doing something racist, like attacking a person or refusing to hire them just for being the wrong colour, and saying something racist. Most people make racist remarks all the time. Perhaps we need to be more tolerant of intolerant people. ■
Nicolas Groffman writes on China, practised law in Beijing and Shanghai, and is currently a partner at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys