WITHOUT A SMILE: South Africas President Jacob Zuma (left) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao at an official welcoming ceremony in Beijing earlier this year. The writer says the Chinese attitude towards African people can be dismayingly xenophobic. Picture: Reuters

Isaac Stone Fish

Foreign Policy

This month China’s largest English language newspaper, China Daily, launched Africa Weekly, a supplement that “will look at the precise nature of Chinese involvement in Africa and also the prominent role many Africans play in China.”

The announcement on the government-owned China Daily featured quotes from Chinese and African diplomats falling over each other to praise how this initiative will improve mutual understanding, especially Africans’ understanding of China:

Minister of Culture Cai Wu said the weekly will give African people a comprehensive and reliable guide to China and Abdul’ahat Abdurixit, president of the Chinese-African People’s Friendship Association, said the launch of the Africa edition “will surely help improve communication between China and Africa”. Improving African understanding of Chinese is a great goal, though it wouldn’t hurt if Chinese expanded their views of Africans.

For a 2006 China-Africa summit billboards on the road to the airport purported to “glorify” Africans – though one, featuring a tribesman with a bone through his nose, depicted a Papua New Guinean.

A month before a China-Africa summit this July, Africans rioted in Guangzhou after a Nigerian was found dead in police custody; “the Chinese social media response to the latest protest in Guangzhou was dismayingly xenophobic,” wrote Time’s Hannah Beech, who also noted that the districts where Africans congregate in Guangzhou are known as “Chocolate City”.

While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there, it’s hard to generalise about what Chinese think about Africans without being hypocritical, so I’ll just quote what a Chinese English teaching recruiter once told me in Beijing: “We try not to hire black people. They tend to scare the children.”

One prominent example of the gulf in racial understanding between Chinese and Africans is “Black People Toothpaste,” one of the most popular toothpaste brands in China, which I wrote a story about for Newsweek in 2010, and which a Colgate spokesman I spoke with recently confirmed is still 50 percent owned by his company.

The logo features a minstrel singer wearing a top hat, backed by a white halo and flashing a smile of blindingly white teeth. The brand is so widespread it’s even engendered a popular knock-off brand, “Black Younger Sister Toothpaste”.

Black People Toothpaste used to be called Darkie in English, but an outcry against Colgate in the US in the 1980s caused the brand to change the English name to Darlie.

Before China Daily and other state organs can successfully highlight the “prominent role” Africans play in China, it probably wouldn’t hurt if fewer Chinese people associated black people with toothpaste.

Isaac Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.