Kenyan officials and the Chinese embassy remained tight-lipped on Saturday as a racism controversy brewed over a skit aired by China’s State broadcaster on Thursday.
The presentation, broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV) for the Chinese audience as part of a four-hour show to celebrate China’s Lunar New Year, had a scene about Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) that some observers found racist.
It was meant to make people laugh and, in the process, fit into the theme of China’s strengthening relationship with Africa.
That was the theme CCTV had chosen for this year’s Spring Festival Gala — an event viewed on TV by an estimated 700 million people every year, making it the most watched entertainment programme in the world.
However, the presence of a black man dressed as a monkey and a Chinese actress who had painted herself black then stuffed some material to make her behinds look big did not augur well with some viewers.
“Blackface” — the using of makeup to lampoon black people is largely considered offensive and has deep racist roots in America and Europe.
Those critical of the show shared their views with mainstream and social media outlets.
“Whatever the intention, it’s not acceptable,” Ms Lina Benabdallah, an Africa specialist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, told the New York Times.
“CCTV’s racist show during Spring Gala shook me and made me so ashamed of China and my people,” one Twitter user said.
“It was cringe-worthy at best, completely racist at worst. It’s Africa, so bring out tribal dancers and animals? And was that a Chinese woman in black face with a fake posterior?” another tweeted.
The Sunday Nation contacted the Foreign Affairs ministry for Kenya’s response on the matter but none was forthcoming.
“Let it wait probably till Monday,” the ministry’s communications facilitator Edwin Limo said.
A communications officer at the Chinese Embassy did not respond to our message.
The skit’s plot was simple: have a Chinese man to act as if he is somewhere in Kenya with a Kenyan woman.
The woman has convinced the Chinese man to pretend to be her boyfriend because she does not want to meet a man her mother wants her to date.
The mother soon comes and the Chinese man and the Kenyan woman act as if they are in a relationship until the Chinese girlfriend shows up.
The mother, rather than being furious that her daughter is being taken for a ride by this Chinese man, declares that she cannot lose her cool “because China has done so much for Africa”, according to a whatsonweibo.com report on the performance.
“I love Chinese people! I love China!” she says.
The problem arose mostly from the actress who played the role of a mother of a Kenyan woman in the show that started on Thursday at 8pm Beijing time (3pm Nairobi time).
She was a famous Chinese actress called Lou Naiming.
She had used black makeup to make herself look like an African and had fixed fake derrière.
She entered the stage carrying a basketful of fruits and walking in an exaggerated manner.
To make matters worse, she entered the stage with an African man dressed up as a monkey walking beside her.
Besides the “Kenyan mother” scene, the skit had more actors mimicking the launch of the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR.
In the cast were Africans from Gabon, Kenya, and Ivory Coast, said whatsonweibo.com. Some performers dressed up as gazelles, zebras among other animals.
Kenyans’ reactions to the skit were varied.
“I’m waiting for our new Minister for Foreign Affairs to summon the Chinese ambassador,” vocal lawyer Donald Kipkorir tweeted.
Cartoonist Patrick Gathara tweeted: “Did you know that the Chinese blackface skit was actually portraying you and yours? I’m sure that the same GoK, which declared it had no problems with Donald Trump’s ‘s**hole’ comment, won’t be raising a fuss over this.”
Lawyer Gitobu Imanyara told NYT: “What is disgusting is that we won’t hear any official complaint from African governments who are complicit in the recolonisation of Africa by China.”
The Chinese who watched the show took to social networking platform Weibo to air their concerns.
“Is it really hard to find an African actor? I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life as a Chinese person,” one wrote.
Another posted: “How narcissistic must they be to think it was a good idea to have an actor in blackface praise China?”
But not everyone thought the depiction is stereotypical, if comments on the BBC World Facebook are anything to go by.
“What is acceptable to laugh at now? Everything offends somebody, so comedy is no longer funny,” Aydi wrote.
“Why isn’t bleaching hair and wearing coloured contacts to imitate white people a demeaning gesture, but imitating a black curvy woman is considered rude?” Nancy posed.
“That is what humans have done for ever and it is not racism unless it is done to degrade or humiliate others. What is wrong with dressing up like others? Is it bad to be ‘black’?” Jimmy asked.
For a show to be beamed on CCTV, NYT reported, it has to be rehearsed many times before senior propaganda officials.
The theme of CCTV’s show, which was focusing on the good relations between China and African states and its “One Belt, One Road initiative”, can be viewed as part of the Asian country’s cultural diplomacy move to depict itself as a friend of African nations.
In Kenya, there are four Confucius Institutes in local public universities teaching the Chinese language and culture to students and any willing Kenyans.
There is also a sizeable number of Chinese restaurants across Kenyan towns, which could further entrench the Chinese culture among Kenyans.