Erin Chung, Global Mappings (Northwestern University)
From December 1988 to January 1989, students in Nanjing, China waged violent protests against visiting African students. These protests became the precursor to the nationwide pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989, which resulted in the massacre of Chinese students by armed troops in Tiananmen Square. Displaying an uneven combination of racial tension, nationalism, and reformism, the Nanjing protests fused mass hostility toward visiting African students with official nationalist discourse to create the momentum for a popular movement for political change. At the same time, they marked the denouement of China’s proclaimed leadership of the “Third World” with long-term consequences for Sino-African relations. Yet, these protests were neither isolated events, as the Chinese government claimed, nor simply outbreaks of general xenophobia directed at all foreigners. Frank Dikötter has traced various discourses of race in China from the late nineteenth century based on myths of origins, ideologies of blood, and narratives of biological descent that have been central to the cultural construction of Chinese identity. Barry Sautman attributes the rise of anti-Africanism among the Chinese intelligentsia in the reform era (1978-present) to the return of racial stereotyping and elitist values dating back to Imperial China that link and denigrate those who are dark and those who are poor.
Hostility and violence against visiting African students had erupted for various reasons since their arrival in 1960 as part of a government-sponsored program that provided full scholarships for nationals of friendly countries. Following its rise to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) abolished the official discourse of race and embarked upon an intensive campaign to establish close ties with the newly independent African nations. As early as 1955, Premier Zhou Enlai declared that racism was uniquely absent in China. Friendly relations with Africa and African-descended peoples were central to the CCP’s “Third World” coalition during the 1960s. Mao Zedong proclaimed that the Chinese would lead the historical struggle against “white imperialism,” linking the problem of class with that of race in foreign policy. In the early 1960s, small groups of African students arrived in China with full scholarships and relatively generous stipends compared to those of their Chinese counterparts. However, most of the students returned home within a year or two due to poor living standards, lack of social opportunities, and the politicized environment of the Mao years. According to an account by a Ghanaian who studied in China during the 1960s, African students regularly encountered racial discrimination by their Chinese hosts, although racial hostility was the least important reason for their return.
The Chinese government restored the African scholarship program in the mid-1970s and began sending African students to universities outside of Beijing. As China opened itself to the capitalist world market with a series of reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping from 1978, its Third World identity became little more than a propaganda tool. In contrast to official statements supporting revolutionary movements in Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, the CCP in the late 1970s and 1980s markedly downplayed Third World themes in the media. In addition, local authorities often excused, and sometimes justified, anti-African prejudice among Chinese students. For example, the Shanghai incident of July 1979 was triggered by complaints of loud music played by African students and culminated in an attack of the foreign student hall in which the African students lived. Although Chinese press commentaries admitted that the Chinese students attacked the African students, they also implied that “drunken and womanizing” Africans were prone to troublemaking. Moreover, contact between African men and Chinese women was the source of numerous clashes between Chinese and African students in the 1980s as well as the grounds for arrests and deportations of Africans.
The Nanjing protests in December 1988 were triggered by a series of confrontations between African and Chinese students at Hehai University. The conflict intensified on December 24 when two African male students who were escorting two Chinese women to a Christmas Eve party on campus were stopped at the front gate and ordered to register their guests. A new university regulation that restricted registration procedures for guests visiting foreign students had been implemented in October of that year to stop African male students from consorting with Chinese women in their dormitories. A quarrel between one of the African students and the Chinese security guard escalated into a brawl between African and Chinese students that lasted until the next morning and resulted in the injury of eleven Chinese and two Africans. On the next day, 300 Chinese students, angered by a rumor that a Chinese man had been killed by an African student the previous evening, stormed the African students’ dormitory chanting, “Kill the Black Devils!” The police arrived to restore order two hours later. Fearing for their safety, over 60 African students left for the railway station to reach their embassies in Beijing. Local authorities prevented them from boarding the trains in order to retain those involved in the Christmas Eve brawl. In response, about 140 foreign students, including other African students in Nanjing and a dozen non-African foreign students, sat-in at the train station to demand that they be allowed to board a train for Beijing.
Meanwhile, Chinese students at Hehai University mobilized students from other universities in Nanjing to protest what was perceived as special treatment for foreigners and to demand justice for the alleged murder of a Chinese man the night before. Approximately 3,000 students marched in the streets, singing the national anthem and chanting, “Down with Black Devils!” On December 26, the student demonstrators from Hehai University marched to the provincial government office to demand that the African students be held responsible for their crimes according to the full force of Chinese law. Holding a banner that read, “Protect Human Rights,” the demonstrators demanded the reform of a corrupt legal system that privileged foreigners at the expense of ordinary Chinese. That evening, a group of more than 3,000 Chinese students marched to the railway station with banners calling for the protection of human rights, political reform, and justice. The African students were immediately sequestered by the police to a military guest house in Yizheng, 60 kilometers northeast of Nanjing. The police declared the student demonstrations illegal and, with the help of riot police from neighboring provinces, quelled the demonstrations in the next few days. By early January 1989, the authorities arrested and deported three African students from Hehai University who were suspected of instigating the Christmas Eve brawl and sent the remaining students back to Nanjing. The African students were instructed to report to their school authorities before leaving their campuses and to not go out at night. Furthermore, the Hehai University president, Liang Ruiji, announced that African students were required to continue registering their guests at the front gate and were restricted to no more than one Chinese girlfriend whose visits would be limited to the lounge area.