Posted on March 13, 2021

Black American Radicals Once Forged Links With Chinese Communists

The Economist, March 4, 2021


For black radicals looking to smash racism and capitalism at home, “Red” China was once a “vision of Utopia”, says Keisha Brown of Tennessee State University. In contrast to the Soviet Union, it was an example of an independent, non-white nation, and its revolutionary leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, was an icon. Radicals rushed to go there. Langston Hughes, a poet, wrote his anti-colonial poem “Roar China!” after visiting Shanghai in 1933. Du Bois, a brilliant sociologist who became a staunch defender of Chinese communism, spent his 91st birthday lecturing at Peking University. His wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, an activist in her own right, died in China in 1977.

A Chinese connection was also crucial to the Black Panther Party’s early successes. With a capitalist streak which might have got them purged in China during the Cultural Revolution, they bought battered copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” in Chinatown for 20 cents each. Then, beneath the arches of Sather Gate, they sold them to Berkeley students for a dollar. “We made a killing,” recalled one of the group’s co-founders, Bobby Seale.

Today it is black radicals in the Bay Area who are most nostalgic for what China once represented. Tyson Amir grew up in East Oakland, the son of Black Panther affiliates. He travelled to China in 2018 to follow in the footsteps of his “elders”, who raced to “beat Nixon” to China in 1971. Sanyika Bryant, another Oakland-based activist, used to keep a photo of Mao and Robert Williams, a black-defence leader, as his screensaver. {snip}But “there’s a lot of people, especially younger organisers, who have no clue about this history,” he sighs.

Candace McKinley, an organiser in Philadelphia, is one such example. She read about Du Bois in middle school, but his Chinese connections have not influenced her activism. She cares about the “global struggle of anti-capitalism”, but scarcely thinks about China. “I don’t see it as a model, or a place I want to go,” she shrugs.

This is partly because China has changed. As authoritarian as it was under Mao, it is now capitalist (albeit with Chinese characteristics), and no longer a wellspring for revolutionary ideas. Outwardly, however, it still aspires to a revolutionary foreign policy. It continues to make overtures to Africa, such as its latest attempts at vaccine diplomacy. After the death of George Floyd in 2020, its diplomats attacked American racial discrimination and police brutality at the UN, echoing Mao’s statements in support of black Americans in 1963 and 1968. But in America such gestures have largely fallen on deaf ears. For the few who know about China, racist attacks on Africans in China and a whiff of political opportunism have undermined the solidarity message.