‘I didn’t imagine things to be this bad’: TikToker shares her experience with racism in China

Yuqian shows the racist comments she received in her TikTok videos.
Yuqian shows the racist comments she received in her TikTok videos. © @elmodrums

Entry bans to public places, racist comments and death threats: For many foreigners in China, xenophobia has been a growing phenomenon during the pandemic. For a foreigner who is also a person of colour, the situation can be particularly bad. Our Observer, a student in Shanghai from the US, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about her experience being a target of discrimination.

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In early 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, China was accused of imposing racist restrictions on its African expat community.

More than two years have passed, and while the world has gradually learned to adapt to Covid-19, foreigners and people of colour (POC) in China are still experiencing xenophobia and racism.

‘In these past few days, I haven't gone outside’

In late August, a POC student attending New York University in Shanghai posted a series of viral TikTok videos showing racist comments she received from Chinese internet users.

@elmodrums Replying to @miichuriichu #greenscreen#greenscreen#greenscreenvideo #greenscreen My only hope is for it to get better so that others don't get affected by these types of stuff. The dance video that was in the video was this @FT煜倩 #blackinchina #collegeinchina #chinesesocialmedia #blacktiktoker #人 #外在中国 ♬ original sound - FT煜倩

After uploading a video of her dancing to her TikTok, she had been shocked to read through all the racist insults in the comments.

 

@elmodrums Dancing in Yunnan Dali #dancerlife #舞蹈 #跳舞 #dancinginchina #老外真会玩 ♬ original sound - FT煜倩
TikTok user Yuqian posted a video of herself dancing and attracted numerous racist comments in response. TikTok/@elmodrums
Screenshots of racist comments below Yuqian’s dancing video. One can see the degrading photos referring to Black people.
Screenshots of racist comments below Yuqian’s dancing video. One can see the degrading photos referring to Black people. © TikTok/@elmodrums

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Yuqian, the TikToker who posted these videos.

I got literally thousands of harmful messages, telling me to kill myself, telling me to go to Africa and to get my hands cut off, things like that.

If something is so viral, if I go outside, someone can definitely recognize me since I'm a tall, dark-skinned, and very colourful-all-the-time hair person. So I do worry about my safety. 

In these past few days, I haven't gone outside.

Some internet users even sent Yuqian messages using the N-word.

Screenshots of messages to Yuqian. The left one writes "black", followed by emojis of chimpanzees. The right reads, “I will send you to Africa and cut off both your hands.”
Screenshots of messages to Yuqian. The left one writes "black", followed by emojis of chimpanzees. The right reads, “I will send you to Africa and cut off both your hands.” © Instagram/@elmodrums

In fact, anti-Black racism is nothing new on Chinese social media. A project that looked into anti-Black sentiments on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, showed that words related to violence,  invasion and barbarianism were frequently used in topics related to Black people.

The situation deteriorated during the pandemic, particularly because the Black community in China was blamed for spreading the virus.

‘I was kicked out of a restaurant just because they did not allow foreigners’

More than two years into the pandemic, China’s strict Covid policies, along with the closures of businesses, have driven many expats out of the country.

Recalling her first visit to China at the age of 14, Yuqian said the experience was rather positive, and the hospitality she received from her friends there made her feel like part of the society. But her experience after the pandemic began was different.

I've been here before, like pre-Covid, so I expected things to kind of be the same, more or less. But then after arriving, even though the first two months were okay, when you started having a life here, that's when you start seeing all the little parts. 

After Covid, the scariness of foreigners just skyrocketed, and this is the sentiment deriving from my daily life. 

Every time that Covid gets worse, like back in March when there was a surge that put Shanghai into a lockdown – I remember in February and March, they wouldn't even allow me to enter many places. So I've been kicked out of karaoke with friends. I was kicked out of a restaurant just because they did not allow foreigners, and I got stopped at places specifically since they wanted to check my passport simply because I was a foreigner.

>> Read more on The Observers: How Chinese vendors are making money from videos of African children

Foreigners being banned from entering such places as restaurants and nightclubs over concerns about Covid-19 have also occurred in other countries in Asia, such as South Korea.

>> Read more on The Observers: South Korean nightclubs accused of denying entry to foreigners 

‘Before racial discrimination, it’s xenophobia’

The whole Covid thing, I think, is not just against people of colour, but all foreigners.

Therefore, I think before racial discrimination, it’s xenophobia. It's like, being scared of foreigners in general. The racial discrimination comes a little bit after.

However, people of colour do experience those little microaggressions. For me, I'm a part-time model, and so there is an obvious preference for white people over Black people. Sometimes, they say ‘No, that's not good looking, that's ugly’ or ‘We want pretty girls’, when they just mean they want white girls. 

Whenever people here seem to be positive towards Black people, most of the time it’s only about hip-hop or other forms of stereotypical Black culture.

@elmodrums It took me forever to figure out that the sing was saying "tiktok baby tiktok girl" #中国街拍 #舞蹈视频 #dancinginchina #抖音短视频 ♬ Tiktok Baby (剪辑版2) - 947.ASH

Even though people send me negative things, I know that not everyone is like that. I didn't imagine things to be this bad, but it gives me the chance to share, like, how people actually comment on people of darker skin, what people actually think of this, and what people may not be saying out loud, but are actually thinking and typing to others.