Bye-bye, banana: Sensationalism v. racism in the Chinese press

Gary Locke. I mean, a banana! No, Locke. Banana? / Wikipedia
Gary Locke. I mean, a banana. No, wait, Locke! Banana? / Wikipedia

The other day, a major state-owned media outlet published an opinion piece that basically was just a gleeful trashing of Ambassador Gary Locke as he departed China and his posting here. The article focused on the fact that Locke, a Chinese-American who arrived in China in 2011 to great fanfare and admiration, actually turned out to be a “huang pi bai xin” de xiangjiao ren (“‘黄皮白心’的香蕉人”) — a yellow-skinned, white-centered banana person. Yes, this major media outlet called someone a banana.

This incident has shocked many American commentators. How does a major news outlet get to print something like this? Well, first, you have to remember that China is, even after 5,000 years, still developing. Media operations here in China — even at the top outlets — can sometimes appear very amateur. The Chinese government, which funds most of these operations, hasn’t exactly mastered the art of suave, sophisticated propaganda. Indeed, instead of subtlety, many state-owned media outlets tend to opt for vitriolic sensationalism in their op-eds, bleating out bombastic accusations and derogatory remarks against its foes. Opinion writers write all sorts of things in all sorts of ways we would consider indelicate.

Once, I edited an opinion piece that very bluntly called for the former head of the Chinese Football Association, who had been arrested in relation to the match fixing that plagued Chinese soccer for years, to be hanged. Even though he hadn’t even gone to trial yet, this writer was sure that death was the best sentence for the crime of setting back Chinese soccer decades. It all comes across as slightly deranged and unhinged. (This is also a strange contrast to their other writing style, which is opaque, flowery and full of metaphors.)

Some have pointed out that this opinion piece isn’t “official” or even written by China News Service’s regular editors. That may be the case, but it still had to have been read over by someone with editorial powers. Publishing this piece was not an error in judgment; it passed CNS’s standards, whatever they are, for publication. As a state-run media outlet, the editors were probably pushed to publish articles on a list of news items that their higher-ups determined needed pro-China commentary. Some of these items may have had specific talking points, while others just required any “pro-China” spin. Trusted editors set to work on the former and passed off the latter to their underlings. This article is the one they managed to get. It is even cleverly titled “Farewell, Ambassador Locke,” a throwback to Mao Zedong’s “Farewell, Leighton Stuart.”* The article may very well seem amateur, even by the CNS’s own standards, and it probably isn’t even the government’s official stance, but it is safe for publication.

Second, in the same vein, it is not politically incorrect to be racist in China. It’s difficult to explain the kind of racism that exists here, but it is borne out of a very ethnocentric and insular culture that is reinforced by a strong government that chooses to stoke nationalism to enhance its control. This kind of racism** manifests itself differently and has a different effect on social policies than the racism in the States. In essence, the Chinese appear to be racist because they place supreme importance on ethnicity: one’s ethnicity — not nationality, culture or upbringing — defines how one should think and act. Thus, all people with Chinese ancestry should behave like an insider, a person from China, and not like a waiguoren (a person from outside the country).

People of ethnic minorities may be intimately familiar with this kind of racism toward members of one’s own race, as well as the social pressures it brings. Minorities can be reflexively defensive about protecting their culture, and anyone belonging to the “same kind” who appears “too white” will be looked down on. It may seem silly that some Chinese saw Locke, a third-generation Chinese-American whose job was to represent the United States, as one of their own and thus expected him to be loyal to the interests of China / the Communist Party. But this is how many Chinese think, even those who were born and raised abroad — that because someone is ethnically Chinese, he would and should think like a Chinese. If he thinks differently, it’s because he’s been tainted by outside ideas.

Certainly, there was hope, on both sides, that because he was Chinese-American, Locke would better bridge the divide between our two countries. In an ideal situation, Locke would have left Beijing liked by all, somehow managing to have pleased both sides and forged a new understanding. Most Chinese wouldn’t resort to personal attacks for his failure to do so; instead, they almost expect Chinese-Americans to be more American and just shake their heads in disappointment if they feel they are too American. But that opinion isn’t as exciting as a banana, is it?

Locke will be replaced by former Senator Max Baucus.

* If you don’t want to read Mao’s essay, the Times offers a very succinct and wry comparison between the two articles:

“Farewell, Gary Locke’’ departs from the almost wonkish critique of United States foreign policy offered up by Mao, opting instead for an extended comparison of Mr. Locke, a Chinese-American, to a banana.

** With that being said, while many Chinese may do and say things that are racist, they are not really racist, in the sense that they are not trying to oppress or disregard people of other races. While they may not be eager to try new things, they certainly are curious and eager to learn about them. Moreover, as they become more cosmopolitan, many Chinese are becoming more aware of the need to be more delicate when it comes to race relations and discussing racial issues.

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