19 April 2019
A comedy skit at the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala sparked accusations of racism and cultural imperialism. Photo: CCTV
A comedy skit at the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala sparked accusations of racism and cultural imperialism. Photo: CCTV

How a supposedly funny TV skit turned into a PR disaster

A well-intentioned attempt to highlight the staunch friendship between China and African countries by mainland state TV producers has backfired and created a firestorm of controversy.

At the annual Spring Festival Gala broadcast live on state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), performers did a comedy skit on the warm Sino-African relations.

The skit starred a mainland actress who, with her face painted black while wearing large fake buttocks to portray an African woman, was telling the audience how grateful she was towards the Chinese people for sending doctors to save her mother’s life and helping her country to build railways.

Throughout the sketch the actress was also followed around on stage by her pet: an ethnic African performer dressed as a monkey.

The segment, titled Happy And Joyful Together, immediately set the internet alight and came under heavy fire from netizens, both foreign and domestic, many of whom denounced the skit as “racist” and “advocating cultural imperialism”.

To be fair, the skit itself might not have been intended to be racist or offensive to the African people as it appeared, given that the mainland state TV is always under tight monitoring by the country’s censors, particularly for big and important shows like a Chinese New Year gala.

However, perhaps due to ignorance or patronizing attitude towards Africans, the CCTV show writers just inadvertently put on something that appeared to be mocking black people, and which would otherwise never be allowed to air on western TV.

China’s growing influence in Africa is both undeniable and unstoppable as it has already replaced European countries and the United States as the most influential country on the continent.

And according to a survey released by the pan-African and non-partisan research network Afrobarometer in 2016, over 60 percent of Africans had “positive” feelings about China’s growing influence while only 15 percent had “negative” sentiments.

However, it is important to note that such a generally positive view could be very fragile, and there is only a fine line between cash-flush investors and “modern-day colonialists”.

As Michael Ehizuelen, from Nigeria, an African studies researcher with the Zhejiang Normal University, put it, writers of that CCTV skit had completely misread the African people, and have therefore put a lot of “unacceptable” elements in the comedy sketch, such as the painted black face of the actress.

Apart from displaying sheer ignorance about African history, what is more alarming about the controversial skit is the kind of “great power mentality” prevailing among many mainlanders; they regard themselves as the “savior” who is generously offering huge assistance to black people in Africa.

As long as this “savior complex” persists in China, the kind of controversy sparked by Happy and Joyful Together is bound happen again.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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