A new report by Human Rights Watch finds that racist content denigrating Black people is increasingly common on the Chinese internet, and that major social media platforms and Chinese authorities have failed to address the issue systematically.
HRW analyzed hundreds of videos and posts on popular Chinese social media platforms, including Bilibili, Douyin, Kuaishou, Weibo and Xiaohongshu, since late 2021. It found that content portraying Black people based on offensive racial stereotypes has become rampant.
It says much of the content is created to generate money.
“There are clicks and viewership involved, and that usually means profit for social media content creators,” Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at HRW, told VOA.
Racism fueled by stereotypes and censorship
According to the report, one type of video that’s widely shared on Chinese social media usually portrays Africans as poor and dependent while framing Chinese people, who are often the content creators of those videos, as wealthy providers of jobs, housing and money.
In addition to stereotypes against Black people, online content featuring interracial relationships often attracts hostile comments or threats to individuals in the photos or videos.
HRW found that Chinese internet users will accuse Black people married to Chinese people of “contaminating and threatening” the Chinese race and unleash online threats against Chinese women who share photos with their Black male partners.
In some cases, these women will receive death or rape threats or experience doxing, meaning their personal information is shared online without their consent.
In 2019, a “study buddy” program involving foreign and Chinese students at Shandong University became the target of racist and sexist attacks online. Some netizens accused the school of assigning Chinese female students to foreign male students, particularly Black students. Some Chinese female students involved in the program experienced harassment and intimidation on campus.
Wang from HRW says the rampant circulation of racist content against Black people and Africans on Chinese social media is prompted by the Chinese government’s portrayal of Africa as a “poor, backward” continent that needs investment from China.
“This gives Chinese people the impression that Africans are less developed, less intelligent and less diligent, and it contributes to the rampant racism [against Black people] in China,” she told VOA in a phone interview.
Videos or posts that promote racial equality or criticize racism in China will often be censored after becoming a trending topic on Chinese social media platforms. “Unlike the U.S., where racism is widely discussed in the media and academia, there is no press and academic freedom in China, so it’s hard for good content on racism to spread,” Wang said.
Lack of incentive to censor racist content online
Even though most Chinese social media platforms have community guidelines that ban content promoting racism and discrimination, the HRW report argues that the amount of racist content on the internet suggests that these platforms either fail to enforce content moderation based on their guidelines or their existing policies are inadequate to address racist content.
In one case, the Chinese Embassy in Malawi said it strongly condemns “racism in any form” and that it urged social media platforms to “strictly prohibit the dissemination of all racist contents.” The comments came after the BBC released a documentary exposing a Chinese man using local children to film personalized greeting videos that contained racist content.
Following the BBC expose, Chinese social media platforms censored videos containing the term “Africa,” which affected some educational videos. Analysts say this incident reflects Chinese social media platforms’ typical practice of suppressing content that has generated widespread public discussion.
“When social media platforms try to silence discussions related to certain issues, they usually impose search bans on words or phrases,” Eric Liu, an analyst at China Digital Times, told VOA. “[In the BBC case,] Chinese social media platforms censored the word ‘Africa’ for a short period of time, and when the news had blown over, they removed censorship over the word.”
And since censorship tools on Chinese social media platforms focus on only blocking keywords, deleting posts or suppressing public opinion, they can’t effectively stop the circulation of discriminatory content, said Liu, a former censor operator for Weibo. “They can censor the word ‘Africa,’ but they can’t respond to discriminatory content,” he said.
Some Black people living in China expressed shock at the lack of actions taken to do away with online hate speech.
“For me, it’s shocking that [racist] stuff like that doesn’t get censored or banned given how quickly the Great Firewall works to ban,” a West African man in Shanghai told HRW. He was referring to China’s internet firewall.
VOA reached out to Chinese social media companies, including Bytedance, Weibo and Tencent, for comments, and so far, only Tencent has responded. In an e-mailed response, Tencent referred VOA to clauses related to inciting national hatred or hate speech in its community guidelines but didn’t explain how the platform addresses racist content against Black people.
In a written response to HRW’s inquiry, the Chinese short video platform Douyin said that it relies on a combination of people and technology to enforce content moderation guidelines, and that it takes action on approximately more than 300 videos and comments per day that “include violative content targeting Black people.”
Wang from HRW says Chinese social media platforms’ ways of handling online racist content is an “appeasement” of the Chinese government. “When the Chinese government no longer pays attention to this issue, they just go back to the old ways of allowing racist content to spread as it creates business for them,” she told VOA.
HRW said that while Beijing often touts China-Africa anti-colonial solidarity and unity, Chinese authorities have ignored pervasive hate speech against Black people on the Chinese internet. “Beijing should recognize that undertaking investments in Africa and embracing China-Africa friendship won’t undo the harm caused by unaddressed racism,” Wang said.
To effectively address online hate speech against Black people, HRW urged Beijing to implement efforts that include public education, promotion of tolerance, publicly countering incendiary misinformation and strengthening the protection of individuals whose security is threatened.
Despite these suggestions, Liu from China Digital Times said he thinks it’s unlikely that online racist content will disappear anytime soon.
“Instead of cultivating capabilities to combat online racist content, [Chinese] social media platforms may respond to the report by blocking words such as 'Black people' or 'Africans,' ” he told VOA.