Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism: a Fevered Chinese New Year

(Cover photo from:REUTERS/Stringer)


Spring Festival holiday was an odd period for the Chinese internet.


On the one hand, you get this strong feeling of everything slipping into hibernation: Taobao shops and all the e-commerce sites were closed, restaurants on take-out apps no longer accept orders, and even the normally noisy media and entertainment channels stopped pushing new content. But when all the businesses and services snoozed off, people became more alive and communicative than ever. The stranger who you couldn’t even recall the real name were now sending you passionate greeting message (of which you had to reply with a lot of polite happy face emojis), the ones that never posted anything were now bombarding your WeChat Moments feeds with touristy selfies, and the people – the meat-and-flesh individuals behind all the social media accounts – seemed to be more aspired to comment and interact with each other thanks to the festive atmosphere (and boredom) across the entire nation.


To recover from food comas and run away from awkward chats with relatives, Yan and I stayed on social media 24/7 during the holiday, constantly refreshing our feeds and updating each other with interesting news. Now that the holiday is officially over, we feel it is necessary to make a rundown of all the events that caught our attentions in the past week - the things that stirred public discussions, shocked us, confused us, and most importantly, made us think.



The Skit

Yes, the damn skit.


By now, most of you must have heard about the insulting African skit that aired on the National Television's New Year Gala on Feb 15th (if not, our friend Anthony at SupChina wrote a detailed and compressive review). Having watched it live on TV, we were sickened and ashamed by it in every possible way: a Chinese woman in blackface and fake buttock, praising China with her African daughter and peers? Excuse me? EXCUSE ME?


When it comes to social media reactions in China, what surprised us the most was not censorship from the top, but the publics’ conscious self-censorship. For the most part of the 4-hour long gala, people were intensively discussing and making fun of the programs on both Weibo and WeChat (making fun of the gala is virtually a ritual of CNY evenings nowadays. Everyone loathes it, but what else could you watch?), 5 minutes into the skit however, these social media channels turned into frozen, silent land with barely any new comments. That pause was so awkward and obvious; when the skit was over and the next program was on, our feeds were quickly filled with joking complaints about the gala again. People expressed opinions over many things, from a particular singer’s eyebrows to the extravagant stage designs – the skit? Hum, couldn’t remember a thing.


To say that no one spoke out would be unfair. Posts and articles gradually rolled out on the next day, as if the public needed sometime to process the “wrongness” of such a ground-breaking performance. As Yan and I looked through the comments however, we realized not all were repelled by the skit.



The Kazakh Actress

On the evening of Feb 14th,  actress Reyizha Alimjan, who is ethnically Kazakh but born in Beijing, wrote on her Weibo: “Although I don’t celebrate Chinese New Year…I am still kind of homesick now.”


Reyizha's original Weibo.


The post didn’t receive any special attention until the midnight of the 15th, when the actress replied to a comment that confronted her for not celebrating the national holiday as “everyone else” in the country does. “I have to recognize that I am an ethnical minority and we just don’t celebrate this festival,” says Reyizha, “What else can I say? It is how it is!”


On the next morning, Reyizha’s weibo was flooded. Thousands of hate comments splashed in, trolling her as an unpatriotic traitor, a sinner who had ruined the ethnical unity and harmony of the whole Chinese nation. The public rage further escalated when some people discovered Reyizha posted some Christmas celebration photos in 2014: “as a Chinese person, she celebrates Christmas but not our Chinese New Year. Kick her out of our country!” said a netizen.


"Miss Reyizha, if you don't celebrate Han festival, you should not make money from us Han" - from a Zhihu post.


Reyizha had since then deleted everything on her Weibo and remained silence until this day.



The Super Model 

On Feb 19th, Super Model Liu Wen posted a photo with Wendy Murdoch on her Instagram. The caption says, “Happy Lunar Year!!!”



The photo was sweet and festive, but the caption got into serious trouble. Instead of using “Chinese New Year”, Liu Wen, the world’s eighth highest-paid model and a beloved national pride, referred the festival as “Lunar New Year”. How is that tolerable?! She shall be trashed to hell!


At least that was what Little Pinkies and keyboard warriors in China believed. Filled with rage, they turned on their VPNs, claimed all the way over the Great Fire Wall to leave hateful messages on Liu Wen’s Instagram page. Hostile discussions were initiated on Weibo too; some people said both greetings should be ok, yet the majority who spoke accused Liu of pandering to other Asian countries, in particular to South Korea and Vietnam, two countries that have been in tension with China in recent years.



Liu Wen hasn’t responded anything to the controversy, but she did change the caption to “Chinese New Year” quietly.




The NBA Star

On Feb 18th, Malik the Chinese video maker/online influencer posted a video of him reacting to a clip of NBA players sending New Year wishes to their fans. Things all looked fine until around the 0:18 mark, when the player JJ Redick was caught saying “(to) NBA Chink fans in China”.


Malik's video on Weibo demanding explanations from NBA and the player.


"We need to fight for respect and equally. If we stay quiet, that shows we don't care." Malik calls on.


Online reaction towards the video was impetuous. Within a few hours, it received more than 40k reposts and thousands of furious comments.  The Little Pinkies quickly armed up,  climbed over the Great Fire Wall again for Twitter and Instagram troll of the NBA player.


Hateful comments on JJ Redick's Twitter.



24 hours after Malik’s viral video, JJ Redick responded on Twitter that he was “tongue tied” when shooting the clip. The respond seemed sincere, but it wasn’t enough. As public rage continued to spread in China, JJ Redick made an official apology again a few hours later, admitting that “words came out the wrong way” from his mouth and asking for forgiveness from his Chinese fans.

JJ Redick's first and second statements. 


Judging from comments under the second apology, a lot of people were still unsatisfied. Nonetheless, after Malik  put up a statement on the 20th calling netizens to stop the internet assault, things seemed to be settled to a calm end.



Like we mentioned in the beginning, during Spring Festival, the biggest national holiday in China, netizens tend to become extra talkative. They show off photos of family feasts, complain about their distant relatives, share personal stories of being dragged to blind dates set up by the parents and more.


But there were something else this year besides these usual topics. Within merely a week, the Chinese internet had gone through 4 viral events, together revealing a growing nationalistic fever and a society deeply divided over ideology. The conflicts of values were bare out, and meaningful conversations or consensuses were impossible: while some believes in equal and respectful relationships with other ethnicities, others loudly champions the unquestionable superiority of China, playing double-standard and personal abuse under the name of national interest and "cultural confidence" (a favorite term of Chairman Xi, btw). Of course we are not insulting the Africans, of course all the ethnicities in China have to celebrate the Spring Festival, of course the New Year belongs to China, and JJ Redick, how dare you to insult our country?


What grinds us even more is the fact that so few cares about public opinions like these in China any longer. It is no one’s fault, really; under a regime of which public speech is so tightly monitored and everything censored, what one sees is what are allowed to be seen. Full picture is too much to ask, and fair judgment is not even a thing that people dare to call on anymore. Eventually, the majority of intellectuals and KOLs chose to remain silence, and even those who spoke out knew things they say would disappear soon.


Maybe we are overthinking things. Maybe no one would remember anyway. The Chinese netizens had a busy, angry week arguing and trolling other people, but now that the holiday is over and *real life* has taken over again, the hatred would soon be replaced by more important agendas in their lives, right?





This year, firecrackers was banned completely in the city for “environmental and safety concerns”. We benefited with a holiday full of restful sleeps, but more deeply we felt something was missing: burning firecrackers is an important ritual of the festival, without the loud bangs, the city simply felt cold and empty.


Pubic opinions in China are just like the firecrackers. For one, they are highly flammable and explosive, and even during a time of which happiness were the main emotional theme around country, rage and hatred were still easily lit by nationalism. For two, they are both by nature short-lived; after all the energy being unleashed with the loud bang, all it leaves is salient silence and a cluster of dusty smoke.


All it took to ban a long-held tradition like firecracker was just a single government order, so what about public opinions? This, ultimately, is the question that absolutely shatters us just to think about. The public talking field in today's China is already so narrow, but it is still there, and whatever are still out - the good, the bad, the rude, the offensive, the dumb - deserve to be remembered.


That's all for today. Again, thank you so much for supporting our journey here at Elephant Room, and see you next time.



Biyi and Yan

5 thoughts on “Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism: a Fevered Chinese New Year

  • March 2, 2018 at 2:09 am

    I just shared this on Facebook. Of all the China-related news and culture websites that I follow, yours is one of my favourite, because of the way you guys explore issues in such a thoughtful, insightful, and compassionate way.

    I feel your frustration about these problems. For both China and the U.S. (where many of our problems are not so different), I hope we can change.

    And, for what it’s worth, I both enjoyed the quieter new year and missed the fireworks a little, too.

    Happy new year :).

  • March 3, 2018 at 12:24 am

    Infact, it was very bad seeing you what they did that day.
    Racism at his highest peak. What baffles me was, the messages people posted telling them how bad it was were all deleted till next day. I don’t know how true is it when someone told me they want what happens here remain here.
    What hurts me most is they portraying they are African’s Saviour and making it seems like they don’t get any benefit from other countries in Africa. They made Africa seemed to be just a country which is not good. Now the way and manner most of the citizens think of us is that we are beggars. Meanwhile it’s not so.
    An also, people always think of thier pockets alone. The Kenyans and the Ivory Coast guy didn’t do well also for mother Africa. If China has built a railway for you and you are happy, you shouldn’t go and portray that the whole continent is happy, meanwhile it’s not even the whole of Kenya but even Mombasa your capital. That’s what happens when citizens think of thier pocket first and I don’t blame them much but the Leaders of Africa. If you always have better agreements that favors your citizens more than others’, people will not be stranded and be acting that way just to make ends meat.
    We the youth of Africa has a job to play. Let’s help change the livelihoods of our people because the Chinese government’s plans is to change the livelihood of thier citizens. They do things which will benefit thier citizens. Together we can build a new Africa.
    May God enlighten the leaders of Africans’ eyes so they will think deeply and use the resources they have for the betterment of thier citizens.

  • March 3, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you so much for your encouraging message! happy new year to you too:)

  • March 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    Great stuff! And a happy Lunar New Year 🙂

  • March 6, 2018 at 5:04 am

    Thank you Romeo. It is perhaps true that they want what happens here remains here. All the Chinese netizens know it by heart that criticisms of that skit would soon disappear on the Chinese internet, which is why a lot of Chinese netizens had gone to twitter to apologize for the skit, and also the reason we wrote this piece because someone need to record what happened.

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