Monday, December 31, 2012

On This Day: The 1988-1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests

NOTE: This posting would not have been possible without the research of Michael J. Sullivan ("The 1988-89 Nanjing Anti-African Protests: Racial Nationalism or National Racism?" The China Quarterly, No. 138 (Jun., 1994), 438-457), Barry Sautman ("Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China," The China Quarterly, No 138 (Jun., 1994) 413-437), Philip Snow (The Start Raft. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York 1988) and George T. Crane ("Collective Identity, Symbolic Mobilization, and Student Protest in Nanjing, China, 1988-1989," Comparative Politics, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Jul., 1994) 395-413). I urge anyone interested in the incident to read what they wrote for a much more complete understanding of what happened. There is much more information out there on the matter, such this text which I have not read, so if any study contradicts what I have written here please let me know.

The Nanjing Anti-African Protests are, for me, a defining moment of Sino-African relations because they revealed how people on the ground interacted, rather than what leaders expressed to each other in meetings and documents. Now, as a diplomatic historian, I obviously put a lot of value on the latter. If one wanted to look at Sino-African relations through the prism of Bandung or FOCAC 2000, there is nothing wrong with that. Still, I wanted to write something to commemorate the anniversary of this sad event. Also, I want to emphasize that I do not believe Chinese people to be uniquely or irredeemably racist. Americans have their own history of rioting against black students, for example. I am simply trying to insure that these sorts of stories do not disappear.

Africans students have been coming to China since 1960, and violent tensions between those students and the Chinese have been occurring since 1962, when a Zanzibari was beaten by hotel attendants. Still, it would not be until 1979 in the Shanghai Textile Engineering Institute when a pattern of anti-African violence was established by Chinese students, which "culminated in the [Nanjing] 1988-89 racial turmoil." (415 Sautman) The Shanghai violence began on July 3, when Chinese students complained about the African students' loud music and confronted them. A brawl happened, eventually a mob of Chinese students attacked the African students with makeshift weapons, there were rumors of the Africans having raped Chinese women, and the police response was insufficient to protect the Africans. "Sixteen foreign students were hospitalized, but as any as 50 foreigners and 24 Chinese may have been injured." (Sautman 415) A similar clash took place in Tianjin, 1986, this time over the mostly male African students' relations with Chinese women (For an idea of how much ill-will that engendered, read footnote 17 from Sautman 417) as well as playing loud music. The African students, after being detained by the police, needed their protection from Chinese student groups raiding the foreign dormitories. It should be noted that African diplomats had no success in trying to work with the Chinese authorities to better protect their citizens in China, which lead to "Some ambassadors recommended that their governments send fewer students to China until the situation changed." (Sautman 419) (Sautman 413-420; Snow 202)
As students, we have an undeniable right which is international in character. When theses rights are violeted [sic] we stand against [it]... The strike is for a just cause, so as another racist South Africa cannot be created in the heart of Asia. (The African Students Union in China, "Demand on human rights of African Students in China," 6 November 1978 from Sullivan 445.)
Nanjing universities in particular seemed to have problems dealing with African students, and their branch of the African Students Union sent a letter to the authorities protesting their treatment a year before the 1979 Shanghai violence, with no noted change in policy. In 1980, "Chinese students put up posters denouncing their government for lavishing food and clothing on African visitors." (Snow 201-202; Sullivan 445)
[W]hat kind of security do we have, if crimes are committed in the eyes of the people responsible for our security and yet nothing is done about it. (The Nanjing Branch of the General Union of African Students in China, "The Security of foreign students in Nanjing," 2 June 1986 1 in Sullivan 445)
There were multiple racially motivated attacks against African students between 1985 and 1986, and the Chinese police would arrive but not protect the students. In 1988, officials in Hehai University opted to build a wall around the foreign students' hall, ostensibly to protect against theft, but actually to insure that African students did not bring Chinese women to their rooms. The African students knocked down the wall, the university officials informed them that funds from their stipend would be docked in order to pay for the damages, and the students staged demonstrations. It was under this tumult that the university decided on December 24, the day of the Christmas Eve dance, that all foreign students must register their guests at the the university gate. (Sullivan 447)
[T]he entrance guard asked the two girls to register the two African students refused to let them do so. At that point, several other African students came over and started a quarrel with the entrance guard. In the ensuing brawl, eleven staff members were injured, one of them seriously, including a university vice-president who had one of his ribs broken when he tried to persuade the combatants to stop fighting. (Xia Zhi, "Campus incident in Nanjing." 4 in Sullivan 447-448) 
The African students... claim that the security guard permitted them and their guests to enter the campus after he saw the women's Hong Kong passports. When the Benin student later returned to the front gate to wait for another Chinese friend, a group of heckling Chinese students attacked him, chanting 'Black Devil, you must respect the laws of China!' and 'What do you want, Black Devil?' The African students then ran to the foreign students' hall to inform their friends of this attack after which several African students 'began to arm themselves with wooden sticks, empty Jinling beer bottles and stones.' (Sullivan 448)
Two African students, from Benin and Liberia respectively, wanted to bring two Chinese girls with them to the dance, and went to the main gate at Hehai. After that, what actually happened is bitterly disputed. Official accounts stress the unruly nature of the African students. African student accounts stress the racist provocation of the Chinese students. Regardless of whose 'fault' it was (and I personally believe the African students' interpretation of events), there was a fundamental hardening of Chinese student attitudes after the incident. Within hours, a rumor of a Chinese woman being kidnapped by the African students mobilized 300 Chinese students to lay seige against the African student's dormitories, and both group of students fought until 4 a.m., December 25. (Sullivan 447-448)
Black Devils! Kill the Black Devils! (Sullivan 448)
On December 25, Christmas Day, another group of 300 Chinese students attacked the foreign students' hall because they believed a rumor that a Chinese man had been killed by an African student the night before but the authorities had failed to arrest him. Shouting that they wanted to "Kill the Black Devils," they created another melee with the African students, which lasted for over two hours until it was broken up by the police. The General Union of African Students in China, or GUASC, requested from the university a police escort to the train station so they could go to Beijing to contact their respective embassies, which was swiftly refused. The African students, after suffering multiple attacks from mobs and being offered minimal protection by the university administrators, decided to go to the rail station on foot. To the Chinese students, it looked like they were fleeing after one of their own had murdered a Chinese man and that the government was letting them go free. In the evening, 600 students from Hehai University went off to gather support for their cause. They marched to Nanjing University, but "Only a handful of students... responded. The vast majority had been bribed with five RMB and a special meal by the school authorities not to participate." (Sullivan 450) Though Nanjing University did not offer much in the way of student support, other universities had students march in unison with the Hehai contingent, where they eventually made their way to the Jinling Hotel, the largest hotel in Nanjing and where the protesters believed the local officials were hiding the African students. Those African students, in the meantime, made their way to the Nanjing rail station but had no tickets to board any trains, and the security bureau would not allow them to leave because they needed to get to the bottom of what happened during the Christmas Eve fight. The bureau left forces to both prevent the African students from leaving and the Chinese students from attacking the African students.
Why? Because a 'Black Devil' killed a classmate of mine! We are not against you, we want to catch the 'Black Devils!' (Personal observation, Nanjing, 26 December 1988, Sullivan 451)
On December 26, as the Chinese students were returning to their respective universities, a group of 200 went to Nanjing University again to try and muster more support for their cause. A group of white foreigners engaged with the protesters, and when asked why they wanted to kill the African students, a Chinese protester explained that they wanted justice for the Africans' supposed killing of one of his classmates, and that he had no quarrel with white foreigners. Undercover policemen grabbed that student and a few others and hauled them away. Student demonstrators went to the Nanjing Provincial Government Building complex and demanded that the legal system be changed so as not to privilege foreigners, and that the murderers be arrested. The Chinese police dispersed the crowd after an hour. More dark-skinned foreigners went to the Nanjing rail station as they came under attack by racist Chinese mobs, and several non dark-skinned foreign students from the U.S., Japan, and Europe also joined in solidarity. This group of 140 foreign students was eventually found out by the Chinese student demonstrators, and they planned to muster a huge army of supporters to insure that 'justice' was meted to the murderers. (Sullivan 450-451)
this demonstration is illegal under the Constitution because the students had not previously approved the demonstration with the security bureau. (Sullivan 452)
An army of supporters the students did have, as 3,000 marched to the railway station. However, the police set up road blocks and were quite capable of dividing the students into smaller and more manageable groups, which were easier to control and disperse. Eventually the students were turned back, the closest they got was some 300 meters for the railway station. (Sullivan 452)
board the buses outside the station in order to bring them to a safer place. (The Report Sullivan 452)
As the Chinese students marched to the railway station, the police were urging the African students to leave the area on buses they had arranged for their travel. The Africans did not trust the police and refused, but were forced onto the buses by armed guards and transported to a military guest house in Yizheng, roughly an hour outside of Nanjing. This protected the African students, removed their presence from the student demonstrators, and it allowed the police to hold the instigators of the Christmas Eve incident, whoever it might be. Beginning on December 27, The police took steps to quash any further demonstrations in Nanjing, and, perhaps most importantly, had a spokesperson at the Jiangsu Ministry of Education inform that public that nobody had died during the Christmas Eve incident. While there were limited pockets of further demonstrations, they had all ended by December 30 in Nanjing. PRC authorities also moved quickly to make sure stories about the incident did not leak to the U.S. or European press, as non-African students came under increased surveillance and the African students were indirectly told that they would face expulsion if the communicated their experiences to foreign reporters. (Footnote 74 Sullivan 454) Also, on December 27, "a diplomatic delegation representing the African nations of Zambia, Ghana, Congo, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and Niger were allowed to travel to Yizheng to meet the African students. The diplomats were not successful in winning the release of their students, reflecting the African nations' lack of influence with the Chinese government." (Sullivan 454) In contrast, the American students that were brought to Yizheng were immediately returned to Nanjing after the U.S. consulate threatened Chinese authorities. While in Yizheng, on December 31 the police forcefully held six African students they believed to be responsible for the Christmas Eve incident, and the Hehai students were taken to a military base while the others were sent back to Nanjing. The remaining Hehai students returned to their university on January 5, though not after new regulations were created to insure that they could not have Chinese girlfriends sleep with them in the university. Of the six held students, three were released, and three were expelled. (Sullivan 454-456)
the Chinese people have been influenced by a history of racism. We absolutely oppose such racism. We oppose their racist statements made by a few Chinese students. We have implemented educational programmes to resolve such attitudes. (Hehai University president Liang Ruiji quoted in "Voice of America' distorts the reporting of the Nanjing Incident' Sullivan 456)
This marks the end of the incident proper, though there were still flare ups in other cities, including mob attacks on African students in Wuhan. When I learned that China maven Kaiser Kuo had been in Beijing during that winter and had heard about the protests, I reached out to him and he graciously took to the time to write the following response:
I was actually in Beijing in the winter of 1988-1989, not in Nanjing, but there were some anti-African protests that spread to Beijing as well, and there was (back in those days, without the Internet or any more reliable means of transmission) all sorts of confusion as to where the actual events took place to spark anti-African demonstrations... 
... We kept hearing stories, filtered of course through a very unsympathetic international student crowd, that they started simply because some African students in Nanjing (other versions said Hangzhou, and sometimes these stories were repeated with Beijing as the setting) had taken some Chinese girls to a dance and weren't allowed in, or had trouble with the security or with male Chinese students at the door. These stories escalated into tales about fistfights, about sexual assaults, even about a woman who was supposed to have been (in the exact words I was told) "fucked to death" by African men whose penises were too large for her, so she bled out. I was very skeptical, and was horrified when there were actual marches in Beijing protesting against African students. Later, my understanding is that many of the organizers of these anti-African protests became involved in the planning of the the 70th anniversary commemoration of the May Fourth Incident, and then after Hu Yaobang died in mid-April, in the Tiananmen occupation. (Personal email correspondence, Washington D.C., 20 December 2012)
I especially appreciated the way Kuo showed the connection between the Nanjing Anti-African Protests and Tiananmen in 1989, as it fused nationalism, racism, gender, and youth movement into a powerful force. This confluence is further explored in the important scholarship on Chinese conceptions of race, though Sautman and Sullivan's articles themselves give some excellent backgrounds on the genesis of the Nanjing protests as they related to Chinese racism, nationalism, and perhaps most importantly, the protection of Chinese women. To wit:
When I look at their black faces, I feel uncomfortable. When I see them with our women, my heart boils. (A 25-year-old Chinese quoted by John Pomfret, "Chinese-African tensions spotlight racism, disaffection," AP, 8 January 1989 in Sautman 425)
What happened in Nanjing those 24 years ago must have been terrifying for the African students. Since then, of course, more and more Africans have been coming to China to study, to work, and to live, so its affect on Sino-African relations should not be overstated. However, it should not be forgotten, and too often in Sino-Afrian discourse it is not mentioned at all.

In conclusion, one of the most telling aspects of this incident is that African countries could not pressure the Chinese government to release their students from Yizheng, while the United States could. Considering that there were only two students from two countries, Benin and Liberia, who were actually involved in the Christmas Eve gate incident, at minimum the Chinese government could have figured out which countries's citizen's were not involved and released them, but that did not happen. In other words, when African governments needed something within reason from the Chinese government, they were let down. 


  1. Thanks Jeremiah, I am simply trying to follow in the footsteps of great historical bloggers, such as yourself :)