Although 56 different ethnic groups are officially recognized in China, the nation remains fairly homogenous, with over 90% of its citizens belonging to the Han Chinese group. People from different ethnic backgrounds, as well as foreigners, consequently stand out and may sometimes face discrimination and racism in China.
In Western China, ongoing conflicts in Tibet, as well as in Xinjiang, have done their part in fueling ethnic tensions and the mistreatment of the respective local ethnic minorities, the Tibetans and Uyghur. Measures introduced by the government in order to support such minorities (e.g. easier access to higher education, less strict family planning rules) have somewhat backfired and rather served to foster some resentment among the country’s Han majority.
When it comes to foreign nations against which racism in China exists, the Japanese are particularly disliked. The use of slurs, such as “little Japanese” and even “Japanese devils”, is fairly common. The two countries’ bloody history — particularly Japan’s occupation of China and the atrocities against Chinese citizens during World War II — is neither forgotten nor forgiven. According to a BBC World Service poll, nine out of ten Chinese think negatively of their island neighbors.
Black people are often regarded suspiciously, too, and considered as all coming from Africa, regardless of their actual origin. In a society where light skin is still deemed desirable and seen as a sign of fortune, darker skin is often associated with less favorable traits. There have, for instance, been reports of African-American English teachers (and thus native speakers) being turned down in favor of white English teachers with non-native language skills.
China’s economic investment in a number of African countries may well have helped to create the prejudice that all Africans are poor and profiting from money that should rather be invested at home, thus fostering racism in China. In Guangzhou, where a large number of Africans have settled over the last few years, racial tensions have been particularly high.
Typically, however, racism in China is more common in remote areas than in the big cities with a large number of foreign residents. China’s long isolation from the rest of the world has also helped to foster stereotypes.
However, with the opening up of the country and especially the younger generation’s increasing contact with foreign cultures (e.g. basketball is now immensely popular in China), some of these negative stereotypes will hopefully disperse soon. Until then, while discrimination and racism in China do prevail, they are at least non-violent in the vast majority of cases.
The discrimination of people perceived as “different” is not just limited to racism in China, either. Age, as well as physical features such as height and looks, can also play a role in who gets a job and how much they earn. Stories of different pay checks for employees of different sizes are not unheard of, and any additional centimeter above the average size can mean up to 2.2% more pay for a woman, according to a study by Huazhong University.
Despite anti-discrimination laws that stress the equality of applicants, job ads requesting particular physical features or applicants who state their weight and height as well as include a favorable picture in their application are still fairly common.
Workplace discrimination can go even further than that. Both the traditional Chinese and the Western zodiac are often taken quite seriously in Chinese culture, and thus astrology-based discrimination has been known to happen. Astrological signs are commonly taken to reflect specific character traits.
Virgos, for instance, are supposedly fussy, spoiled, and even obsessive compulsive and they may therefore suffer on the job market — at least according to a 2014 online survey. Plenty of Chinese employers don’t believe in astrology as a criterion for selecting the right candidate, though, and any weakness may well be turned into strength, as Virgo perfectionists might argue.
There is no official religion in China, although a number of religions are officially recognized and Confucian beliefs still play an important role in everyday life. Religious discrimination is not particularly common in the workplace.
However, in order to avoid promoting religion in an officially atheist state, there have been cases of employers forbidding their employees to observe certain religious practices, at least at work. One such example is the ban on fasting during Ramadan that was pronounced for officials and students in Xinjiang in 2014.
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