Questions About Race And Diversity Surface As Obama Visits Asia

President Obama is in China today, where he's addressing a range of issues, chief among them, trade. But President Obama's visit is also sparking questions about another issue in the region: race and diversity. NPR's Anthony Kuhn and Public Radio International's Phillip Martin, who have reported on minority issues in Asia, discuss the plight of ethnic minorities in the region and the significance of President Obama's visit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent stops by TELL ME MORE's D.C. Studios to give us an update on the stories she's been covering. But first, President Barack Obama is in China. He met, today, with Chinese President Hu Jintao and earlier he held a town hall meeting with students in Shanghai. There he faced a question that might not have been posed to his predecessors. One student asked him if America, as a diverse country, would help build a diverse world. Here is President Obama's reply.

BARACK OBAMA: We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation - we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.

MARTIN: Diversity in China is a tricky subject, as it is in many countries. There are more than 50 ethnic minorities in China, and much debate over how to integrate them with the majority Han Chinese. Obama was also in Japan on this trip, another place with complex racial attitudes. We wanted to know more, so we called Anthony Kuhn, NPR's correspondent in Beijing; and from Boston, we are joined by Phillip Martin. He oversees The Color Initiative, which is a series of reports that airs on Public Radio International's, The World. He has spent a lot of time in Japan and he has reported, extensively, on the subject of ethnic minorities and racial attitudes in Asia. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHONY KUHN: Great to be with you, Michel.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Thanks Michel, good to be here.

MARTIN: Anthony, I want to start with you. Now, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman made a comment last week, that I think many Americans found shocking. Will you tell us what he said?

KUHN: Yes, this was last Thursday at a routine meeting for - a briefing for foreign correspondents by the foreign ministry. And the spokesperson said that, because President Obama was a black man, then he should understand that the Communist Party had liberated the serfs by liberating Tibet in 1959. And what he was trying to say, I think, was that China also - that Tibet had a slavery problem and that they had an emancipator in the Communist Party; and that at the time, you know, President Lincoln was trying to keep the Union together, as China is now. But it didn't come out well. I don't think it was a message that was crafted for a foreign audience. And what it sounded like to a lot of foreign observers, was that they were saying because President Obama is a black president, he should see China's Tibet policies the way Chinese people do. It just didn't go over well, overseas.

MARTIN: How - how does China - is there a sort of a national philosophy about - about race and ethnicity in China, or is there the sort of - what can I say, kind of the official view that minorities are all treated the same, or... What - what is the kind of the national view on this? And how does - is there a variance with how it's experienced by minorities in China?

KUHN: Well, you have to understand, Michel, that, you know, China is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, going back thousands of years, and it has always been a multi-ethnic state, and most - a lot of the time, an empire. But the concept of race and nationality are very different from what we know in the - from modern concepts. Basically, the traditional view was that a nation was the same as a race, and that the Han race was the same as the Chinese nation. And China has made a lot of progress away from that. They realize that all the Mongolians and the Tibetans and the Manchu's, and the Miao, and all these 56 different ethnic groups, including the Han, are equally Chinese.

But still, there are problems when people who are not Han Chinese are thought of as foreigners, and of course, this issue has blown up in the past two years with riots in Tibet, last year in March, and this year in China's far west, in Xinjiang province in Central Asia. And so, although the government doesn't admit these are ethnic issues, it says these are just about separatism and terrorism, it really is about how well the country has done at giving these people the autonomy they need, the opportunities they need to enter the mainstream, and although the government doesn't like to admit it, there is a very strong debate going on here.

MARTIN: Hmm-Umm. I want to hear more about that in a minute, but I want to bring Phillip into the conversation. Phillip, how - how is, you know, I think most Americans are used to thinking of Japan as a - as a mono-ethnic country. Is it really that way?

MARTIN: Why I think that - that's how Asia is thought of - East Asia is thought of, in general. And no it's not. I think that in Japan, you find minorities that are in many ways acknowledged as minorities. They are both ethnic minorities and there are class minorities. The class minority, for example, would be the Burakumin, descendents of leather workers who largely live in the South of the country, including Osaka. And then you also have an indigenous group called the Ainu - a very tiny, tiny group - I think, represented by only one person in the - if I'm not mistaken.

And you, of course, also have of - of people who've lived in Japan for many, many years - decades; some, centuries - including Chinese and Koreans. Those we now know as the Chinese and Koreans. And so they occupy very important part in Japanese society. But many of the Koreans, in Japanese, will complain - and it's been determined, objectively, that they face discrimination. At one point, I interviewed a young man who, for example, wanted to be a pilot. He's of Korean descent. And he said that he had the hardest time achieving that goal because of traditional prejudices in Japanese society.

MARTIN: You mean getting access to the education he would need to take on that profession, or what?

MARTIN: Not so much access to education, but in terms of contacts. The Japan, of course, is built on - on, among other things, among contacts; family, who you know, and how Japanese you actually are in terms of perception.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Anthony Kuhn of NPR and Phillip Martin of PRI, and we're talking about race and ethnicity in Asia.

Anthony, would you tell us the story that, as I understand it, got a lot of attention in China, recently, about a young woman singer - where there have been a couple of biracial public figures whose treatment by the public has kind of brought the racial dialogue - at least, in regard to nonwhite, non-Asians - into the open. Will you tell us a little more about that?

KUHN: That's right, Michel. There's two people. One of them is a young athlete named Ding-Hui, who made the National Volleyball team. And he is part African- American and part - I'm sorry, he's part Chinese and part black. The other woman is a - was a contestant on a song contest on TV, and her father was African-American and her mother was Chinese. And both of these characters have been subject to a very intense debate in the media in China.

In the case of the athlete, a lot of remarks were made about his white teeth; and there was the young woman in Shanghai, there's a lot of comments about her sense of rhythm having to do with her ethnicity. And also, in the woman's case, a lot of people were critical because of what they said were - was the fact that her mother was not faithful, and this young woman was born out of wedlock. But it's attracted a lot of attention inside and outside China, to questions of multiethnic families.

And really, this is a novelty, in a sense, for China. There haven't been that many of this kind of marriages in China. And a lot of people don't know what to make of it. They're not sure what ethnicity these people are. And just for example, China is a country that's still does not recognize, for example, dual nationality. They consider you - either you are one or the other.

MARTIN: Hmm.

KUHN: And so, it's partly the same question with race. Chinese - Chinese public is still trying to deal with it.

MARTIN: Well in, I think, Louisa Lim - our colleague - Louisa Lim's reporting, it was actually not just perplexed, that they were actually - there were some people who were outright ugly to her and just made nasty comments about her complexion, and suggested she shouldn't be in public and so forth. I mean, so do you feel that kind of attitude is widespread?

KUHN: Yes, let me make another - take another couple of examples. One is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, unfortunately, was subject to some very derogatory remarks on previous visits. Also there's a fairly large contingent of African students studying in China. And in 1989, in the southern city of Nanjing, there were some civil disturbances - some near riots - over issues related to these students.

And I might add, that just in general, as an aesthetic sort of thing, Chinese believe that lighter skin color is more attractive. And women there spend money on skin whiteners and things to shield them from the sun. It's considered, you know, the fairer the skin you have, the more attractive you are. And this is something which is very sensitive now, in relation to these racial issues, but is a fact. And its obvious just riding on the street - riding a bicycle on the street - you can see people shielding themselves from the sun because they don't want to get tanned.

MARTIN: Philip, sorry, we only have a about a minute left. So I do want to ask, in the minute we have left, if you would comment on whether you think the fact of an African-American being president of the United States will have an impact on these attitudes around the world, in the part of the region - in the part of the world that you've been covering.

MARTIN: I think it will have some impact. But I think when we talk about China, we have to realize that Obama does not have the same star status in China as he does in other places. And that even as he was on the rise, he was the subject of very, very, if you will, nasty remarks on the Internet. The Internet is, as Anthony will probably agree, is the place where a lot of opinions come together, where they can't be said in other places.

Thus, the hostile reaction to Lou-Jing, the young woman in Shanghai, and to Obama, to some degree. I think he will have some impact, but I don't think it will ameliorate deeply ingrained prejudices that are reinforced by homogeneity and a veneration of whiteness.

MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there for now. It's a very complex and interesting subject. I thank you both. That was Philip Martin. He heads the Color Initiative at Public Radio International's The World. He joined us from Boston. And NPR foreign correspondent Anthony Kuhn joined us from our bureau in Beijing. Gentlemen, I thank you both.

KUHN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michel, appreciate it.

MARTIN: More reporting from around the world is coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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