From the Archives: They Face Widespread Prejudice

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

NANJING, China -- Outside the foreign students’ dormitory at Hehai University stands a new iron fence, a monument of sorts to the determination of university authorities to keep Chinese women away from African men.

The iron structure also can be seen as a reminder of a struggle by African students at Hehai to preserve some semblance of a normal life in a puritanical, closed society that treats them as the ultimate outsiders.

Twice last fall the university built a concrete wall to control access to the foreign students’ dormitory. Twice the Africans knocked it down.

But after two weeks that began with racial disturbances and ended in a bitter stand-off with Chinese authorities, many of the African students now say they want to give up and go home.

This time, it seems the iron fence is up to stay. Students in Nanjing already have dubbed it “The Great Wall.” As such, it is a symbol of the myriad ways in which foreigners in China, particularly Africans, are constrained from free and easy friendships with Chinese.

African students endure the restrictions imposed on other foreigners, receive the same isolating and jealousy-provoking privileges and, in addition, face widespread prejudice.

“As for racism in China, like any Communist country, they tend to hide it,” charged Sam Mejene, 23, an irrigation and drainage engineering student from Cameroon now studying at Hehai.

“At first you don’t feel it--not until you come to understand Chinese society,” he said. “So it makes it very difficult for any tourist, or anyone who just passes through China, to understand how much racism there is. We, the African students, are the victims.”

The Chinese “have an illusion that black means miserable, black means poor, black means stupid,” said Dauda Diakite, 25, a computer science major from Mali studying at Nanjing University.

African students, mostly men here for five years or more, also face the task of studying technical subjects in an extremely difficult language that they begin to learn only after their arrival.

Most of the 1,500 African students in China speak either French or English with fluency and thus could learn their specialties far more easily by attending schools in Europe or the United States. For nearly all, coming to China was a second choice, but a path taken because they were offered scholarships here.

Diakite said that when he first moved to Nanjing after a year of study at the Beijing Language Institute, he still could barely read his textbooks.

“I had to check the dictionary all the time,” he said. “But in the library we could get books related to our major, so it helped very much. I used to read in French and English and Chinese.”

Diakite said he feels he has received a solid education in computer science--partly because, as a foreign student, he was given the special privilege of more hands-on computer time than is allotted to Chinese students.

Language Barrier

Not all African students fare as well. Because nearly all Africans have come to master specialties--not just to learn Chinese--their time is largely wasted if they fail to surmount the language barrier.

Some students find themselves totally discouraged.

“The problem of language is so severe that our diplomas are not worth anything,” said one student who speaks fluent French but has been unable to master Chinese. “We don’t understand what we have been taught. If you are an architect, and you construct a building, the building may fall down.”

Diakite said he believes the only hope for foreign students to learn Chinese more easily “is to make some social change so foreigners can have more contact with Chinese people.”

However, Chinese authorities fear the influences that foreign young people may have on Chinese friends. They also doubt, with some apparent legitimacy, the ability of foreigners to endure the Spartan conditions in which Chinese students live.

At almost all schools in China, foreigners live in separate dormitories, with better conditions than Chinese students but under the watchful eyes of university employees who keep track of visitors.

Mejene recalls his disappointment upon arriving at the Beijing Language Institute in 1984 to begin Chinese language studies.

“I started experiencing what communism is like,” Mejene said. “It was so tough. Everything was closed. It was like I was in a guardhouse. . . . They have people keeping track of who comes in and out. Chinese have to say who they’re visiting.”

Mejene said that on three occasions in 1985, Chinese women visited him in his room, first registering their names at the gate and then again at the dormitory.

“Afterward, I never saw them again,” he said. “I heard they were arrested.”

But the Hehai foreign students’ dormitory was long known among African students across China as an exception, an island of social freedom where foreign students and Chinese friends mixed in an atmosphere not so different from that of a student dormitory in the West.

When Mejene moved to Hehai University in September, 1985, “The situation was completely different from what it was at the language institute. If a visitor wanted to see you, they could go into your building directly, and anything goes on.”

It was this free-wheeling atmosphere that Hehai University officials resolved to end by building the wall.

Hehai University President Liang Ruiju, speaking at a news conference last week after the battle of the wall had escalated into an international incident, said the structure was necessary “to prevent a small number of African students from bringing women to their rooms.”

“Actually, until now, they were having guests in their rooms,” Liang said.

So what precisely is the problem, he was asked.

‘Sex Problem’

“It’s a sex problem,” Liang replied, switching from Chinese into English to emphasize the words “sex problem.”

As Liang spoke, about 140 foreign students--mostly Africans, plus other dark-skinned students and fair-skinned supporters--were being held incommunicado at an isolated guest house outside Nanjing. All but three, who face penalties for alleged involvement in a campus brawl, were returned to their campuses a few days later.

The students had been taken to the guest house after a Christmas Eve campus clash led to anti-African street demonstrations.

The clash was sparked by an argument between African students and gatekeepers over access to campus by Chinese dates. African students and school authorities agree that the dispute over the wall led to the confrontation.

But even at the guest house, Liang complained at the news conference, authorities were unable to maintain control over the students.

“I feel bad about saying this,” Liang said, his face twisted in dismay, “but some Caucasians are extremely willing--maybe they’re wives or something like that--to live together with them. Some of the white women are unwilling to leave them. . . . They are living together (in the guest house) as couples.”

Many Chinese seem unable to understand the bond other foreigners in China often feel with Africans, or the depth of resentment at the frequent use by Chinese of the term “black devil.” For more than a century, many Chinese have referred to foreigners as “devils"--Europeans and Americans who sailed to China were “ocean devils,” the Japanese in World War II were “Japanese devils” and Africans were “black devils.”

Although “ocean devils” has largely fallen into disuse, the phrase “black devil” continues to be widely used.

African students, partly because of the discrimination they face in public places, tend to have frequent dormitory parties that are loud and boisterous, and these are a source of resentment.

“I would like to go to the theater, but if I go, perhaps someone will throw a small stone at me and say ‘black devil,’ ” Diakite said. “You feel very unhappy.”

At the same time, however, Africans share in the privileges granted all foreigners in China. While Chinese students are housed eight to a room, African students have singles or doubles. Foreign students generally have separate dining halls, with superior food at higher prices.

A student from Senegal at Hehai University describes how school officials make separate arrangements for foreign and Chinese students when his class goes on study trips.

“They put the Chinese in a dormitory where they stay four to a room, and we stay in a hotel,” said the student, who declined to be identified. On a Yangtze River boat trip the Africans rode third-class, while the Chinese went fourth-class.

“You can feel all these differences that we didn’t ask for,” he said. “I think it’s very hard for the Chinese. Even though you could see them laughing with you and smiling, you could feel there is something going on inside they do not want to say.”

Many Africans and other foreigners believe that most ordinary Chinese rather easily accept the granting of special privileges to people from rich industrialized countries, as part of what seems the natural order of things, but feel more resentment at seeing Africans enjoying the same perks.

“Most people think the Chinese sacrifice to give us clothes and food,” Diakite said.

Yet when individual Chinese break through their own stereotypes, they can sometimes change very quickly, another student from Senegal said.

“A few of them are very nice,” he said. “Maybe they try to find reality. They want to compare what they have heard and what they discover. And they find that what they have heard about Africans is not true.”