Hong Kong Studies and Frank Dikotter’s Work on Race

By Vaudine England

If talking about race has been hard, how much harder has it been to accept that racism in statecraft has never been the sole preserve of white people. Not only Western imperialists have been racist; the Chinese were, and are, too. Proof of this is found, if any were needed, in the work of Frank Dikotter, back when he was still at SOAS. His analysis of ideas going into the republican revolutionary era showed how startlingly race-based Chinese nationalism has always been.

‘Myths of origins, ideologies of blood, conceptions of racial hierarchy and narratives of biological descent have indeed formed a central part in the cultural construction of identity in China,’ wrote Dikotter in The China Quarterly. That racism has so often accompanied nationalist passion is hardly a new thought; however, amid globalization, ‘racial identities and racial discrimination have in fact increased in East Asia’. The problem, he added, was that little work has been done on the detail and deployment of racial frames of reference in China. It’s another one of those taboos.

Dikotter has gone some way to remedy this, highlighting the use of language (volk in German, and the gradations of zu, zhong, zulei, minzu and zhongzu in Chinese) to denote racial hierarchies. In China, he noted, racial categories began to replace ethnocentric senses of identity in the last decade of the 19th century. He cites the charming thoughts of Tang Caichang (1867-1900): ‘Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and blacks are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered,’ to make this shockingly clear. Of course there was a political purpose for republicans to stress racial unity as they sought the end of the hitherto vital unifying force of dynastic rule. By the end of the republican period, sure enough, people in China had come to identify themselves and others in terms of race.

Yet many in China accused of racial thinking proceeded to blame it on western imperialism. They did so partly in the wrong belief that racism is somehow a single variant ‘which is universal in its origins (the West), its causes (capitalist society) and its effects (colonization)’, wrote Dikotter. The historiography of how the word ‘yellow’ came to be associated with the Chinese is fascinating, long before the republicans became active fashioners of their own identity, which was specifically based on race.

‘Racial identities during the late imperial period, in other words, were neither generated by a self-contained system called “Chinese culture”, nor imposed through “Western hegemony”. They were created through cultural interaction with a variety of schools of thought … leading to a variability of racial narratives which cannot be reduced to a single model called “Chinese racism”.’ Dikotter added: ‘the racialization of collective senses of identity has actually increased within both state circles and relatively independent intellectual spheres, particularly since the erosion of Communist authority after the Tiananmen massacre’. Failure to look race in the face when racial nationalism is rising remains problematic.

One can bring this right up to date by trying to answer the simple question: how many Americans (or Britons, or Swedes) are there in Hong Kong? The question revolves around which set of numbers you choose to use. Ask the American consulate and you’ll get a number for how many people in Hong Kong hold a U.S. passport. Ask the Hong Kong government’s immigration department and you’ll get a number for how many people use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the territory. Ask the Hong Kong government’s census and statistics department  and you will get a number for how many non-ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong hold U.S. nationality.

The first number you get will be the highest — after all, lots of Hong Kongers have a U.S. passport which they rarely use but keep in the top drawer for insurance. The second number will be smaller, and the third number the smallest of all.

The most recent example of this was when the missing bookseller apparently taken out of Hong Kong in December 2015, Lee Bo, was described as ‘first and foremost a Chinese’ despite his British passport.

In short, China claims its own. Foreign passports mean little if a person is deemed Chinese, and Chinese nationality law is race-based. A very few exceptions exist, where a white person (virtually never a brown or black person) is granted a Chinese passport as a special favour. They do not obscure the point that an ethnically Chinese person is seen as Chinese by the state, wherever they are and whatever passport they hold. That warm, fuzzy notion that a person is whoever they define themselves to be — for example when a Eurasian chooses to identify as Chinese, or not; or when someone born as a man chooses to identify as a woman — can simply be thrown out the window.


Dikotter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press , 1992.

Dikotter, Frank. ‘Racial Identities in China: Context and Meaning’. The China Quarterly, No 138 (June 1994), 404-412.