The dominant historical narratives of the 1960's often focus on the the Black Freedom Movement in the U.S. and the Cultural Revolution in China. Few people, however, are aware of the intricate links between African American radicals and Chinese intellectuals and political leaders at the time.
As more Asians become involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important to look back at the history of Afro-Asian solidarity. Examining history gives us the tools to build an interracial coalition and learn from the fall of their movement in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
For Asians who don't support BLM, the history of Afro-Asian solidarity is a reminder of our revolutionary past and the radical dreams we inherited from our ancestors. Do we want to live in a society built on oppression, or do we want to fight for those dreams?
1 The Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Third World solidarity sprung up in myriad ways. Some occurred at a state level. Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America were fed up with the US-Soviet Cold War and started the Non-Alignment Movement.
Afro-Asian solidarity also took place at the grassroots level among radicals and intellectuals. They exchanged ideas and supported each other’s revolutionary struggles.
In China, Mao openly denounced systemic anti-Black racism and supported the Black Power movement. The Chinese government also commissioned countless propaganda posters. They portrayed African American freedom fighters alongside Chinese revolutionaries as a united force in global anti-imperialist struggles. Writings of African American intellectuals, such as W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, were translated into Chinese and disseminated broadly within China.
On the other hand, many African American radicals and freedom fighters turned to the Chinese Revolution and Mao’s revolutionary tactics for inspiration. Many Black nationalist/internationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, often promoted Maoist thoughts in their writings and programs.
In the 50s and 60s, a number of prominent Black intellectuals and revolutionaries also visited China. They include W.E.B. Dubois and the Black Panther Party leaders Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. Some of the African American visitors, such as Shirley Dubois and Vicki Garvin, even stayed in China to forge closer ties between Black and Chinese radicals.
Panther Kathleen Cleaver standing in front of a Chinese poster “Staunchly Support Black Americans’ Fight for Justice” at the Black Panther Headquarter in San Francisco, California
Through constantly learning about each other’s stories, struggles, and history via personal interaction and studies, Chinese and Black revolutionaries sustained their mutual support for decades.
2 The Demise
However, the solidarity between Chinese political leaders and African American freedom fighters was problematic from the beginning. Mao's idealistic commitment to the “complete emancipation of Black people in the US” and China’s vocal support for the Black Power movement also served a pragmatic purpose. China aimed to assert it’s leadership among the colonized and the oppressed people in the world after the Sino-Soviet split and China’s following diplomatic isolation.
In the 1980, China began its Reform and Opening. As a result, it established relations with the West and embraced capitalism. Subsequently, its goal for an alliance with the oppressed people subsided, along with its commitment to Afro-Asian solidarity.
Moreover, despite intellectuals’ criticism of racism in the US, many Chinese people China were still unaware of systemic racism in the US.
Meanwhile, the Chinese public and intellectuals rarely reckoned with anti-Black racism and colorism in their own country, families, or social circles. Some even perpetuated the idea that Chinese people as formerly oppressed people or a minority in the US could not be racist. This greatly hindered any meaningful discussions on anti-racist solidarity.
Without a common cause and a commitment to self-critique, the efforts of Afro-Asian solidarity soon collapsed.
3 The Historical Lessons We Could Learn From
1. Constant Learning & Unlearning
The commitment of the Chinese and Black radicals to learn about each other’s history and ideas reminds us that solidarity is not built on empty words but knowledge and understanding. We need to continuously educate ourselves, learn and unlearn the prejudices we hold.
It starts with small, easy steps - expand your horizon by learning from so many Black creators, scholars, and writers:
- Read a book on race in America (e.g. The Fire Next Time, The New Jim Crow, Women, Race and Class)
- Follow Black bookstagrammers and diversify your reading list (e.g. @beingabookwyrm, @bookslifehome, @black_girls_lit on instargram)
- Watch documentaries (e.g. 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, Paris is Burning) and so many great movies & TV shows that you don’t need me to recommend (but still, you have to watch I May Destroy You and Atlanta).
Most importantly, learn and LISTEN. Stop gaslighting who have lived experiences different from yours.
2. Draw the connections between our struggles, but center our actions on combating anti-Black racism and police brutality, not on our own agenda & feelings
By connecting the Chinese revolution and the Black Freedom Movement to worldwide anti-imperialist struggles, Chinese and Black revolutionaries sought to rally more support. Their success shows that drawing out the connections between our seemingly distinct problems is an effective strategy to persuade uninformed bystanders.
Asian activists for Black Lives Matter can use similar strategies to educate their family members and friends, such as informing them on how the Civil Rights Movement afforded Asian immigrants the opportunities to come to the US, attend desegregated schools and pursue job opportunities previously reserved for whites. Recent letters from young Asian Americans to their families (Letters for Black Lives) are useful examples on how to strike empathy among your Asian family members by highlighting the detrimental impact of white supremacy on both African Americans and Asian Americans.
However, the demise of Afro-Asian solidarity after China turned to the West exposes the difficulty in sustaining a coalition premised on self-interest and false analogy. While it is useful to connect our struggles to convince other Asians, we should never equate them as it is false and decenters the urgency of combating anti-Black racism. Moreover, fighting for justice is fighting for equality, not fighting to have the same white privilege built on oppression and exclusion. We should never again become co-opted by some short-term benefits and become the tools of the oppressors.
3. Move beyond performative allyship and symbolism
The mistakes that our forefathers made reveal the importance of reckoning with anti-Black racism within our own communities. Challenge your families and friends, speak up, and don’t get defensive when you get called out. In addition, don’t get hung up on claiming allyship. Do the real work, we don’t need a label. Combating institutionalized and everyday racism is uncomfortable, but it is the only path forward.