Seeing through this slitty-eyed hypocrisy

Spanish athletes have been slated for mocking the Chinese. So why is it okay for Free Tibet activists to peddle slitty-eyed prejudices?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Over the past week, three Olympic teams at the Beijing Games have inserted themselves feet first into hot water after being photographed making a slitty-eyed gesture. First, in a group photograph, the Spanish men’s basketball team pulled the skin away from their eyes to impersonate their Chinese hosts. Then the Spanish women’s basketball team did the same. Yesterday, the Argentinean women’s football team were also photographed doing the ‘slitty eyes thing’, threatening to cause, in the words of the Daily Mail, an international ‘race row’ (1).

The rush to denounce these Olympians for their ‘comically out-of-date attitude towards race relations’ (2) raises an important question: why is it wrong for athletes to make the slitty-eyed gesture but it is apparently okay for well-to-do campaign groups concerned about Tibet to peddle the slitty-eyed prejudice about the Chinese? As spiked revealed earlier this year, the London-based Free Tibet campaign has disseminated propaganda showing the Chinese as slitty-eyed, yellow-skinned, buck-toothed invaders, and nobody batted an eyelid (no pun intended).

Slit eyes, buck teeth and
yellow skin: how Free Tibet sees
Chinese soldiers

As part of its campaign against China’s Gormo-Lhasa railway line, which will closely connect China to the Tibetan capital, the Free Tibet campaign produced a ‘protest postcard’. It encouraged its members to sign the postcard and send it to British package holiday companies that were actively promoting the railway which, in Free Tibet’s eyes, will strengthen China’s ‘military and political grip over [Tibet]’. The postcard, which was available to download from Free Tibet’s website from 2006 until some time after the publication of the spiked article in April this year, showed Chinese officials and soldiers with extremely slitty eyes.

Where the Tibetans depicted on the postcard had soft faces and human, inquisitive eyes, the Chinese were shown with severe diagonal slits where their eyes should have been. They also had sickly, yellow-coloured skin and ugly protruding teeth. As spiked argued, the picture rehabilitated ‘long-standing prejudices in Western depictions of the Chinese’. Over the past hundred years, crude Western cartoonists have, in the words of one academic study, depicted both the Chinese and the Japanese with ‘exaggerated physical features’ such as ‘buck teeth, slit eyes and yellow-tinted skin’ (3), and these prejudicial visions were dusted down and given a radical gloss by Free Tibet.

spiked compared America’s
wartime denigration of ‘the Japs’
with Free Tibet’s view of a Chinese
politician (right): note the yellow
skin, large teeth, and slit eyes

Were there any outraged newspaper editorials headlined ‘Free Tibet in slitty eye shock’ between 2006 and 2008? No, there were not. In fact, if this postcard campaign was a success then we can presume that many of Free Tibet’s liberal supporters, possibly the same kind of Guardian-reading individuals who have been outraged by the Spaniards and Argentineans pulling slitty-eyed faces in Beijing, will have read the postcard, looked at the image, and then signed their name on the back before sticking it in the post.

The Spanish and Argentinean athletes, who have apologised for their gestures, have effectively been found guilty by the British press of unsophisticated Sinophobia. Their antics have even been cited as evidence of a broader culture of ‘racial insensitivity’ in Spain and Latin America (4). We Britons, by contrast, prefer more high-minded forms of China-bashing, where fear of the godless Chinese beast is frequently disguised as concern for pure and pathetic Tibet. What gobsmacking hypocrisy. The kind of suspicion about the Chinese encouraged by Free Tibet and others is far worse than what those Latino athletes did as the cameras clicked. They were only joking, however badly, whereas, as one perceptive writer argues, the simple-minded demonisation of ‘evil China’ by many Free Tibet activists propagates an image of the Chinese as ‘an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits’, in which Tibetans come to be seen as ‘superhuman’ and the Chinese as ‘subhuman’ (5).

Read the original spiked article in full here.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Argentinian women’s football team risks Olympics race row by making ‘slit-eyed’ gestures, Daily Mail, 19 August 2008

(2) Spain should know better by now, Guardian, 15 August 2008

(3) See Slitty eyes and buck teeth? It must be China, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Spain should know better by now, Guardian, 15 August 2008

(5) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jnr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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