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China Daily's African edition, 'Black People Toothpaste' and China's race problem

On Friday, China's largest English-language newspaper, China Daily, launched Africa Weekly, a supplement that "will look at the precise nature of Chinese involvement in Africa and also the prominent role many Africans play in China." The announcement on the government-owned China Daily featured quotes from Chinese and African diplomats falling over each other to praise how this initiative will improve mutual understanding, especially Africans' understanding of China: "Minister of Culture Cai Wu said the new weekly will give African people a comprehensive and reliable guide to China" and "Abdul'ahat Abdurixit, president of the Chinese-African People's Friendship Association, said the launch of an Africa edition by China Daily 'will surely help improve communication between China and Africa.'"

Improving African understanding of Chinese is a great goal, though it probably wouldn't hurt if Chinese expanded their views of Africans. During a China-Africa summit in 2006, billboards lining the road to the airport featured some purporting to "glorify" Africans, though at least one, featuring a tribesman with a bone through his nose, depicted a Papua New Guinean. A month before a 2012 China-Africa summit in July, Africans rioted in Guangzhou after a Nigerian was found dead in police custody; "the Chinese social media response to the latest protest in Guangzhou was dismayingly xenophobic," wrote Time's Hannah Beech, who also noted that the districts where Africans congregate in Guangzhou are known as "chocolate city."

While there's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there, it's hard to generalize about what Chinese think about Africans without being hypocritical, so I'll just quote what a Chinese English-teaching recruiter once told me in Beijing: "We try not to hire black people. They tend to scare the children."

One prominent example of the gulf in racial understanding between Chinese and Africans is "Black People Toothpaste," one of the most popular toothpaste brands in China, which I wrote a story about for Newsweek in 2010, and which a Colgate spokesman I spoke with on Friday confirmed is still 50 percent owned by his company. The logo features a minstrel singer wearing a top hat, backed by a white halo, and flashing a smile of blindingly white teeth. The brand is so widespread it's even engendered a popular knockoff brand, "Black Younger Sister Toothpaste."

Black People Toothpaste used to be called Darkie in English, but an outcry against Colgate when the news was reported in the United States in the late 1980s caused the brand to change the English name to the less offensive Darlie, and to change the logo from offensive and sinister to just offensive. "The only difference between black people and white people is that black people have whiter teeth," Wu Junjie, who works for a Taiwanese fast-food restaurant in Beijing, told me in 2010. Before China Daily and other state organs can successfully highlight the "prominent role" Africans play in China, it probably wouldn't hurt if fewer Chinese people associated black people with toothpaste.

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Would a Secretary of Defense Hagel oppose war with Iran?

Bloomberg is reporting that Chuck Hagel will "likely to be nominated as Secretary of Defense" having passed through the White House vetting process. The former senator from Nebraska will likely be touted as a bipartisan choice, though Hagel is hardly beloved by the GOP establishment these days and leading Republicans will likely be skeptical of many of his foreign-policy views, particularly on Iran. The National Review quotes a senior congressional aide:

“This is someone who will be extremely skeptical of the idea that, if push comes to shove, we should use military force against Iran... Fairly or not, if Senator Hagel is nominated by the president to be secretary of defense, it will be broadly viewed as a signal that the United States is not going to use military force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” 

Is that a fair description? Hagel did say during a 2006 visit to Pakistan that "a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” He has also advocated direct talks with Tehran. Here's are some remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2005: 

The fact that our two governments cannot-or will not-sit down to exchange views must end. Iran is a regional power; it has major influence in Iraq and throughout the Gulf region. Its support of terrorist organizations and the threat it poses to Israel is all the more reason that the U.S. must engage Iran. Any lasting solution to Iran's nuclear weapons program will also require the United States' direct discussions with Iran. The United States is capable of engaging Iran in direct dialogue without sacrificing any of its interests or objectives. As a start, we should have direct discussions with Iran on the margins of any regional security conference on Iraq, as we did with Iran in the case of Afghanistan.

Of course, that was quite a few years ago. More recently, Hagel co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with William Fallon, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, and Anthony Zinni, making the case that while Iranian nuclear weapons pose a threat, Washington needs a more honest debate about the consequences of war:

Iran is likely to retaliate directly but also to pursue an asymmetrical response, including heightened terrorist activity and covert operations as well as using surrogates such as Hezbollah. An increase in the price of oil could keep the market unstable for weeks or months and disrupt the global economy.

The conflict could also escalate into a regional war involving Syria, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and other Arab states and terrorist groups. While a U.S.-led attack on Iran might be quietly welcomed by the leaders of many Arab states, and certainly by Israel, it would most likely be greeted with hostility from wide swaths of the region’s Muslims.

Other consequences might include the increased likelihood of a decision by Iran to build a nuclear weapon; more instability in a region still seeking its footing; and the opportunity for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda to attract recruits.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama wisely described the dilemma that the United States faces as a great nation: “part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.” The United States needs to have a nonpartisan, reasoned discussion about the choice between necessity and human folly.

I'm not sure if a Hagel appointment would actually constitute a "shift" in Iran stance. Current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has also warned of the potential "unintended consequences" of a strike on Iran, saying it "could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region." Obama himself has said that "additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran. And so our preferred solution here is diplomatic."

Hagel called for direct talks with Iran during the closing years of the Bush administration -- as did Obama. He now says Iran's nukes pose a serious threat but that the GOP isn't fully considering the consequences of military action -- as do Obama and Panetta. If there's a "signal" being sent, it's that the administration is sticking with the plan on Iran.