The casual racism of China's latest Internet sensation

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Zhang Xu has risen to Internet fame thanks to this controversial English-language video. 

Zhang Xu has become China’s latest Internet video sensation, and he’s done it by riding a wave of casual racism.

In the video, released last week to YouKu, China’s version of YouTube, Xu effortlessly slips into caricatures of people from around the world with surprisingly accurate renditions of English accents. He's an equal opportunity offender, tackling Italians, Koreans, Japanese, French--nine nationalities in total.

Intended for Chinese audiences but largely in English, the video provides a rare opportunity to see humor through another culture’s eyes. The humor, however, likely falls flat to most foreign ears. It doesn’t extend beyond predictable stereotypes. Xu is no Sasha Cohen, whose over the top caricatures laid bare the prejudices of their targets. Xu’s humor is casual racism, gussied up with some sensational linguistic talent.

Native English speakers will pick up the accents immediately—an impressive feat of linguistic dexterity on Xu’s part. He was an English major in college and clearly has a gift for language, and especially parroting accents—something he picked up working as an auditor for a foreign company.

Donning his Italian guise, Xu tells us, “My favorite food is spaghetti and pizza;” his Russian character likes vodka; and his Indian wants a wife who will cook him curry.

To his credit, Xu turns his gaze on China, too. “We Chinese are the toughest nation in the world. Gutter oil, slim pig additives, those stuff cannot destroy us,” he says. Those are references to some well-known scandals, and it’s instructive that, when turning his gaze to China, Xu eschews the base simplicity of his other ethnic stereotypes for something that verges on political commentary.

Still, you can only imagine what will happen in his sequel. A Mexican will proclaim “I like tacos,” a German will say, “Let’s go drink some beer!” and a Canadian will announce “Moose! We’ve got moose!”

If you turned those jokes around—if they were intended as mockeries of bad racist humor—well, that might be funny.

It’s not. And they’re not funny.

A great many Chinese clearly disagree. The video has garnered more than 500,000 views and 17,000 comments, most of them positive. The official blog for China’s largest search engine, Baidu, noted, in a breathlessly complimentary post, that the predictability of the jokes “makes them no less entertaining.”

The stereotypes, the blog noted, “may rub people the wrong way, but there are no signs that the clip has seriously offended anyone, at least not among Chinese audiences.”

It continued: “The overwhelming majority of netizens praise Zhang Xu’s creativity and talent.”

If the “overhwelming majority” don’t believe there’s racism, it must not exist, right?

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