When Barack Obama touches down in Shanghai on Sunday night, he will arrive in a country where he is hugely popular, especially among the younger generation.

For many young Chinese, the U.S. President has become no less than a youth icon. The story of the unlikely rise of a minority African-American to the world’s highest office has captured the imagination, with few similar inspiring parallels here in China.

But Mr. Obama will also walk into a debate that has in recent months taken centre-stage here — a debate about how an increasingly diverse country is confronting long-entrenched racial stereotypes that have often negatively perceived people with darker skin.

Lou Jing (20), daughter of a Chinese woman and African-American father, found herself at the heart of this debate in August when she made it on to a popular Shanghai reality television show. Ms. Lou, who reached the shows finals, became the target of racial abuse when a rumour circulating on the Internet alleged she was the product of an extra-marital affair the Shanghai woman had with an African man.

“Wrong parents, wrong skin colour, wrong to be in a television show,” was one widely circulated comment by a blogger. Other comments were far worse.

The racist vitriol shocked many and was widely condemned by newspapers here. Many of the comments directed at her were from China’s famously aggressive and hypernationalist netizens, and far from reflected mainstream views. But underlying their views was also a deeply entrenched cultural bias.

“Much of China’s simmering intolerance is colour-based,” newspaper columnist Raymond Zhou observed. “It is not an exaggeration to say many of my countrymen have a subconscious adulation of races paler than us. The flip side: We tend to be biased against those darker skinned.”

As he points out, the bias is more about class than race, and is not overtly racist. In fact, it is often directed against darker-skinned Chinese, traditionally associated with farmers and rural migrants. As in India, fair skin is highly prized in this country, which has a huge market for skin-lightening products.

The colour debate is one Chinese society has been forced to confront this past decade. With China’s cities opening up to foreigners from all over the world, there are more darker-skinned immigrants in China now, from Asia and Africa, than ever before in its history.

Especially on the back of China’s growing trade with Africa, which crossed $100 billion last year twice as much China trades with India — an increasing number of African immigrants have settled in Beijing, Shanghai and across China’s south. In Guangzhou, hundreds of African migrants protested in July what they described as harassment by police.

“The concept is deeply rooted, white people are looked up at but people assume black people are not well educated and are viewed with suspicion,” explained Shanghai resident Gu Beiwen (24).

At least among young Chinese though, the cult of Obama is going some way to challenge stereotypes. A poll conducted last week by a popular Chinese website asked what people found most attractive about Mr. Obama.

Half of the 3,581 respondents said it was “his smile”. Thirty per cent said: “his skin colour.”

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