15 Apr 2009

A 19-year-old volleyball player from the eastern city of Hangzhou has become the first black athlete to be called up to represent China, triggering fierce curiosity among his compatriots.Ding Hui, who is affectionately nicknamed Xiao Hei, or Little Black, by his team mates, was included in the national team's new 18-man training squad.

The son of a South African father and a Chinese mother, Ding is expected to play a key role in China's push for gold at the London Olympics in 2012.

However, despite the fact that he was born in China and only speaks Mandarin and his city's local dialect, his elevation has stirred up some racial prejudices among his countrymen.

Commentators have noted that he has a "pleasant and perky nature" and is talented at "singing and dancing". On Chinese internet forums, he has been lauded for the "whiteness" of his teeth and the "athleticism of his genes".

China's black population is tiny, and attitudes remain relatively unsophisticated. One predominately African suburb in the southern city of Guangzhou is cheerfully referred to as "Chocolate City".

In the run-up to last year's Olympic Games in Beijing, large numbers of blacks were rounded up by police on suspicion of being drug dealers.

However, the black population is growing rapidly. Since 2003, when China started pouring investments into Africa, there has been a significant movement of Africans in the opposite direction. Guangzhou authorities believe there are now 100,000 Africans from Nigeria, Guinea, Cameroon, Liberia and Mali in the city, and the flow is growing by 30 to 40 per cent annually.

Mr Ding told the Shanghai Wenhui newspaper that "people seem to care more about my heritage and appearance, but all I want to do is to play good volleyball". Referring to China's policy of drafting foreigners to boost its teams, he added: "I am not a foreign aid. I want to be included."

Li Shiping, the captain of the volleyball team, said the players had been irritated by the gawping of the Chinese media. "I had hoped the press would not dig out the boy's African heritage or his family details but instead focus on his skills and performance," he said, adding that there would be no chance to see Ding until a press conference next week.


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