Chinese New Year TV gala criticised for 'blackface' skit

China's Lunar New Year television extravaganza, watched by hundreds of millions, was hit by online accusations of racism Friday over a sketch in which a Chinese actress appeared made up as an African woman, with large fake buttocks.

Against a savannah backdrop, actress Lou Naiming, wearing colourful clothes and carrying a tray of fruit on her head, was followed by an actor dressed as a monkey.

With another actress made up as her daughter and drawing in the Chinese presenter on stage, the sketch of comic misunderstandings ends with Lou declaring to applause: "I love China!"

Apparently intended to promote Sino-African friendship and Beijing's growing infrastructure investments on the continent, the skit on state television CCTV also featured a group of black dancers wearing grass skirts and feather headdresses alongside actors dressed up as zebras, giraffes and lions. 

The act provoked strong reactions from foreign Twitter users, who criticised its "racist" prejudices and lambasted its use of the Western theatrical practice of "blackface" to stereotype black people, now widely regarded as offensive.

But the skit also stirred unease in China, where hundreds of Internet users expressed their dismay on the Weibo microblogging platform.

"This sketch offends both Africans and Chinese spectators, it was not comical," said one Weibo user. 

Another said: "I do not see at all the expression of Sino-African friendship, but the racist attitude of an arrogant so-called great power."

"Completely inappropriate," was another reaction.

Another comment, censored but recorded by the Free Weibo site, quipped that a "new Orientalism" was emerging where "the Chinese engineer replaces the Western missionary" in Africa.

Other Chinese internet commenters, on the other hand, defended CCTV: "I do not really see anything racist, China does not attach much importance to all this," said one.

The offending performance was part of the comedy sketches for the traditional Lunar New Year's Eve extravaganza broadcast by CCTV and watched by hundreds of millions of Chinese. 

Discussion and public awareness of racism in China is notoriously low -- often resulting in viral scandals that spark global outrage beyond the Great Firewall but cause little concern within the mainland.

In 2016, a laundry product firm apologised after a TV advertisement for its detergent showed a black man being forced into a washing machine before emerging transformed into an Asian man. The company initially dismissed critics as overly sensitive.