BEIJING — Chinese state TV included dancers in blackface portraying Africans during a national broadcast as Asia welcomed the lunar Year of the Ox Friday with subdued festivities amid travel curbs to contain renewed coronavirus outbreaks.
The "African Song and Dance" performance came at the start of the Spring Festival Gala, or "Chunwan," one of the world's most-watched TV programs. It included Chinese dancers in African-style costumes and dark face makeup beating drums.
The five-hour annual program, which state TV has said in the past is viewed by as many as 800 million people, also included tributes to nurses, doctors and others who fought the coronavirus pandemic that began in central China in late 2019.
China's ruling Communist Party tries to promote an image of unity with African nations as fellow developing economies. But state broadcaster China Central Television has faced criticism over using blackface to depict African people in previous New Year broadcasts.
On Twitter, Black Livity China, a group for people of African descent who work in or with China, called the broadcast "extremely disappointing." It noted CCTV's 2018 Spring Festival Gala, which featured performers in blackface with a monkey.
"We cannot stress enough the impact scenes such as these have on African and Afro-diasporic communities living in China," the group said.
Festivities for the holiday, normally East Asia's busiest tourism season, are muted after China, Vietnam, Taiwan and other governments tightened travel curbs and urged the public to avoid big gatherings following renewed virus outbreaks.
Elsewhere in China, Buddhist and Daoist temples that are usually packed with holiday worshippers were closed. Streets in major cities were largely empty.
Visitors gathered outside the locked gates of the Lama Temple on Beijing's north side to burn incense and pray.
Ji Jianping, who wore a jacket and red face mask, the traditional color of good fortune, said she and her family skipped visiting their hometown in the northern province of Shanxi due to the pandemic.
"I wish for safety and health, as well as happiness for my family," said Ji, 62.
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China's appeal to the public to avoid travel is denting spending on tourism and gifts. But economists say the overall impact might be limited if factories and shops keep operating instead of taking their usual two-week break.
The Commerce Ministry said it found 48 million more people in Chinese cities planned to celebrate where they live instead of traveling. Departures from Beijing's two major airports were also down 75 percent from last year on Wednesday, the Chinese capital's government said.