BEIJING–A much-watched Lunar New Year TV show has sparked protests because of its alleged demeaning caricatures.

The gala, televised by China’s state broadcaster, featured a well-known Chinese actress as an African woman with exaggerated buttocks, a large chest and a face painted black. Carrying a platter of fruit on her head, she was accompanied by an African man dressed as a monkey.

Many found the portrayals offensive.

The show, designed to celebrate China as an economic and cultural powerhouse and rehearsed many times before senior propaganda officials, is one of the most watched in the world, with an audience estimated at 800 million. The skit was intended to highlight relations between Africa and China.

The skit was set in Kenya, home to a new Chinese-built railroad between the capital, Nairobi, and the coastal town of Mombasa that is part of China’s Belt and Road development initiative.

Dancers dressed as zebras, giraffes, lions and antelopes opened the sequence before actress Lou Naiming appeared with her outsize rear and voluminous dress.

Amid banter and confusion about a blind date for her daughter, the character expresses gratitude to Chinese doctors who once saved her life and says that China has done so much for Africa.

The African Students Association at Peking University said in a post on WeChat, the popular social media platform, that while the woman on stage was an unfair representation, the students were most troubled by the men in the background.

Let’s not even talk about the black men wearing monkey suits, the post said.

With China’s broad contacts across Africa, the producers of the New Year show should have known better, said Lina Benabdallah, an Africa specialist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

The dean of one of China’s African studies centres said that by Chinese standards the show was not racist.

In China’s cultural context, animals represent many good qualities, said the dean, Liu Hongwu of the Institute for Africa at Zhengjiang Normal University. Blackface was not used to muck up the black people but rather because the Asian actress needed to perform an African woman.

In Kenya, where the skit was set, some voiced a weary recognition of old caricatures. Several Kenyans said it was clear why the Chinese broadcaster could not see its mistake.

China is walled off except for economic interaction, said Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist at The Daily Nation in Nairobi. There’s no Google, it’s very policed, all social media is denied”.