Category Archives: Opinion

[Opinion] Of ‘blackfaces’ and SinoAfrican modernities

Screen shot from The Break Up Guru (China 2014)

You could compile a long list of blackfaces’ in East Asian media over the last decade see here, here and here. However, the latest iteration of this Euro-American racist archetype in Chinese media is by far the most controversial.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, a well-known Chinese actress performed in blackface’ during a skit on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. Lou Naiming (with exaggerated buttocks, a fruit platter, and a black man dressed as a monkey) played the role of a traditional and somewhat confused African mother in a skit about love, tradition, and China’s historical role in Africa.
The Gala is not just another Chinese TV show. It is a well-rehearsed and perfectly curated 4-hour-long representation of Chinese culture, tradition, everyday life, and nationalism.

Spring Festival Gala with Chinese actress in blackface (left).

CCTV Spring Festival Gala’s blackface’ adds to the increasing list of racist’ incidents in China (concerning black people) that have gone viral see here and here. Most big Western media conglomerates carried the story and, as of the time of writing, no formal apology has been issued.
Africa as China’s damsel in distress’
Beyond the blackface’, the skit’s story is rather simple but problematic. Carrie, an 18-year-old Kenyan stewardess trainee, asks her Chinese teacher to pass as her boyfriend to avoid a blind date organised by her mother. Carrie does not want to marry yet. She wants to work and then go to China to study.
In the skit’s resolution, Carrie confesses to her mother and explains her desire to go to China. It becomes clear that Carrie sees China as a way to escape tradition (and her mother’s traditional views on marriage). All of a sudden, Carrie’s mother praises China’s role (past and present) in Africa and agrees to Carrie’s plans, shouting I love the Chinese! I love China!’
The skit intended to highlight the positive aspects of China-Africa relations. It does this, however, by presenting a narrative in which China is seen as a solution to Africa’s backwardness’.
As I was watching the skit, I was reminded of a piece of analysis I wrote some years back about the representation of Africans on the highly popular dating TV show If You Are the One (feicheng wurao).
Similar to the Gala’s skit, the production of If You Are the One’ portrayed Xiao De (a participant from Guinea Bissau) as a free-spirited girl, trapped by tradition. Xiao De saw going to China as a way to escape her fate (an arranged marriage), study, and become independent.
In the dating show, Xiao De is strictly looking to marry a Chinese man. Moving to China and marrying a Chinese was for Xiao De, as it is for Carrie, a way to escape tradition and enter modernity a Chinese version of modernity perhaps.
The blackface’ skit reproduced a narrative line that is representative of China’s general approach to Africa. Both official and popular Chinese narratives about Africa consistently try to construct an image of the continent as China’s damsel in distress’.

Paolo Uccello’s depiction of Saint George and the dragon, c. 1470, a classic image of a damsel in distress.

The age-old trope of the damsel in distress’ in film, literature and video games depicts a young and beautiful woman who needs to be saved from a monster by a male hero. In the end, the woman usually marries her rescuer. On both the skit and the dating show, this gendered narrative portrays China as the (modern) male hero and Africa and the princess in jeopardy (or a dire predicament caused by tradition).

Xiao De in her last appearance on If You Are the One

This trope has multiple iterations in China-Africa relations and is linked to the Chinese white saviour complex, as seen in the box office hit Wolf Warrior 2.
In short, behind the Gala’s blackface’ lies a consistent top-down, ego-boosting effort to see and represent China as a way for Africa to enter modernity. An effort that casts China-Africa relations along the lines of the binary of Africa as the past and China as the future’.
Beyond the blackface’: Africa as the past’ and China as the future’
The Spring Festival Gala is a program full of skits. While the skits are normally comedic, they generally intend to inform and educate the audience about a particular topic (from military affairs and everyday life to, controversially, other cultures).
The blackface’ skit the first in the Gala’s history to portray China-Africa relations succeeds in informing its Chinese audience about China’s historical role in Africa. However, it fails to educate’ viewers as to the complexities and realities of contemporary sub-Saharan life.
The proof is in the pudding. The skit’s story is supposedly set in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, but all you can see in the background is a savannah. This stereotypical African landscape is about to be crossed by a Chinese-built railway hailed as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Actual Nairobi

CCTV’s imagined Nairobi

Representing Africa as the past’ means associating ideas about Africa strictly with nature and tradition. Stereotypical views on Africa are not only part of the top-down’ approach as seen on CCTV’s skit they pervade everyday life in China. This is something that many African students who have lived in contemporary China understand.
Often, when African youngsters want to make a quick buck in China, they take on entertainment jobs that essentialise their Africanness. This happens to other foreigners in China as well. But in the case of Africans, they often end up donning traditional attire and then drumming or dancing, even if they have no idea about either.
For many ordinary Chinese people, there is no space for modern Africa. By reproducing age-old stereotypes about the continent and its people, the CCTV skit catered to this.
When asked about this, young and educated Chinese often claim that people who produce negative stereotypes about Africa (and blackness) are not aware they are doing it. Naivety and ignorance are the common justifications. Ordinary Chinese, they say, ignore African and global histories and only reproduce what is offered to them by Hollywood.
This is to some extent true. However, there is evidence from museum exhibitions (pairing Africans to fauna) to film festivals (solely focusing on films about indigenous Africa, for example, Namibia’s Himba people or the Maasai) that point in another direction. Even ‘educated’ people in positions of power in China seem to hold these views. Blaming Hollywood seems a poor defence.
In a future post, I will propose an alternative route through which negative cinematic representations have entered Chinese imagination. Stay tuned!
*An edited version of this post was published by The Conversation Africa as ‘What ‘blackface’ tells us about China’s patronising attitude towards Africa’  
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Racisme – avec des caractéristiques chinoises: comment le visage noir a assombri le ton des célébrations du Festival du Printemps en Chine.

Une pièce en collaboration entre Hannah Getachew et Runako Celina Bernard-Stevenson, traduite en français par Grace Maloba

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Les événements du gala du Nouvel An / Festival du Nouvel An chinois de 2018 sont en train d’être débattus en ligne parmi les Africains en Chine et ailleurs dans le monde, les Chinois, et maintenant même la presse occidentale en parle. Quelque 800 millions de personnes étaient connecté pour être témoin du spectacle, entre autres choses, une actrice chinoise défile autour de la scène le visage noirci, avec des fesses et une poitrine prothétiques. Comme beaucoup le savent maintenant, le conte raconté dans le sketch en question ressemble à ceci:

Une jeune fille africaine est sous la pression apparente de sa mère (jouée par l’actrice chinoise Lou Naiming le visage noirci) pour se marier à l’âge de 18 ans. Elle ne veut pas se marier mais veut plutôt aller en Chine pour étudier parce qu’elle aime passionnément nous rappelle, la Chine est incroyable. Alors, elle demande à son ami chinois de faire semblant d’être son fiancé dans le but de faire croire à sa mère qu’elle suit ses désirs. La mère est ravie d’apprendre que sa fille a l’intention d’épouser un Chinois et dit à l’auditoire combien elle est reconnaissante de tout ce que la Chine a fait et fait pour l’Afrique. Pourtant, peu de temps après, le secret est révélé quand la vraie mariée de son fiancé fictif (une femme chinoise) apparaît sur scène dans une robe de mariée, prête à dire «je fais ».

Lorsque sa fille explique pourquoi elle a menti au sujet du mariage et insiste pour déménager en Chine, sa mère semble oublier son désir de voir sa fille se marier. Au lieu de cela, elle regarde passionnément dans le public et déclare « J’aime les Chinois. J’aime la Chine ».

Il semble y avoir une certaine confusion quant à savoir si le personnage de singe accompagnant a été joué ou non par un homme africain.

La pièce se termine comme elle a commencé – en jouant Shakira, la meilleure exportation de l’Afrique, tandis que les Africains dansent sur scène.

Divers Africains, Divers Opinions

La pièce fait plusieurs fois référence à ‘feizhou’, traitant à nouveau le continent africain comme une entité singulière. En fait, il y a 55 pays à travers le continent africain et sa masse terrestre est trois fois supérieure à celle de la Chine. Ce sketch dénature les pays sub-sahariens et la diaspora noire mondiale, mais ne fait aucune référence aux pays nord-africains. Autrement dit, l’Afrique est trop vaste, complexe et diverse pour tout récit singulier.

Ce principe s’applique également au contenu de cet article. Black Lives China ne prétend pas englober toute la diversité de l’expérience noire en réponse à ce sketch, et les lecteurs devraient se méfier de tout article qui prétend le faire.

Parmi la communauté noire, il y a des membres qui trouvent ce sketch inoffensif, divertissant ou largement hors de propos. Pour eux, les éléments du jeu sonnent vrai. Les zèbres, les lions, et les singes sont originaires d’Afrique sub-saharienne, diront-ils. Certains ont été amusés par la musique et la danse, tapant leurs pieds au rythme des tambours sur scène.

D’autres appellent le sketch une distraction. Toute représentation raciste insensible des Africains noirs ne peut exister qu’en raison de la dynamique de pouvoir économique entre l’Afrique et la Chine, disent-ils. À la suite de cette argumentation, on peut souligner le déséquilibre monétaire dans le niveau des investissements financiers que la Chine fait dans les pays africains, contrairement à l’inverse. Une fois que les pays africains auront organisé et négocié des investissements avec la Chine sur la base de priorités régionales et continentales claires, le racisme en Chine s’estompera progressivement. Ce sont juste un échantillon des nombreuses vues dans la communauté noire sur le sketch.

Raciste ou pas? Notre analyse

La question sur la bouche de la plupart des commentateurs semble être si oui ou non le sketch, et en particulier la représentation de la mère était raciste ou racialement insensible… [Lire la suite]

[Opinion] Of ‘blackfaces’ and SinoAfrican modernities

Screen shot from The Break Up Guru (China 2014)

You could compile a long list of blackfaces’ in East Asian media over the last decade see here, here and here. However, the latest iteration of this Euro-American racist archetype in Chinese media is by far the most controversial.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, a well-known Chinese actress performed in blackface’ during a skit on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. Lou Naiming (with exaggerated buttocks, a fruit platter, and a black man dressed as a monkey) played the role of a traditional and somewhat confused African mother in a skit about love, tradition, and China’s historical role in Africa.
The Gala is not just another Chinese TV show. It is a well-rehearsed and perfectly curated 4-hour-long representation of Chinese culture, tradition, everyday life, and nationalism.

Spring Festival Gala with Chinese actress in blackface (left).

CCTV Spring Festival Gala’s blackface’ adds to the increasing list of racist’ incidents in China (concerning black people) that have gone viral see here and here. Most big Western media conglomerates carried the story and, as of the time of writing, no formal apology has been issued.
Africa as China’s damsel in distress’
Beyond the blackface’, the skit’s story is rather simple but problematic. Carrie, an 18-year-old Kenyan stewardess trainee, asks her Chinese teacher to pass as her boyfriend to avoid a blind date organised by her mother. Carrie does not want to marry yet. She wants to work and then go to China to study.
In the skit’s resolution, Carrie confesses to her mother and explains her desire to go to China. It becomes clear that Carrie sees China as a way to escape tradition (and her mother’s traditional views on marriage). All of a sudden, Carrie’s mother praises China’s role (past and present) in Africa and agrees to Carrie’s plans, shouting I love the Chinese! I love China!’
The skit intended to highlight the positive aspects of China-Africa relations. It does this, however, by presenting a narrative in which China is seen as a solution to Africa’s backwardness’.
As I was watching the skit, I was reminded of a piece of analysis I wrote some years back about the representation of Africans on the highly popular dating TV show If You Are the One (feicheng wurao).
Similar to the Gala’s skit, the production of If You Are the One’ portrayed Xiao De (a participant from Guinea Bissau) as a free-spirited girl, trapped by tradition. Xiao De saw going to China as a way to escape her fate (an arranged marriage), study, and become independent.
In the dating show, Xiao De is strictly looking to marry a Chinese man. Moving to China and marrying a Chinese was for Xiao De, as it is for Carrie, a way to escape tradition and enter modernity a Chinese version of modernity perhaps.
The blackface’ skit reproduced a narrative line that is representative of China’s general approach to Africa. Both official and popular Chinese narratives about Africa consistently try to construct an image of the continent as China’s damsel in distress’.

Paolo Uccello’s depiction of Saint George and the dragon, c. 1470, a classic image of a damsel in distress.

The age-old trope of the damsel in distress’ in film, literature and video games depicts a young and beautiful woman who needs to be saved from a monster by a male hero. In the end, the woman usually marries her rescuer. On both the skit and the dating show, this gendered narrative portrays China as the (modern) male hero and Africa and the princess in jeopardy (or a dire predicament caused by tradition).

Xiao De in her last appearance on If You Are the One

This trope has multiple iterations in China-Africa relations and is linked to the Chinese white saviour complex, as seen in the box office hit Wolf Warrior 2.
In short, behind the Gala’s blackface’ lies a consistent top-down, ego-boosting effort to see and represent China as a way for Africa to enter modernity. An effort that casts China-Africa relations along the lines of the binary of Africa as the past and China as the future’.
Beyond the blackface’: Africa as the past’ and China as the future’
The Spring Festival Gala is a program full of skits. While the skits are normally comedic, they generally intend to inform and educate the audience about a particular topic (from military affairs and everyday life to, controversially, other cultures).
The blackface’ skit the first in the Gala’s history to portray China-Africa relations succeeds in informing its Chinese audience about China’s historical role in Africa. However, it fails to educate’ viewers as to the complexities and realities of contemporary sub-Saharan life.
The proof is in the pudding. The skit’s story is supposedly set in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, but all you can see in the background is a savannah. This stereotypical African landscape is about to be crossed by a Chinese-built railway hailed as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Actual Nairobi

CCTV’s imagined Nairobi

Representing Africa as the past’ means associating ideas about Africa strictly with nature and tradition. Stereotypical views on Africa are not only part of the top-down’ approach as seen on CCTV’s skit they pervade everyday life in China. This is something that many African students who have lived in contemporary China understand.
Often, when African youngsters want to make a quick buck in China, they take on entertainment jobs that essentialise their Africanness. This happens to other foreigners in China as well. But in the case of Africans, they often end up donning traditional attire and then drumming or dancing, even if they have no idea about either.
For many ordinary Chinese people, there is no space for modern Africa. By reproducing age-old stereotypes about the continent and its people, the CCTV skit catered to this.
When asked about this, young and educated Chinese often claim that people who produce negative stereotypes about Africa (and blackness) are not aware they are doing it. Naivety and ignorance are the common justifications. Ordinary Chinese, they say, ignore African and global histories and only reproduce what is offered to them by Hollywood.
This is to some extent true. However, there is evidence from museum exhibitions (pairing Africans to fauna) to film festivals (solely focusing on films about indigenous Africa, for example, Namibia’s Himba people or the Maasai) that point in another direction. Even ‘educated’ people in positions of power in China seem to hold these views. Blaming Hollywood seems a poor defence.
In a future post, I will propose an alternative route through which negative cinematic representations have entered Chinese imagination. Stay tuned!
*An edited version of this post was published by The Conversation Africa as ‘What ‘blackface’ tells us about China’s patronising attitude towards Africa’  

[Film Review] Made-in-China: The lives and times of Africans in Guangzhou

By Lina Benabdallah for Africa is a country

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-6-25-30-pm

Guangzhou, in Southern China, has a long tradition as a trading port. More recently, in the wake of the Chinese state’s aggressive foreign and trade policies to Africa, the city is also home to a growing community of migrants and businesspeople from that continent. The latter buy goods in bulk in Guangzhou to sell back in Africa. Some have decided to stay.

In 2009, The New Yorker published, “The Promised Land,” by Evan Osnos “… which looks at the wave of African traders moving to China. The largest group has settled in the city of Guangzhou, where Chinese neighbors have named the community Qiao-ke-li Cheng—Chocolate City.” Though Osnos’s article wasn’t the first in-depth look at African migrants in China — Osnos’s account was predated by the work of academics like Heidi Østbø Haugen, Adams Bodomo, and Roberto Castillo — however, Osnos’s article certainly mainstreamed the broad outlines of these African migrants’ experiences in China and launched an intense focus on the community of Africans in China.

African migrants’ contemporary presence in China dates back to the late 1990s when the financial crisis in Thailand and Indonesia pushed Africans (among other migrants) to look for opportunities elsewhere. To date, it is hard to find reliable information on the numbers and nationalities of the Africans in China. Academic scholarship as well as media reports estimate the numbers to be anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000. However, during the last few years, there has been a trend of African migrants leaving China to go back to their home countries after encountering hardships and disappointments. Heidi Østbø Haugen and Manon Diederich, for example, document Gambian migrants’ stories about life in China and their decision to return home. The new film, Guangzhou Dream Factory directed by Christiane Badgley and Erica Marcus, thus adds a rich account of the complexities of living in China as an African migrant.

From the very beginning, Guangzhou Dream Factory exhibits a major strength: in a break with tradition, Africans are not just objects of the camera, but subjects who represent their own stories and experiences. Through talking to expatriates of various backgrounds (and entanglements with China, including wives and children), a complex story of aspirations, deceptions, challenges, and opportunities is woven. Some of the migrants have been very successful, others disappointed, and a few have become activists in helping other Africans who have settled in the community.

For example, Rahima is an Ugandan migrant who runs an East African food service (a sort of meals-on-wheels). She is also the president of an association to look after Ugandans in Guangzhou. Rahima shares stories of broken dreams and scammed migrants who sell all what they own back home in search of dreams made in China. Many young women, she recounts, are brought to China with promises to be employed as teachers or factory workers only to find themselves forced into a choice between prostitution jobs or unbearable debt.

Rahima is filmed carrying a baby who she found in a shop near his mom’s corpse. We don’t know who the dead mom is or what part of Africa she was from. But, we do know of Eva, a Kenyan young mother who falls victim to visa-cons, quits her job in Kenya and flies to China chasing a mirage. Upon landing in China, she immediately finds out that the employment agency that she had paid was fraudulent. The only positive part about Eva’s story is that she finally manages to get back to Kenya, “jobless and indebted, but at least she was safe.”

Yet the picture is far from being all bleakness. The filmmakers talk to young African entrepreneurs who are making strong steps towards achieving their made-in-China dreams. Both Emy, a restaurateur, who aspires to makes movies in China, and the Cameroonian self-made “King of Suits,” Kingsley Azieh Che — who claims to supply about 80% of the suit whole-sale businesses in his country — are examples of the kind of opportunities that many young Africans aspire to when they think of what China means for their futures. These success stories are, unfortunately, not possible for the average African migrant to China. In an email exchange, Christiane explains that most Africans who end up doing well in China are urban, middle class. They are “people who have enough money to pay for travel, visas, accommodation, goods, etcetera. And you know that in most African countries, that is a fairly small segment of the population.”

The documentary film also raises the very poignant and pressing questions about the future of children of mixed marriages, or of those who were born to African parents but only see China to be their home. The film shows the story of a Nigerian woman, Favor, and her daughter Cherich who was born in China and speaks fluent Chinese. We learn that a few weeks after the film was finished, the immigration police caught the mom and jailed her, and that she was sent back to Nigeria with her daughter. Christiane noted that the film has opened an opportunity to voice questions of responsibility towards this generation of African children born in China, the status of their parents, and the roles that can and must be assumed by African and Chinese authorities alike.

It is true that one could simply say that these stories are no different than any typical immigrant stories, full of hope and delusion, success and disappointment. But the overall sentiment of the documentary is that African migrants in China are skilled entrepreneurs, creative business-owners, risk-takers, and resilient strong individuals. This is a contrast to the images that the “Jungle” of Calais leaves in our minds, the capsizing boats in the Mediterranean, or the bare-life camps on the fringes of the EU.

If you want to see “Guangzou Dream Factory,” it is available for educational use only. For more information and screening events check the film’s website.

[Compilation] Opinion and analysis pieces about the notorious #RacistChineseAd

Click here to find the ultimate compilation of discussion, opinion, and analysis pieces about the notorious Qiaobi ad.

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Click here to find the ultimate compilation of discussion, opinion, and analysis pieces about the notorious Qiaobi ad.

[Opinion] The notorious Qiaobi: behind the scenes of an “ad controversy” foretold?

By Giovanna Puppin for UoN Blogs / China Policy Institute Blog

A Chinese detergent company’s TV ad, which was reportedly screened on China’s TV stations and before movies in Wanda cinemas in May, has generated international attention. The commercial for Qiaobi 俏比 washing powder began to draw attention on 26th May when it was spotted by the online publication Shanghaiist, and then uploaded on Youtube, where it hit 2 million views in just one day. And this happened not for its positive qualities: BuzzFeed was the first to “honour” it with the title of “the most racist ad of 2016”.

The ad story was soon covered by international media sites – including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera – and commented on by netizens all over the world, also through reaction videos. As a result, the debate also took off on Chinese social media: the notorious Qiaobi ad –redubbed as “the most racist ad ever” – not only was under the world’s scrutiny, but it was also being read as a mirror of racism in the country (in a political way). On 27 May, Mr. Wang – a representative of the company that owns the brand – said that the ad actually never intended to promote racial discrimination, and that foreign media were possibly being too sensitive about it. The following day, though, the company formally apologised with a Chinese-language statement published on the brand’s Weibo account, which caused another wave of indignation.

The 50-second ad opens on a young Chinese woman loading her top-load washing machine, while a cheerful accordion tune is played in the background; some laundry liquid detergent and colourful boxes are displayed behind her (the brand names have been deliberately blurred). A young black man passes by her flat; when he sees her, he stops at the entrance and starts winking and whistling at her from a distance. Because his face and t-shirt are covered with paint (moreover, he is also holding a brush and a can of paint) it is logical to assume that he has been decorating the interior of a flat (or, less probably, hers). She invites him to come nearer – a move that he visibly appreciates – suggesting an imminent seduction, but just as they are about to exchange a kiss, she places something that looks like a green mint candy in his mouth. Immediately, but less gracefully, she shoves him into the washing machine: then she sits on it and waits.

At this point, the music stops: the sound of the man screaming is clearly discernible from the background noise of the washing machine spinning. On the visual code, the advertised product is revealed: Qiaobi laundry gel balls (contained in the colorful boxes depicted before). Once the spinning cycle is over, the Chinese woman opens the washing machine and a young Chinese man emerges from the drum, in front of her astonished – yet pleased – eyes, and to an energetic, gripping tune. The Chinese man is wearing a flawless, clean white t-shirt, and he hands back the detergent ball she had placed into the black man’s mouth (which we now recognise as the advertised product). He winks at her, and, in doing so, a cartoon-style sparkle magically appears. The last scene of the ad depicts the packaging and the product, and a cartoon-style animated dolphin – the pictogram of Qiaobi’s logo. The pay-off: “Change starts from Qiaobi” (gaibian cong Qiaobi kaishi 改变从俏比开始) appears on the screen, and a slightly altered version is announced by the voice-over: “Change is just a Qiaobi laundry gel ball” (gaibian zhishi yike Qiaobi xiyi rongzhu 改变只是一颗俏比洗衣溶珠). The closing shot shows the national hotline number to call for further information.

When I first watched the commercial I immediately recognised it as very similar to – yet different from – two previous ad campaigns for the machine fabric dyes by Coloreria Italiana, namely: “Coloured is Better: What Women Want” (2006) and “Coloured is Better: la Vendetta” (2007). As Mr. Aldo Biasi – the president of the advertising agency – explained to me in a telephone interview, these ads were originally circulated on some minor Italian websites on Women’s Day. The creative idea of transforming a scrawny white husband into a buff black man made an explicit use of race-based sexual stereotypes and had a deliberate ironic intent. In Mr. Biasi’s opinion, this is not the case of the Chinese ad, which he described as “a blatant ripoff with an offensive twist”. The Qiaobi ad not only follows the same storyline but, for the first half, even uses the same background copyrighted music (including the diegetic screaming sound!): this makes it quite difficult to believe that neither the company nor the creative team had never seen the original ads before, as they claimed. The company’s official statement makes no reference to the ripoff, but some Weibo-users pointed their fingers at its reprehensible, careless attitude in blatantly copying another campaign, and even expressed skepticism towards the “professionalism” of the team who created and produced the ad. These are important details that need to be contextualised in the light of China’s official discourse on developing creative advertising, that is being promoted by the authorities to boost a national creative industry and improve the qualitative standards of advertising – also through a new system of professional accreditation.

The main substantive difference compared with the Italian ads is that the reversal of the racial transmogrification- from a black (African) man to a fair-skinned (Chinese) man. This is precisely the aggravating factor that fuelled the allegations of racism and fury online, mainly outside China. Some viewers recognised in the Qiaobi ad the distinctive features of commodity racism, a “creative strategy” that is nothing new in the West – as the infamous campaigns forPears’ Soap in 19th Century England demonstrate.

In China though, as explained by Prof. Liu Junhai, racial sensitivity among advertisers and the public is lower than in Western countries. This race-related ad controversy is unprecedented in the country, and the rather banal reason is that the Chinese advertising world is characterised by the almost exclusive portrayal of the Han 汉 people (even though the Qiaobi ad is not the first to depict a black person).

Interestingly, the black man doesn’t appear in the short version of the ad: the “innocuous” version depicting only the Chinese man and the product (unfortunately now unavailable) is actually the one that was screened on China’s satellite TV stations. The longer version gained attention when the independent photographer Benoit Florençon uploaded it on Youtube. In the light of the Chinese government’s recent campaign to clean up e-commerce and online ads (also as a response to the Wei Zexi incident), it might seem surprising that the ad was not stopped earlier.

Apparently, on 5th March this year, the brand’s Weibo account published the following soft-porn-sounding pre-campaign anticipation: “This is the story of a ‘love triangle’ between a black uncle, a little fresh meat, and a sexy goddess” (Zhe shi yi ge jiangshu hei shushu, xiao xianrou, xinggan nvshen de ‘sanjiao lian’ gushi 这是一个讲述黑叔叔、小鲜肉、性感女神的‘三角恋’故事). This teaser provides some useful clues for decoding how the protagonists have been typified (and stereotyped) in the ad. The three nicknames come from Internet slang and equally evoke some sexual connotations: hei shushu 黑叔叔 (literally: “black uncle”) is used in this context as “black daddy”; xiao xian rou 小鲜肉 indicates a young guy with fair skin and innocent looks; xinggan nüshen 性感女神 indicates a sexy woman who is beautiful and seductive.

The primary function of advertising, elementary as it sounds, is to persuade consumers to buy a certain product (or service). Nonetheless, this might be quite challenging for a relatively new, small start-up like the Shanghai-based Leishang Cosmetics Co., Ltd.: neither the company nor the Qiaobi brand are especially well known to Chinese consumers, as demonstrated by the basic questions on the product posted by prospective buyers on Baidu, the scarcity of content provided on the brand’s website, and the unimpressive number of followers of its Weibo account. As China’s laundry care market is characterized by mounting competition, the company decided to position itself through the launch of a new product: the laundry gel ball, promoted as “a healthy and trendy new experience” (jiankang shishang xin tiyan 健康时尚新体验), in contrast to traditional liquid detergents. The target audience consists of young consumers, who do their purchasing online. The word “change” (gaibian 改变) in the pay-off, therefore, should not be interpreted exclusively as linked to the racial transmogrification, but also to the new product and washing habits of the Chinese. Needless to say, the end of breaking through the market doesn’t justify the means. However, it constitutes another detail that needs to be taken into account.

Giovanna Puppin is Lecturer and Programme Director of the MA Media and Advertising, Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester. She researches Chinese advertising and promotional culture, with a focus on issues of representation, identity, and power. Picture and video: Youtube/Qiaobi.

[Opinion] Context matters: The racist laundry ad was ignorant, but so were the reactions

By Innocent Mutanga for HKFP

I am as black as black could ever get, I am from the factory of black people; sub-saharan Africa. But I was not offended by the Chinese laundry commercial which recently caused such an uproar among netizens, at least when I decided to take off my liberal western saint’s spectacles. For those who have not seen it, the commercial in question portrays a nice looking black man trying to seduce a Chinese woman. After kissing him, the Chinese woman pops some detergent into his mouth and quickly pushes him down into the washing machine, and then the black man is transformed into a ‘cleaner’ pale Chinese man. Ignoring the plot plagiarism for a minute, I think it is important to discuss what happens when symbols are interpreted outside the context they are created.  Those who might have tried to ask questions of their Mainland Chinese friends about the commercial might have realized one common theme, namely that the commercial was worthy of one thing: a laugh and that is it, nothing more, but why?

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Overnight, the Western media and western-influenced netizens had jumped on their high horses condemning the Chinese for being racist. The west for a moment felt good that they now had an equal competitor for racism – well, I have some bad news. No-one in this world can yet to compete for the trophy of racism with the West.

The outcry among netizens was indeed a ‘clash of ignorances’. The ignorance of the Chinese in using racial stereotypes whose connotations outside  China they did not understand, and the ignorance of the West in quickly judging Chinese affairs through a western lens. Race carries totally different connotations in China than elsewhere. In the West, with its history of colonization and slavery, I understand why people get so sensitive about racial issues. Take for example how hair is politicized especially in Great Britain, and a comment or a simple question which seems to enquire about someone’s hair, especially short kinky hair, might cause an uproar.

But if this same enquiry happened in China, one needs to step back and get the context right. In China this is just a question of curiosity, and carries none of that racialized ideas that would cause an outcry in the US or UK. I tend to spend more time with kids in Hong Kong, and it’s not uncommon for kids to call each other names like, ‘fat pig’, or to refer to their more tanned friends as black. And this is all that it means, it simply means fat pig or black kid, nothing more. It does not reflect any superiority complexes or some repressed unconscious secret Ku Klux Klan within, using Freud’s terms, if you may.

Are there racial classifications and hierarchy in China? Yes, there are, but they are totally different from the western notions of race. Many Chinese can’t even differentiate between a dark Sri Lankan and a dark Zimbabwean like me, not to mention how much time I take unsuccessfully explaining to a Chinese friend the difference between a South Indian and Will Smith. “Come on, look at the hair”, I would say, and she would take a closer look but she just would just shake her head, afraid to disappoint me, seeing how much conviction I had about racial issues.

I took another 15 minutes at a local university trying to explain the differences between Latinos and Caucasians within an American context but they just could not see any differences between any of them. I would argue that the racial hierarchy that might exist in the Chinese context is mainly influenced by the earlier upper class/peasant life styles in early China, with lighter skin being more admirable not because they saw whites, but because they saw the Chinese upper class; the rich, who spent more time indoors and therefore had lighter skin than the peasants who spent all day tilling the fields.

Western whiteness was equally as ghostified and undesired as every other non-Chinese look. Yes, there has been some aspiration to whiteness recently but this is not as we might imagine. Whiteness is a symbol of wealth, not because white people are considered to have money, no!, but because the richer Chinese have been historically lighter in skin. If you do not trust me yet, here is another example. If a black person goes to China, most Chinese might have racial prejudice if they assume they hail from Africa, as Africa symbolizes poverty; no money. This is not because they are racist,  but something else. If that black person reveals maybe that they are from the beautiful country, as they call America, all of a sudden the experiences of that black person would be different. They expect that they have money and that they should treat them with more respect.

If a white person, whom they would have assumed is from the beautiful country, later reveals that they are from Feizhou (Africa). First the shock that there are white people in Feizhou, then the respect bar drops like a hot brick. Chinese people are classist: money determines how one is treated. Period! Yes, the global market plus advertising has been playing a bigger role in shaping skin desirability among the Chinese but these desires carry relatively different connotations from those that the west imagines.

Many times, my black friends claim that the Chinese are racist because they will not sit next to them in the train or because they pinch their noses when they sit next to them or are just awkwardly ridiculous. Well, these things happen, but not only to black people but to everyone who is a foreigner in China, no matter your color, even if you are a green person, you can expect to face the same treatment as every other foreigner in China. And just to add, foreigners eat different foods and yes, their sweat smells differently and pinching one’s nose, as much as it shows ignorance, does not reflect any racism. As a side note, I believe the domestic migrants in China face even worse discrimination and harsher consequences from prejudice, and yes, it has to do with how much money one is assumed to have.

In the end, contextualization is very important. Seeing Chinese issues through a western lens does nothing but show how much ignorance is rampant in the west. There is as much ignorance in China as there is in the west, and the explosion around the laundry commercial was just a result of the ‘clash of these two ignorances’: the Chinese being ignorant of what the racial notions they are playing with may mean outside their context and the Western-influenced being ignorant of how things are differently understood in China. The West should probably get off their high horses, there is not any competitor fit enough to fight for the racism trophy, the west is still the champion.

If there are any traces of racism in China, they are a result of the global market, but what we often misinterpret as racism is simply classism. Words or images without context mean nothing, images viewed in the wrong context cause more harm than good. The N word means different things in Nigeria than what it means in America, and these meanings are constructed historically and socially, and making the mistake that when a Nigerian uses the N word it means the same as the American use might cause other consequences of a clash of ignorances. The word kaffir means something totally different everywhere else than its meaning  in South Africa. Words and images mean nothing in themselves, but the meanings we ascribe to them gives them meaning, and rarely do we have the same concepts when we show the same images or say the same words, and that is why contextualizing every image is very important in the 21st century.