The relationship between China and Africa is big and complicated. It is therefore unsurprising that extremely unsavory aspects of this relationship could bubble up from time to time. Perhaps the most infamous incident that went viral in 2016 is a racist advertisement for a Chinese laundry detergent, Qiaobi. It depicts a Black man, who enters a room to find his Chinese girlfriend or wife. He seems to have spent a laborious day of painting walls (he was covered with paint blotches). He whistles at her to get her attention. She then coaxes him to get closer, only to shove him head first into the washing machine. She waits for a few seconds and he comes out a fair-skinned Chinese man.
There was no question that this advertisement was based on an Italian commercial released almost 10 years earlier. In the Italian version, which was intended for a color-preserving detergent, the wife shoves her thin Caucasian partner down the washing machine and reveals a Black muscular man. The resemblance in music, sequence and setting between the two ads is uncanny.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese ad created a massive uproar. Giovanna Puppin, a lecturer in media and communications at the University of Leicester and who has researched Chinese portrayals of Africans, expressed her shock saying, “It is quite striking how this Chinese ad for Qiaobi fuels sexual and racial stereotypes in a very explicit and unprecedented way.” International media outlets ranging from the New York Times to Buzzfeed all covered the story of the racist ad, garnering outraged comments from around the world.
In 2009, Raymond Zhou, a writer for China Daily explained the cultural context for racism in China as the following. “It is not an exaggeration to say many of my countrymen have a subconscious adulation of races paler than us. The flip side: We tend to be biased against those darker skinned…many of us even look down on fellow Chinese who have darker skin, especially women. I see it as an offshoot of class discrimination. For thousands of years, those who worked outdoors were of the lower social status. Scorched by the sun, they invariably had darker skin while officials and scholars were sheltered from the sunlight by sedan chairs and fancy abodes…”
China and Africa were able to forge close ties partly because there was no significant history of one oppressing the other. Unlike the history between Western nations and Africa, where colonialism, slavery and suppression reigned, the China-Africa history felt like it was just in the making. Overt or covert racism could certainly usurp this relationship that has grown economically and politically intimate in the last few years.
The Chinese government is keen on maintaining this relationship and the “win-win” cooperation between China and Africa. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, has said that that the ad was an isolated commercial act and that it had not prompted any diplomatic complaints. “Everyone can see that we are consistent in equality towards, and mutually respect, all countries, no matter their ethnicity or race. In fact, we are good brothers with African countries.”
After receiving a uniquely international backlash, the company that was responsible for the racist commercial finally apologized. The apology came after the company confessed to local Chinese paper, “We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism. The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad.”
The formal apology claimed that the company had no intention to discriminate against people of color and that they are strongly opposed to and condemn racism. It also said, “The publication of the ad and the exaggerated hype surrounding it caused harm to people of African descent—for this we sincerely apologize and also express that internet users and the media will not read to much into it.”
It should be noted too that the insensitivity towards race is not all encompassing in China. In fact, writers at Quartz Africa have noted that most Chinese users discussing the commercial on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, labeled the commercial as “racist,” “horrible and disgusting.” The writers quote one Weibo user who asserted, “This is undoubtedly racial discrimination. Those who can get on YouTube should denounce the ad and make it clear that it is the producers of this video who are racist, not the majority of Chinese.”
The social interactions between China and Africa will undoubtedly be marked by millions of encounters between citizens. If there is no public awareness, on both the African and Chinese side, about racial and cultural sensitivities, we would certainly see many such incidents flaring up.