Understanding China’s Persistent Racism and the Laundry Detergent Ad

Last week, a racist ad by Chinese washing powder Qiaobi went viral overseas with outrage coming from all corners of the globe.

The offensive ad features a man of African descent being feed washing powder and forced into a washing machine, where he is then transformed into a fair-skinned Chinese man, to the delight of the Chinese women that ‘washed him’.

The ad, which has circulated in China online and in cinemas, since early this year, ends with the tagline “Change starts with Qiaobi”.


If you haven’t seen it:

There you have it.

Now, of course, racism of any type is unacceptable in any context –which even the company seems to have acknowledged in their apology over the weekend (see below). However, I would like to explain from a cultural perspective, why this type of communication is considered acceptable in China, and simply did not ‘raise any eyebrows’, as it has now done so, quite dramatically, in much of the rest of the world.


China is still a monoculture, seeing the outside through stereotypes

Despite the internationalisation that has occurred since China opened her doors economically back in the late 1970s, China is essentially a monoculture.

The vast majority of the population (94%) are the same ethnic group – Han Chinese. This group are unapologetically advanced as the ‘true Chinese’, and there is fundamental non acceptance of other foreign groups or nationalities.

Minorities, let alone foreign nationals, have simply never been accepted within this culture, beyond the idea of being  ‘cultural performers’ – ie pretending to be Chinese.

Similar levels of monoculturalism are also noticeable in East Asia – notably South Korea and Japan.

The effect of monoculturalism – and in China’s case, years of isolation from outside culture – means that foreign ethnicities and their cultures are viewed through stagnant stereotypes –  Caucasians, Africans, foreigners generally, are pre-judged by a barrage of cultural assumptions. This often lazily enters local speech in China where the term for ‘foreigner’ is coupled with a certain behavior, habit or inability.

The “othering” of non-Chinese cultures

The rationale of many Chinese  ‘objectifying’ (or as Edward Said calls this, “othering”) other nationalities is based on the cultural idea of essentialism –that Chinese culture is the foundation of all culture.

Essentialism posits a perfect form of culture, usually that of the protagonists, where other cultures are then negatively compared in terms of purity or dilution from that original idea.

So while foreign culture is considered in some contexts beneficial, overall it can not be as ‘perfect’ as the essential form of culture –that is, Chinese culture. This thinking has been consistently propagated at all levels of society in China, under a myriad of different names, including, ‘The China Dream’.

China racist detergent ad washing machine

Absence of foreign culture outside of these narrow stereotypes

In other countries, the idea of monoculture has been rendered meaningless by migration and social change. For example, it is possible to say that a person is a “Chinese Canadian”, or a “Korean American” or a “Vietnamese Australian”  – but the idea of an “American Chinese” or a “Japanese Chinese” seems almost implausible or unacceptable.

The reality in China, is that foreign communities have simply not been accepted into Chinese society.  Throughout history, there have been large Jewish and French communities in Shanghai, and currently a large African population in Guangzhou, in China’s South – but none of these communities have become naturalized as Chinese residents over generations – only ‘long-term outsiders’.

China’s media culture is almost entirely devoid of non-Chinese talent – meaning a majority of the population are not exposed to the idea of foreigners as ‘normal people’ –only seeing them as “cultural freakshows’.

More recently Chinese citizens have spent more time overseas for business, study and residence. While at some level this creates a new level of cross-cultural engagement for individuals, it has failed to shift fundamental racial stereotyping in China.

So in this context, an ad that is seen as ‘rawly offensive’ every else – barely raises an eyebrow. As it conforms to a deep-seated stereotypes unchallenged by daily experience and causing no offense to anyone you can relate to.  While this particular actor was of African descent, it could have been any other foreigner that was the ‘butt of the joke’.


The Apology

On 27 May 2016 on Sina Weibo, media outlets and internet users shared American media reports with the following information: “China’s Qiaobi advertisement is accused of ethnic discrimination, incites controversy on YouTube.” Later, we verified that the ad has been reported on or circulated by American media outlets including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and CNN; the UK’s BBC; France’s AFP, and other media outlets. It has attracted public attention in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. We’d like to express that we have properly managed this situation and would like to add the following:

  1. We have no intentions to discriminate against people of color… Ethnic discrimination is something we strongly reject and condemn.
  2. We express regret over the controversy the ad has created and do not intend to shirk responsibility. We have already stopped the ad’s circulation and have canceled several online streaming links. We hope that internet users and the media will cease sharing the video.
  3. The advertisement and the surrounding controversy have hurt people of African descent. We express our apologies, and also sincerely hope internet users and media won’t overanalyze the situation.
  4. Qiaobi is a domestic Chinese brand of cleaning products. We hope that domestic brands can continue to thrive and go global.

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode

Jerry is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing research, strategy and naming for brands in China. He also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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