One bad advert doesn’t make 1.4 billion Chinese racist

Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong say some Westerners outraged by a detergent ad are too quick to generalise about a Chinese tendency to be racist, which is unfair and wrong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 12:14pm

By now, there has been a fairly comprehensive discussion of the racist ad produced by the detergent company Qiaobi that depicts the laundering of a “dirty” black man into a “clean” Chinese. Beyond condemning the ad, those of us in China should also call for its perpetrators to be sanctioned under Article 9 of China’s Advertising Law, which forbids ads containing discrimination based on nationality, race, religion or gender.

One key aspect of the discourse has yet to be treated, however – its political uses. One of us has been interviewed about the ad by journalists for several “top” Western news sources. The main question posed was whether it shows that “the Chinese are racist”.

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As of 2010, there were 43 million companies in China. Not all advertise, but even if only 2 per cent do, that’s almost one million companies. Many firms have issued a multiplicity of ads. Arguably, no conclusion about racism among the 1.4 billion Chinese can be made based on a single ad. When racist ads or statements appear in the Western media – and there have been plenty – no one claims they show “the Americans”, “the French”, and so on, are racist.

That said, the question of whether a racist world view is more common among Chinese than among other people needs to be answered, if only because Western media foster that impression. The idea of unique Chinese racism has spread to such an extent that “Are the Chinese Racist?” is one issue taken up in the recent, useful book by Marte Kjær Galtung and Stig Stenslie, 49 Myths about China.

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A few recent surveys relate to this question. A 2008 World Public Opinion survey done by the University of Maryland among people in 16 countries concluded that the Chinese rank among the top with the greatest support for the importance of equal treatment for different races and ethnicities, second only to Mexicans. China also has the second-largest majority who disagreed that employers have the right to discriminate based on race or ethnicity, and are among the largest majorities that favour their government making efforts to prevent racial and ethnic discrimination.

It is spurious to imply, without substantial evidence, that racist views are more common among Chinese

A 2016 Amnesty International survey about refugees found that among people in 27 countries, Chinese were the most welcoming: almost half said they would welcome refugees to stay in their homes, compared to one in 10 among the whole sample.

In a study a few years back, scholars in Kansas, United States, and those in several Chinese cities applied the standard psychological instrument used to measure ethnocentricity. They found that Kansas university students were much more ethnocentric than their peers at the Chinese universities.

These surveys do not “prove” Chinese on the whole are less racist than other peoples. They do indicate, however, that it is spurious to imply, without substantial evidence, that racist views are more common among Chinese, not to speak of insinuating that Chinese in general are racist.

What much of the discourse in the West about the racist detergent ad has sought to do is most likely for political reasons. If, instead, the issue is being framed in that way to self-aggrandise Westerners, it is ironic. Europe is where African and African-descended people are particularly subject to violent racist victimisation.

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According to the newspaper Die Zeit, more than 130 people, some Africans, were killed in racist street violence in Germany from 1990 to 2008. A study by US criminologist Richard Arnold noted that in Russia, in 2012 alone, racist skinheads killed 187 people. Such violence is far from rare in several other European countries as well. Attacks in Europe, as well as against African students in India and Malaysia, contrast with what African students in China have told us; they are generally able to move about in relative safety.

In discussing the racist detergent ad then, not only should generalising be eschewed, but the ad itself and the relationship of Chinese and people of African descent must also be seen in its larger context.

Barry Sautman is a professor in the Division of Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Yan Hairong is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University