Why the racist Chinese ad may be just as racist as you think

The many layers of Afro-Phobia in a bid to white-wash, purity, sex and beauty.

An advert for Chinese detergent brand, Qiaboi, has garnered widespread attention recently on social media platforms and outlets across China and overseas, after The Shanghaiist published what they deemed to be an “incredibly racist advertisement”.

The commercial has reportedly appeared on Chinese television and during the advertisement slots before screenings in Wanda Cinemas this month but was first uploaded and criticised by American Expat and musician, Christopher Powell. There is definitely more than enough social engagement going on right now concerning whether or not this advert is truly representative of a deep-rooted “racism” in China, but I have decided to offer my two-cents, if you will indulge me for a moment or two.

The offering of my two-cents, is partly in response to Roberto Castillo’s recent opinion piece, titled “[Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad may not be as racist as you think #SinoAfrica” and also in part to the four-part documentary I am producing about the Black Experience of individuals and groups in China titled #TheBlackOrient. I am offering a differing perspective but hope to add value to further dialogue around this subject.

Both Castillo and I agree that the advert is “profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic” – Yes, it is “indeed ‘racist'” but when it comes to analysing what kind of ‘evidence’ this advert provides or alludes to in terms of representing a culturally specific form of racism or “Chinese racism” is where we part ways.

I’m a black woman who has been living and working in China for three years. As a journalist here, I’ve taken great interest in the growing black and African presence in China and have researched this and defining differences between black “expat” life and black “migrant” life. I have interviewed a number of black people from the continent and diaspora, and having listened to countless black narratives, I am often suspicious of people arguing that racism doesn’t exist in China.

I do not argue that China is wholly a racist society, however I believe that racism is well and alive in a number of different arenas throughout China. I do not necessarily believe that racism should be critically analysed as “context based” either – this would open up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these “contexts”. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege, I do however understand the importance of acknowledging how multilayered and complex racism is and has become.

Considering racism to be “culturally specific” and so redefining what ‘racism’ is or resembles is dangerous territory. Yes, culturally, Chinese prefer lighter skin as it is traditionally acknowledged as a sign of wealth. Yes – “peasants were normally darker” in China which leads to discrimination against People of Colour or darker-skinned people, but the same can be said for parts of Africa, the Caribbean, India and so on. The classist theory, Castillo is right, will not suffice. And if the advert is simply invoking Chinese perceptions about class/dark skin, why was an African man cast, rather than a ‘dark’ native Chinese man from one of the many ethnic minority groups here in China?

Racism is not always covert, nor systematic or persistent. Racial prejudice or isolated acts of racial discrimination is a part of the make-up of racism and is not always institutionalised but can manifest itself in a number of ways. This includes, expressed thoughts and deeds that perpetuate ideals of Eurocentric beauty, superiority and the subjugation and discrimination of those that do not meet these ‘ideals’.

Overtly expressing your dislike for my broad nose and “dirty” skin because your cultural frame of reference deems my aesthetics so, does not make this kind of statement any less racist then if expressed covertly, behind closed doors, which was then systematically used with intent to deny me a privilege that someone else would later be offered. This is a rather simplified example but none the less, in principal, conveys my point. 

Racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial “Imaginaries” of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is. Just like imperialist views of the East and Africa as primitive nations can be added to the many “global imaginaries” people contend with – naivety, and being “confused” as a result of this, would and does not stand as a legitimate rationale to maintain sentiments of racial prejudice or superiority over another.

The granting of privileges to one group while denying them to others transcends the systematic practices of institutions and does not entirely define what ‘racism’ is. Isolated forms of discrimination are indeed central to ‘racism’ and are too, ‘racist’ – the denial of a job as an educator because you’re black, the lack of freedom to walk down the street without being the subject of racial slurs, to be denied entry to a social space because your the ‘wrong’ colour, to be subject to tighter vetting/screening in work and social settings to that of your ‘white’ counterparts, to be dehumanised and represented as a stereo-typed caricature in an advert – ALL racist.

Many of the Chinese individuals who have kindly agreed to feature in my documentary have all been asked outrightly – Do you think racism exists in China? The prevailing answer is yes, the cause and impact, multilayered. Ignorance and lack of exposure are the themes that commonly raise their heads, however views that Africans, are dirty, smelly, uneducated sub-human criminals (often in the face of evidence that proves otherwise) cannot be reduced to an explanation rooted in “people in China are still very ignorant, naive or plainly idiotic”.

There exists a series of anti-laowai (foreigner) propaganda that discourages Chinese women from dating foreigners, one of which alludes to them as being a threat to “state security” – in this case (click the link above), a white face has been used to scaremonger community members into believing that expats here, posing as honest working individuals are here on espionage duties that could land unsuspecting Chinese women in custody.

Now, you have this advert that is also propagandist in nature but tells a different story. This advert is not about scaring women into not giving away “state secrets” but rather the ‘giving away’ of themselves sexually to a black man; a caricature of an African man, who is represented as a sexual predator and dehumanised to nothing more than ‘dirt’ that needs to be washed away for a cleaner, purer personification of beauty – in this case, the young, pale, glistening Chinese man who later ascends from the washing machine in all his glory.

I think there are many anti-black or rather anti-African layers to this advert. The choice to use an African man was a purposeful one and a reflection of the growing Afro-Phobia in different Chinese districts. This ‘washing away’ of ‘dirt’ (the unattractive, the uneducated the unworthy) in this advert is the feature of a prevailing theme: Africans (particularly men) continue to be the victims of an inescapable saga of overt racism and the Chinese woman and her attitude towards dating ‘outside’ of her race/culture needs to be policed.

The black “actor” who participated in this advert was complicit in his portrayal and therefore very much a part of the problem. It has been mentioned on a number of Chinese social networking platforms, including wechat, that he was unaware of what the final edit would look like. Really? – no, seriously, really?  – black man, ‘dirt-removing’ detergent capsule placed inside mouth, head thereafter shoved in washing machine – did I miss something? Would it not have become very apparent what was taking place?

The wolf-whistle and cringe worthy wink alone, would have seemed like an inappropriate request  from the producers considering that it implies a sexual advance, that in this context is quite unfitting. Particularly as it’s quite obvious – to me – that he is the ‘help’ in the house and is over-stepping his boundaries by inviting himself into unauthorised space – the shoving of head into washing-machine illustrates the ‘unauthorised’.

The licence we give others to put us in positions of inferiority or subjugation; to allow others to make caricatures of us, is lethal and detrimental to any progress we make in educating others in order to transform the status-quo. We (People of Colour) have an obligation to overrule the deliberate intentions of others to frame, box, manipulate or degrade who we are; to not become powerless in the face of those who wish to usurp us from our rightful place of access to freedom and quality and our right to be the voice of our own narratives. 

So, now I sound like I’m on a Black Power speaker box? I don’t wish to sensationalise, (and I sincerely hope that is not how this reads)  but I must highlight the sub-texts’ that exist in the advert including one that is not dissimilar to that of the history of King Kong and its political but more important commentary on race, sex and rebellion. Kong, represented the black man who posed a threat to the pure white woman and her race. He would rape, pillage, contaminate the Caucasian blood line and try but fail to ascend to the heights of privileged society. This advert, although reads less controversial nods to the same tune: black man stay clear of our women – Chinese woman stay clear of the unclean, un-pure, uneducated – this (the ascending glittering Chinese man) is your portion and what is good and right.

I do hope that this recent pandaemonium over the advert will teach us all something. The Qiaobi advert is both idiotic and racist and “global sensitivities” as well as how not to be a racist is a lesson worth learning on part of the Chinese. I could go on to talk about the numerous unearthed history of racially discriminatory adverts that have recently made headlines again, but I would be diverging – as one thing, in this case, has nothing to do with the other.  Is racism in TV and print advertising new? no, is the Qiaobi advert the most racist ad ever? no. The Chinese producers of this advert used one of many racist adverts for inspiration and re-imagined it in a whole new racist way – “culturally specific” to their Chinese audience.












Li Dong & Chocolate City

An African community in Guangzhou

 “We are all the same. Africans are like any other immigrant community from China or abroad, coming to Guangzhou for a living and a better life. Once you realise this, there will be no fear or confusion”

– Li Dong

It became very apparent to me, driving through the lush green golf course community of Huadu, where Artist Li Dong has set up a makeshift-editing space in his now unoccupied 4 million Renminbi villa, that the lives he so beautifully captured in his 2014 exhibition of an African community in Guangzhou is so far removed from his reality.

But what was also plain to see, was in spite of this, he has an impenetrable desire and drive to immerse himself in the African migrant community, so much so that he lived amongst the individuals he captured for eight months. What turned out to be a rare window of opportunity to observe the people around him also became a unique experience of cultivating friendships.

Li Dong’s motivation is propelled by his desire to better understand the city’s economical and ethnic transformations; how these changes impact the Chinese way of life and the future of an estimated 200,000 Africans living and working in the biggest trading hub in China.

One of Li Dong’s pieces, taking centre stage in his makeshift editing studio.

The recent phenomenon of African migration to China and specifically Guangzhou has initiated a growing dialogue centered on how Chinese society is evolving and culturally negotiating with a growing visible African presence.

Originally from the southwestern city of Chongqing and married with two children, 49 Year old, photographer Dong has been photographing the African migrant community since 2011.


His interests lie not only in vividly exposing the hybrid cultures that co-exist in Sino-African migrant communities, but all migrant groups including those that are made up of ethnic native Chinese from surrounding provinces.

His body of work has ignited a profound dialogue centered around, identity, nationalism and the uncertainty that mass migration creates for both migrating settlers and the communities they live amongst.

Baohan Street, the new “Africa Town” of Guangzhou.

The emergence of an “Africa Town” or “Chocolate City”, as it is now dubbed in Guangzhou has undoubtedly been fuelled by the scope of economic opportunities that the city provides for existing and potential African businessmen and women. This growing population of which over 50% are Nigerian men, are taking full advantage of the growing trade relationship between Africa and the Peoples Republic of China in spite of tightening visa restrictions.

6AM, Baohan Street. An African man picks up his early morning breakfast of fried bread sticks and soya milk from a Chinese street vendor.

It seems that in the hope of forging a comfortable life that offers social and economic up-scaling, many Africans in Guangzhou run the risk of deportation by overstaying temporary visas in order set up shop and export businesses.

With a population of over nine million, this southern city is the number one trading centre in China and offers cheap manufacturing labor options and produce. For some, the move means gaining access to a life free of financial strain – Guangzhou, it appears represents the golden ticket to achieving the Chinese Dream.

I came across the work of Dong while conducting research for my documentary, ‘Black Lives in China’, and after spending four days in the city filming, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking more at length with him about his work and interactions with the African community in Baohan Street.

Dong, welcomed his French-speaking Chinese assistant Li Jilu from Paris, PhD African studies student Jin Xin and I into his home and led the way upstairs to the master bedroom, a bright and airy space that has been transformed into a creative den. Sliding doors led to a spacious balcony over-looking an immaculate golf course and for a moment, it felt like I was in the middle of the California Hills.

Li Dong making himself comfortable during soundcheck.

He prepared a Chinese spread of green tea, nuts, juice and chocolate snacks reminiscent of my childhood favourite, Wagon Wheels. Dong was most at ease when able to communicate in Chinese, so his assistant, Jilu helped with translation and the necessary arrangements needed to set up the interview space for filming.

Dong pottered around, bringing in chairs and tables and obliged when I asked for his work to be spread around the room. In stature, he was firm with a warm demeanor and face. The spark in his eyes when talking about his work, gave me insight into the man before me more than any of his photos could.

An impromptu discussion with Dong, Jilu and Xin, highlighted that although his photo’s beautifully captured the every day moments of African life in this unique urban space, the art of photography is limited in its ability to convey the very complex and underlining social and political constructs at work in this environment.

Li Dong, captivating his audience.

A truth most represented in the proceeding days after his exhibition after which random security checks were made and almost all of the individuals who Dong had fostered strong relationships with and who featured in his work had been found to be without the relevant papers and deported back to their home nations.

Regular visa security checks take place on Baohan Street. Sometimes resulting in on-the-spot arrests and immediate deportation.

Dong insists that to gain a deeper understanding of these constructs and how they are part of the local African experience, a creative move from photography to film is necessary to gain a deeper insight into the realities of the current climate in migrant communities.

I was given a clearer understanding as to why there was such a strong reluctance from the African community to be the voice of their own narrative, particularly on camera and why the governing body’s that exist for each African nation in Guangzhou, led by community elected ‘state leaders’ or ‘presidents’ are the gate keepers to Chocolate City.

Li Dong has already made the transition from photography to videography.

Dong, Jilu and Xin were very curious about my personal interactions with the local migrant community during my four days of filming in the city; was the initial reluctance of the African community to talk with them based upon their racial and cultural profile? And was access to ‘Chocolate City’ granted more freely to me because of the Colour of my skin? – The answer to these questions surprised us all.

Li Dong can’t help but take a few snaps during his turn to interview me.

The reality of my experience contradicted a lot of the assumptions I had made before travelling to Guangzhou. I thought my ‘black experience’ in China would resonate with the African community I wish to connect with but did not account for the complexities that exist between the African nations and the Diaspora.

My British accent and passport is a source of privilege while working and living in China. However to some of the African individuals I spoke to, I am solely the product and representation of the displacement of their people. It was made clear in some situations that I’m just not “African” enough.

Culturally I am just as worlds apart from the African community in Guangzhou as Dong was and is. I have to work just as hard as he did to garner trust and cultivate relationships. Chocolate City affords no one with direct or indirect privilege but requires patience and trust.

Jin Xin, who is currently conducting her field research in Guangzhou for her PhD in African Studies, resorts to carrying around her ID, passport and University documents to prove that she does not belong to a government agency or a police department and Jilu, who lives in a courtyard whose residents are predominately African has had to work hard to restore relationships broken, when members of the community were arrested and deported shortly after Dong’s exhibition.

In spite of these challenges, in the little time I have spent in Guangzhou and having seen the relationships that Dong has successfully forged, shows that when trust is formed the openness, love and appreciation that abound towards you from individuals are something life changing.

The handheld embrace I received from a Gambian missionary, named, Princess Muchwa Mwambu. Quite the lady.

I return to Guangzhou in three weeks to continue filming and hope to continue to forge successful relationships with members of the African community.

Their narrative needs to be told and they’re the ones to tell it. I hope that Black Lives in China highlights the need for further cultural exchange and understanding between new hybrid communities that are forming not only in China but also all over the world, some out of necessity and some out of an inherent need to understand and embrace each other as human beings.

What’s next for Li Dong? Well the opportunities are endless. Dong will continue to dedicate a full time schedule to research for his new documentary. He intends to explore the subject of mass migration to China further but has not yet settled on a presiding theme.

Jin Xin will return back to the Netherlands to continue her PhD in African studies and Jilu will continue working alongside Dong.

The second episode of my documentary, Black Lives in China, which includes Li Dong’s full interview will be coming soon.

Watch this space.