This piece was written in early 2020 and is part of our previously unreleased content, released now in celebration of our launch!
Uh oh – we’ve definitely been here before.
Over the past couple of weeks, many in groups on WeChat (popular Chinese Messaging and Social Media app) have been hotly debating the latest racially insensitive advert to come from a major Chinese brand (and joining a fairly long line of tone-deaf Chinese films, ads and tv shows over the last few years).
This time the culprit appears to be Xiaomi, a Chinese electronics company currently headquartered in Beijing but with an ever-growing global presence. An online advert promoting their loan service, ‘Xiao Mi Dai Kuan’, features a Chinese person lathered in dark face makeup – blackface, and dressed in leopard skin and fur – nothing short of a character from a bad Lion King remake. Sitting opposite him is a Chinese man dressed as an Emirati Prince wearing a gold chain, gold watch and 9 gold rings.
The skit goes as follows:
A waitress approaches the two men and says “Misters, your joint bill is 3880” (USD$550)
Blackface Chinese man: (Slamming the table) It’s my treat! I must get the bill.
Chinese man: No, I should take the bill. I’m a Prince.
Blackface Chinese man: No! It should be me. (Boasting) I have a Xiaomi Credit loan account.
Chinese man: How much can you even get from their loan services?! (Gesturing to show off jewellery) I have no lack of money.
Blackface Chinese man: Xiaomi Loan service can lend out up to ¥300,000 (USD$43,000), borrow ¥10,000 and incur a minimum interest per diem of ¥2, with a maximum of 12 instalments to refund all principle.
Chinese man: What! ¥300,000 is a pretty high limit! How do we subscribe?
Blackface Chinese man: You’ll only need your phone number and identification card number to apply. (Enthused) click on the link below and input your phone number to find out the maximum amount you are eligible for.
On top of the offensive blackface, the advert is a deliberate play on the offensive stereotype of Africans as poor. In essence, the creators are not-so-subtly suggesting that the poor Black man can only afford dinner through their loan services. With this commercial, Xiaomi portrays itself as a credit lender that even the poorest of people, exemplified by a Black man clad in leopard print, can depend on.
The advert appears to be part of Xiaomi’s attempt to both market its services with humour and to endear itself to the economically disadvantaged. It may also be a misguided attempt at seeming international by casting Chinese actors as Black and Emirati.
And while Xiaomi isn’t a state-owned enterprise, nor do their activities reflect every Chinese national or their opinions, they do give an important insight into how some Chinese people view Black people and to the frequent disregard of racial sensitivity by Chinese companies.
An attempt at comedy, the skit begs the question: what about blackness is considered instantly humorous to a Chinese (the target market) audience?
Having already conquered the Indian market, Xiaomi is currently eyeing up the African continent with a hope to expand its empire. Through partnerships with Jumia Technologies, a leading pan-African e-commerce operator, the company hope to boost smartphone sales in a region already heavily dominated by other Chinese companies. Transsion and Huawei are the dominant Chinese tech companies in Africa, with the latter having come under heavy scrutiny over privacy concerns linked to its 5G network plans.
Xiaomi’s racist algorithms
Instances such as this Xiaomi ad beg the question whether these Chinese companies have yet developed the cultural competencies to do business in African countries, and furthermore, whether they are willing to invest in learning how not to recreate offensive racial stereotypes time and time again.
Another, perhaps lesser-explored question is how the attitudes and biases that often come along with views such as those implicitly expressed in the ad may impact the formation of the technology used in software and hardware headed to the African continent and diaspora communities worldwide.
Many facial recognition software, for example, employ algorithms unable to recognise nuances in Black features and a 2017 study found that Xiaomi fitness tracker watches were struggling to read the heart rates of black people and others with dark skin. Could this be due to inherent bias or is it a simple oversight?
Black Livity China spoke to Beijing-based Data Science Researcher Thalia Rossitter: ‘The discussions on racially-crippled algorithms is often the subject of research papers and artificial intelligence conference headlines. What is missing from the calculus is the reminder that racial bias is not something that might happen if we do not act, it already has happened. A healthcare servicing algorithm that exhibits a preference away from sicker black patients has already affected a hundred million people in the United States. Now is the time to look at the many more hundreds of millions on the African continent and fix these oversights before profiting from them.
Human biases have been seen to seep into algorithms which then feed into services provided by artificial intelligence. Machines learn prejudice the same way people do – from other people. Race-based bias seeps into high-tech services because the algorithms either use insufficient data sets (which exclude Black people) or the algorithms themselves are poorly designed. Mismanaged algorithms are dangerous tools as they can encode racism and other biases into widely used services.
All of this is concerning because Xiaomi is both a market leader in artificial intelligence and is seeking greater access to African markets and consumers. We know that machines are capable of replicating the same bias as their creators; thus we must ask ourselves what sort of technology they will create. Will Xiaomi revise its current practices, or will they instead churn out racist and ostracising content, products and services?
History repeats itself again and again
This isn’t the first time Chinese companies – both state-owned and otherwise have been caught up in race rows. Back in February 2018, we wrote on the events of the now infamous Chinese Spring Festival gala in which a skit featuring Chinese actress Lou Naiming in blackface and prosthetic buttocks had gone completely viral. Despite widespread outrage amongst Black communities in China and the international community, there was little response.
Only two years previously Chinese domestic cleaning product company Qiaobi laundry detergent advert exploded across the world for all the wrong reasons. The ad – a version of a previous advert created in Italy – featured an Asian woman shoving a detergent pod into the mouth of a black worker. She then shoves him into a washing machine and eventually he emerges fully clean – and notably several shades lighter, in the form of an Asian man. The company did well to issue an apology on the Chinese social media platform Weibo after the matter was picked up by various international media houses.
The Chinese film industry has also seen its fair share of racism in recent years. The box office hit Wolf Warrior 2 saw China become the saviour of poor Africans caught in a civil war – presenting much like the problematic White saviour trope seen in many western movies and causing many to question the future direction of Africa-China relations.
On the flip side of all of these are the experiences of aspiring Black actresses and actors who must deal with job adverts for their demographic almost always being for positions related to military, guns and violent or for women positions that require them to be overly sexualised? In other instances, some actors have claimed they’ve been misled about the nature of their proposed roles and have only realised the problematic nature of scripts post-production. As was the case with Qiaobi’s detergent ad. Indeed, this also brings us to the question of diversity in media across the Middle Kingdom.
As an increasingly powerful nation with an ever-growing global presence, China is seeking ‘win-win collaboration’ with Africa. Every year China welcomes thousands of African students on a full scholarship. For those on the continent, there are 54 Confucius Institutes to learn Chinese language, culture and business practices. China is investing tremendous resources into soft-ties and cultural exchanges through these initiatives. Yet the hard part isn’t introducing ones’ own culture to others; it’s studying the subtleties of other cultures to learn what is and isn’t acceptable.
China is positioning itself to be a global leader, however, when Chinese companies repeatedly reproduce racist tropes it serves as a reminder that there is at least one area of improvement necessary for this to happen. Sadly, it has to be noted that there are no role models here. Few, if any, countries in the East or West can confidently and accurately say they have rid themselves of racial bias. As such, efforts towards eradicating such instances are necessary across the world. Both state and independent Chinese actors have to do the work to ensure diversity and inclusion – or at the very least to avoid offensive portrayals of a continent with which it seeks friendship and win-win outcomes.
Whilst the problems of racism are complex, as far as representation goes, the solution is quite simple. Chinese companies, in particular, those desiring to go global, must have a diverse staff across all sectors of their business. When it comes to marketing and advertising the costs of a few extra culturally aware members of staff, perhaps those with international exposure can save them the embarrassment of scandals that lead to the greatest Chinese fear – losing face.
Identifying and attracting Black talent isn’t a challenge either. China is now the second most popular destination for African students worldwide which means there are tens of thousands of qualified Africans right at their doorstep. Simply setting up a booth at University Career Fairs and hiring graduates is an easy way to diversify the same offices that have previously been responsible for the release of racist content. If Chinese companies hire more Black people and cultivate an environment where people feel comfortable to speak up, racist incidents like these will be avoided.
In the meantime, it is on us to show that there are consequences to racist portrayals of Black people. When Gucci launched a racist sweater, Black people went online, publicly shamed them and vowed to boycott the brand. Prominent celebrities even chimed in with rapper 50 Cent burning a Gucci shirt in anger. Eventually, Gucci issued a formal apology and dropped the item from its physical and online stores. The Chinese have also made it clear that racially insensitive marketing geared at the Chinese diaspora will not be tolerated.
Perhaps most prominently the Dolce & Gabbana scandal that rocked social media early in 2019 featuring Chinese model Zuo Ye eating pizza with chopsticks was met with widespread critique and outrage by netizens. A private Instagram conversation with Stefano Gabbana following the video shows the designer defending the video from accusations of racism by calling it a tribute. Further, in the same conversation he went on to crudely describe Chinese people as “ignorant dirty smelling mafia.” Stefano Gabbana later said that his account was hacked and the replies were not made by him.
Yet the scandal continued. Within a few days, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana issued a joint video statement on Weibo apologizing “to all the Chinese in the world, because there are so many”. Model Zuo Ye also apologised on Weibo, defending herself by saying that she knew little beforehand except that it would be “fun”. Later in an interview she described a backlash by Chinese netizens so ferocious it almost ruined her career.
Chinese people banded together and hit the brand where it hurt – their bottom line. Chinese retailers pulled the brand from their online and physical stores, Chinese celebrities publicly criticised Dolce & Gabanna and some terminated their contracts with the brand too. To top it off, Dolce & Gabanna were forced to cancel a multi-million dollar show scheduled in Shanghai just a few days later. For us, the take-away here is that large scale collective action leads to results.
Unity brings results
We too have seen the power of our collective action. When a gallery in Wuhan opened an exhibit titled “This is Africa” with images by Chinese photographer Yu Huiping comparing Africans to animals a global uproar – led by members of the community ensued. Those in Wuhan made It their mission to go to the exhibition and voice their concern. Before long this led to the curator, Wang Yeujun, taking down the exhibit to“show respect for our African friends’ opinions.”
It will be interesting to see how, if at all, Xiaomi intends to rectify this incident. History shows that the only way for marginalised groups to force companies to take positive action is through social and financial pressure. While Black people in China aren’t the target demographic for Xiaomi, there are enough of us in China and abroad to make our voices heard. We have succeeded in bringing these issues into public consciousness on previous occasions and with enough awareness, we can do the same again.
Runako Celina is the co-founder of Black Livity China. She holds an MA in International Politics and African Studies from Peking University. She spent two years working for China's largest Digital TV platform broadcasting in African countries and currently lives and works in Beijing. During her time at Peking University, she sat on the committee for the Peking University Africa Think Tank.
Passionate about environmental affairs and Pan-Africanism, Hannah has dedicated her professional, academic, and personal endeavours to ensuring sustainable global development through commercial, legal and other means.