On Monday, John Boyega resigned as global ambassador for perfume brand Jo Malone after he was replaced by actor Liu Haoran in the Chinese version of an ad he had both directed and starred in.
The original minute-long short film, titled “A London Gent,” is a celebration of John’s diverse community, his Nigerian heritage and his friends and family. Boyega had even been awarded the accolade for Best Media Campaign at the 2020 Fragrance Foundation Virtual Awards for the ad.
But after replacing John with the Chinese actor who serves as the brand’s local ambassador, Jo Malone was forced to issue an apology. The Estée Lauder-owned brand went on to call the Chinese market version “a mistake” and admitted that Boyega’s vision “should not have been replicated.”
The Chinese version is near identical in concept featuring identical scenes but replaces Boyega and has no Black cast members. Seemingly, the main feature the brand presumed would be unfitting for a Chinese audience were the original ad’s Black and brown faces.
Placing the erasure of John and his co-stars into a greater Chinese context, the persisting issues around the representation of Blackness and Africanness in Chinese media comes into question.
To date, it is rare to see Black /African narratives and imagery as authentic and positive as Boyega’s on Chinese television and cinema. The lack of such representations (along with the prevalence of tired tropes and racial stereotypes) has a direct correlation with the way Black people are treated across the country.
This is not the first time there has been controversy around Blackness in Chinese advertising.
In the Chinese poster for the 2015 movie Star Wars, John Boyega, who plays a lead role, was moved to a position of lesser prominence, with his image greatly reduced in size. Other non-white characters, such as Oscar Isaac, who plays rebel pilot Poe Dameron and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays alien pirate Maz Kanata were cut out altogether.
In 2016, Chinese detergent company Qiaobi came under fire for a racist advert in which an African man was placed in a washing machine, resurfacing later in the form of a light-skinned Asian man.
The man later claimed he had not been told the context in which his image would be used and demanded the ad be removed.
But the Jo Malone controversy is as much about Western brands and their complicity in the erasure of Blackness as it is about anti-Blackness in China – and Jo Malone are not the only culprits.
Darkie (darlie) toothpaste, up until this year called ‘heiren yagao’ or Black people toothpaste, is 50% owned by American company Colgate-Palmolive. The brand has a well-reported history of using minstrel imagery despite moving to a more ambiguous figure in recent years. And although the Black Lives Matter movement spurred the company on to seek to finally change the name, it took some 35 years for a name change to be publicly brought to the table.
Returning to The Star Wars poster fiasco, although the initial decision may have been made locally in China, the movie franchise belongs to Walt Disney, which begs the question – who signed off on these poster edits? John Hsu, General Manager of Walt Disney China stated ahead of the film’s release in China that the company were “excited to be rolling out our marketing campaign and to connect with new fans in China through Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
And although not directly related to media, western skincare brands have also come under fire for upholding a singular notion of beauty which places Blackness at the bottom through the promotion of skin lightening products in Asia and Africa, with adverts often suggesting that Blackness or darker skin is undesirable.
When marketing themselves to western audiences, these brands seem to uphold in vogue values of diversity and inclusion. But when journeying east the opposite appears to be true. Instead, they facilitate the perpetuation of anti-Blackness and colourism, as we’ve seen in the Chinese context.
This issue is thus an indictment of Western brands and their hypocrisy as much as it is of the state of Chinese media.
When western brands interact with non-western markets, they must be expected to uphold their commitment to diversity, inclusion & anti-racism. Decisions to do the opposite might be based on the assumption that Chinese audiences are likely to respond negatively or indifferently to a primarily Black cast – and while it is true that some Chinese netizens have expressed racist views online after watching Black content, this shouldn’t be enough justification for brands to erase Blackness or minimise it – especially not in the age of Black Lives Matter and a global reckoning with race.
Recognising the role of Western brands doesn’t diminish the need for change in Chinese media, however.
Black actors and actresses in China have frequently seen themselves cornered into roles that both reinforce negative stereotypes and play into tired racial tropes. In these instances, Black faces only serve as props to assist in painting a particular picture – and it ain’t pretty.
Take the 2018 Chinese Spring Festival Gala, likely to have been seen by some 800 million people, which depicted amongst other things an African student rescued from her family’s backwards traditions by China.
Or the 2017 action film Wolf Warrior 2, which created a Chinese version of the White Saviour narrative. Once again, China swooped in to save the day – this time on African soil. In both of these instances, Black faces are used to support a ‘saviour’ narrative in which China rescues Black Africans – either from the west or from their own traditions and family.
The underlying message is clear – What would these Africans be without China’s help?
We need to see more of a commitment to diversity in Chinese media – and this goes beyond employing Black actors and actresses to uphold such narratives.
Scores of Black actors and actresses call China home and the Chinese TV/film market is huge. If China hopes to keep these talents, the country will have to get serious in tackling anti-Blackness and the problematic representation of Black people in media.
In a country where positive and authentic images of Blackness are few, Boyega’s advert could have set an important precedent – but it’s not too late to start.
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.