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Controversial advertisement shines light on racial attitudes in China

Two scenes from a detergent ad by Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd. Co. are shown on computer screens in Beijing, Sunday, May 29, 2016. The Chinese laundry detergent maker apologized late Saturday for the harm caused by the spread of an ad in which a black man "washed" by its product was transformed into a fair-skinned Asian man.

Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A Chinese company says it's sorry for making a laundry detergent commercial condemned as a shockingly racist marketing ploy – but also faulted foreign media for drawing attention to its content.

"The ad was just a concept, with no malicious intent," Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd. said in a message Sunday to The Globe and Mail." We feel deeply sorry for the disturbance it has caused!"

The company had been the target of a public outcry for a commercial in which a Chinese girl pops a detergent packet into the mouth of a black man whose face and clothing are streaked with paint. She then grabs his neck and shoves him into a laundry machine, which swallows him whole.

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Moment laters, he re-emerges as fresh-faced young Asian, whose dirt – and, apparently, racial characteristics – have been scrubbed clean.

The tagline on the video: "Change Begins With a Single Qiaobi Washing Bead."

To many observers, it may as well have read: China, where racism sells.

"It's really pathetic. It only goes to demonstrate that Chinese social values of duality and mutual respect are far below global standards for the 21st century," said Hung Huang, a Chinese media commentator. "Somehow, a people so bent on Confucian moral supremacy has now become the moral delinquents of our age."

David Moser, the academic director at an overseas studies program in Beijing "thought it had to be a joke" when he first saw it. "I just don't know who thought this was a good idea."

The answer: Shanghai Leishang, which shot the commercial earlier this year. It aired on television and in theatres, according to Shanghaiist, the online publication that brought its startling contents to light, calling it a "completely racist ad."

It is the latest racial low-light in China.

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For decades, there was "Darkie" brand toothpaste, sold by a Chinese company now owned by Colgate, which changed its name to "Darlie" in 1989.

That same year, thousands of Chinese people attacked African university students in Nanjing, screaming "Down with blacks!" and "Black devils!" Hundreds of the students fled to safety in embassies in Beijing.

In 2009, the appearance of a young singer with a Chinese mother and African-American father on a Chinese TV talent show provoked furious debate – and an outpouring of malicious commentary. "Ugh. Yellow people and black people mixed together is very gross," one person wrote.

Like many black people living in China, technical writer Gerald Headd II regularly experiences discrimination.

Once, a merchant punched him on the back as he walked away from a pair of shoes he didn't want. "She starts saying, 'You're dirty, you're disgusting,' " he said.

So he was not surprised to see a black man depicted as unclean in the laundry commercial.

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"It's not really shocking any more, honestly. You kind of become numb to it," he said.

Some Chinese viewers, however, questioned the outrage over the commercial.

"This is not so bad. ... Doesn't feel like discrimination," one person wrote on China's Weibo social media platform. "It's nothing but an advertising concept, why make such a fuss?" wrote another.

Racial attitudes among Chinese people, particularly toward those with darker skin, have long provoked anger and soul-searching. "Many Chinese people are seriously racist," wrote Yang Rui, the host of English-language talk show Dialogue, which airs on state broadcaster CCTV. That includes, he wrote in 2012, "being more than a little dismissive of coloured peoples."

More despair emerged last week, as people watched the commercial online. "There is very little education about racial discrimination domestically. Many people probably really think this kind of joke is funny," one person wrote on Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora. "Only by respecting other races and ethnicities can we slowly come to earn the respect of the world."

Still, the anecdotal evidence for Chinese racism has not always held up to closer scrutiny. Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has studied the experience of Africans in China. "For the most part, in terms of the African students living in China, they do not experience racism on a day-to-day basis," he said. Students travel freely, with little concern for their safety.

"If you survey Africans living in Germany or Russia, the situation is much graver for them. They fear being physically attacked, and they often are," he said. Other surveys have found that rural American students are more ethnocentric than their Chinese counterparts, and that Chinese are among the world's strongest supporters of anti-discrimination laws – in part because many have experienced racism directed toward them.

In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao actually invited African students to study in China, in a campaign to spread Communist goodwill. The Nanjing mobs in the late 1980s were motivated in part by resentment over favourable treatment toward those students.

Still, the laundry commercial shows, if nothing else, a remarkable oblivion to how race is perceived outside China.

(The commercial's other crime: it is a blatant rip-off of an Italian commercial, although with a key difference. In the Italian commercial, a schlumpy white man is tossed into the laundry, and emerges as a muscled black man. "Coloured is better," that commercial proclaims.)

The Chinese detergent makers, meanwhile, said at least part of the blame lay with those outside China for criticizing the company's commercial, which was designed to promote a product it calls "revolutionary."

"Foreign media are too sensitive," company director Mr. Wang, who provided only his surname, told the Chinese Global Times. He also questioned how the commercial leaked out.

That part is no great mystery: it was posted to a company social media account, where it remained through the end of last week, accompanied with a warning – although not about its racial content. "For advertising purposes only," the warning said. "Please do not put washing beads in your mouth."

With a report by Yu Mei

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