Lately, there seems to be a trend of Chinese organizations bringing self-inflicted damage upon themselves with poorly thought-out actions, unaware of how they might be perceived globally.
Take, for example, the case of the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, which received criticism from African embassies and the broader African community last month when it hosted a photography exhibition called This Is Africa, which included images comparing African people with animals.
The photos were taken by Yu Huiping, a construction company chairman who frequently travels to Africa for business. In a statement sent to Quartz Media, exhibit planner Wang Yuejun said the museum “completely understands” the complaints, and explained the rationale behind the exhibit thusly: “The exhibit’s main audience is Chinese. In the Chinese esthetic, comparing people to animals is not offensive.”
Although there’s no reason to suspect that the museum and artist were trying to be disrespectful, the exhibition reflects their degree of ignorance of the long history of racist comparisons that have been drawn between Africans and animals, and why the African community would be upset by such depictions. To the outside world, the images were shockingly inappropriate and “incredibly racist,” but somehow, it didn’t occur to the organizers that there would be backlash.
This obliviousness is not an isolated incident. Even more recently, a snack company went full sexist to promote its product. Foreign companies operating in the China market seem liable to make the same mistakes. In October, IKEA implied that women need a boyfriend to have self-worth. In July, an Audi ad compared women with used cars (more on this below).
In May 2016, a Chinese-language advertisement for the laundry detergent Qiaobi went viral on the English-language internet after running for months in China. The ad featured a Chinese woman flirtatiously putting laundry detergent into a black man’s mouth, forcing him into a washing machine, and after a few seconds on the spin cycle, opening the machine to find the black man was now a handsome Chinese guy, all “clean.”
Although it was a remake of a similar Italian commercial from a decade ago in the pre-viral-video internet era, the ad elicited shock and outrage overseas. A clickbait Huffington Post headline blared, “Qiaobi Detergent Ad Might Be the Most Racist TV Commercial Ever Made,” and articles about the topic ran on many major foreign new outlets. Despite what was obvious to most around the world, a spokesman for the company seemed to defend the company’s decision, creating even more controversy. “The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad,” the spokesman, surnamed Wang, said. “We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism.”
In December 2015, controversy stirred online when the Chinese version of the movie poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens had one noticeable difference with the international version: The image of John Boyega, one of the stars of the movie who happens to be black, was minimized.
When mistakes like this are made once or twice, they are easy to brush off, but when they are part of a larger pattern, they become part of a brand’s broader reputation. As many outside observers tend to see separate Chinese entities under the umbrella of one big conglomerate — i.e., “China” — the missteps of individual Chinese companies can give the entire country a bad look.
As China and its companies look to build closer ties with Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative, the brand they are crafting is making it harder to establish goodwill with African partners. “These insensitivities tend to anger the African community, and exacerbate some of the negative views and stereotypes that are on the African continent about Chinese people,” explains Hannah Ryder, former head of policy and partnerships for the United Nations Development Programme in China, and founder and CEO of Sino-Kenyan development consultancy Development Reimagined. “These instances certainly erode the ‘soft power’ that China is trying to establish there.”
But these public snafus are not limited to issues of race. Last month, when dozens of women accused former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other power players in the American film industry of sexual harassment and assault, China Daily’s U.S.-based site ran an opinion piece accompanied by the tweet, “What prevents #SexualHarassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it’s in most Western societies?”
Surprised that they would possibly make such a claim? Me too. I have spent over seven years either in China or working with Chinese people, and I could fill a book with the stories I’ve heard of young women being pressured into sexual relationships with more powerful men in the workplace, being touched or photographed without permission on the subway, or even direct quid pro quo sex for jobs, promotions, or debt forgiveness. And I’m a foreign man. Not exactly the center of the gossip mill with this kind of stuff. It makes me wonder what people wouldn’t dare say to me, or what goes unsaid altogether.
I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction upon seeing the article. China Daily later removed it, but not before damage was done. One commenter, German filmmaker and Beijing Film Academy alumnus Christoph Rehage, went into detail about how young Chinese actresses are pressured to work essentially as prostitutes, and accused acclaimed director Zhang Yimou of giving favorable starring roles in films to his girlfriends. Rehage referred to this as an “open secret” in the industry.
The Washington Post later reported on the story as well, including Rehage’s allegations against Zhang Yimou, as well as comments from many others.
However, I don’t want to make this article about racism and sexism in China. These issues are incredibly complex, and I may not be the appropriate person to address them. Instead, I want to look at this simply from the perspective of practical management and public relations. I think we can safely assume that the people and organizations listed earlier did not want to intentionally offend people, present themselves the way they did, or bring about negative attention from the media unnecessarily. It damages not only the brands of these organizations, but “Brand China” as well.
Why, then, I have to ask, does this keep happening? I’ve worked in many different capacities, communicating with employees and the public on behalf of Chinese companies. In each instance, words are carefully, meticulously looked over, often with multiple drafts to ensure that each word used will be considered acceptable by the public, the company’s leadership, and those in political power. Why, when so much attention is paid to those details, are such glaring oversights made — ones that clearly will shock and upset millions of people? It’s like someone installing three locks on a top-floor window, while failing to notice that the front door has been left wide open.
Similar minds have similar blind spots
PR missteps like these are by no means exclusive to Chinese companies. Earlier this year, in the wake of rising tensions between American police and Black Lives Matter protestors, which had erupted into protests and riots, Pepsi launched an expensive, high-profile marketing campaign featuring 21-year-old supermodel and reality star Kendall Jenner. The campaign’s first television advertisement depicted angry protesters on the street about to violently clash with riot police. As the moment intensifies, Jenner walks to the front of the protest and gives the police officer a Pepsi. He takes a sip, smiles, and everyone cheers. Because, of course, deep-rooted historical racial conflict can be solved with…soda?
Many were predictably outraged by Pepsi’s attempt to make light of a serious and very sensitive problem. Pepsi apologized and pulled its expensive campaign, issuing a statement saying: “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.”
But the online reactions had already begun shifting from outrage to mockery. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel said of the ad: “The fact that this somehow made it through — I can’t imagine how many meetings and edits and pitches — and then got the thumbs-up from who knows how many people, is absolutely mind-boggling.”
So how did Pepsi end up making an ad like that? British news site The Daily Mirror did some digging and found that of the six people in key positions to oversee the production of the ad, all six were white. While that certainly might not be the only element to consider, it may help answer Jimmy Kimmel’s question about how an ad like this could get made.
This is something that is evident throughout organizations all over the world: When teams of decision makers and influencers are composed of those from similar demographics, whether age, race, gender, economic background, or other dimensions, they create “blind spots,” or areas of group ignorance, where they are just simply unaware of how others may see the world. This doesn’t mean that they’re evil or hateful, it just means that there are lines of sight to which they are blind.
As Chinese firms evolve into global corporations, the diversity imperative will only become more necessary.
More diverse teams enjoy many practical real-world benefits. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean.
In recent years, a substantial body of research has developed, showing that when managed appropriately, diverse teams simply tend to be smarter than homogeneous ones. According to a piece in Harvard Business Review by author David Rock and neuroscientist Heidi Grant, diverse teams more frequently focus on facts rather than on opinions or assumptions, process those facts more carefully, and find more innovative solutions to problems.
But in addition to all that, diversity helps companies avoid the embarrassing moments of pathetic cluelessness like the ones mentioned above. Don’t know if an ad in which a black man’s “dirty” color is cleaned off his skin will upset some people? Well, you could always ask a black colleague. Don’t have a black colleague? Well, that might be part of the problem…
“At Chinese firms, there is a noticeable increase in awareness on a team when they have wider exposure to particular groups of people,” explains Wu Di, co-founder of Easy Inclusion, a Beijing-based diversity consultancy. “The messages a company sends to its customers and the public reflect the culture of the team, and the unconscious biases its members hold.”
Multinational firms have struggled with how to diversify their workforce and executive teams for decades, with mixed results. Now, as Chinese firms are building global presences and attracting increased scrutiny from foreign media, well-managed diversity will likely be one of the key factors in determining which Chinese firms become true multinational companies.
But how do Chinese firms and their employees tend to view and handle issues of workplace diversity, and what are the challenges that diversity advocates face in China? I spoke with a series of Chinese professionals, and here’s what I learned:
The “assumption gap”
“In countries like the U.S., Canada, or Singapore, diversity is discussed often and early in education. But in China, the diversity is less obvious, and rarely discussed in the media or education,” explained a consultant for one of the world’s top executive search firms. “Because of this, many Chinese people don’t know what to think about, or how to manage diversity.”
Combine this with a language that is largely exclusive to China, an internet that is isolated from the rest of the world, and relatively few foreign visitors, and it is easy to see why so few Chinese people regularly have to think about diversity.
This was a theme I noticed consistently when speaking with Chinese professionals for this piece. As someone who grew up in the U.S. with a relatively liberal educational background, there have been certain assumptions that I have carried with me about diversity and its benefits that are not always shared by my Chinese friends and colleagues.
When speaking with one experienced and fairly international former Chinese media executive, when I introduced the museum exhibit and detergent ad as having “diversity issues,” she did not seem to fully agree. “I don’t know if they are diversity issues. I think it is just that these things often don’t occur to Chinese people,” she explained. To me, these two were intrinsically linked, like saying, “The problem isn’t that I’m unemployed, it’s that I don’t have any money.”
Why, when so much attention is paid to those details, are such glaring oversights made — ones that clearly will shock and upset millions of people?
There is a tendency to either be unaware of diversity issues or ignore them altogether. A few years ago, one of the major German automakers launched a global campaign to promote “equal rights for men and women” in the workplace. According to one Chinese employee of the company, while the initiative enjoyed enthusiastic participation from nearly all of its offices around the world, the one in China declined to participate. A senior executive for the Chinese joint venture reportedly explained this decision to employees by saying, “We don’t have that problem because, in China, men and women are already equal.” It is ironic that the same company was forced to pull an advertisement earlier this year, after large numbers of people complained, as the ad attempted humor by comparing a woman with a used car.
When approached about the issue, a representative from the company’s headquarters in Germany said that the firm “deeply regretted” the ad. “The ad’s perception that has been created for many people does not correspond to the values of our company in any way,” a company spokesman said to the Washington Post in an email. “The responsible department of the joint venture has arranged a thorough investigation of the internal control and coordination processes so that an incident like this can be excluded in the future.”
“Diversity” can have negative connotations
For many internationally focused Chinese, their first experiences with institutionalized diversity programs can be unpleasant, as some see what they perceive to be less-qualified candidates and applicants get accepted into the prestigious universities and organizations they covet, while they are forced to settle for their second or third choices.
For some Chinese people, this has left a bad taste in their mouths. “Why should I be denied entrance to that university, while someone with worse scores gets accepted?” asked one Chinese student who recently studied in the U.S. “That isn’t fair.” This attitude toward such policies is shared by members of China’s Han majority who study within China, as there are university admission policies that benefit members of ethnic minority groups.
When I posted on Chinese social media asking about companies’ diversity policies, I received 35 responses. Those who claimed their organizations valued diversity nearly exclusively worked for foreign enterprises, with the exception of Lenovo, which implemented its policy as a way to integrate its large overseas acquisitions. Many of the responses were hostile to the idea. As one Chinese professional put it, “If foreigners or ethnic minorities were deliberately recruited, it would be unfair to everyone else.”
“There are so many things that you can say in a Chinese workplace, but can’t in America. It’s ironic, since America is the country of freedom of speech.”
When researching this article, I also spoke with many Chinese people, who, after studying or working in international environments, became bothered by what they perceived to be an overemphasis on politically correct language. “I feel like I have to always be careful about what I say,” explained a PR professional who studied in the U.S.
A former Chinese colleague of mine who has worked in the Bay Area on a green card for many years was a bit more opinionated. “There are so many things that you can say in a Chinese workplace, but can’t in America,” he said. “It’s ironic, since America is the country of freedom of speech.”
This sentiment was also expressed by the detergent company Qiaobi, when its ad, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, drew criticism for its racist message. By saying that the foreign media was “too sensitive” about the ad, the spokesperson for the company seemed to be bemoaning a culture that it may see as too “politically correct.”
Insularity and information flows: The corporate culture problem
“For many Chinese companies, even those in the tech and service sectors, their ideas about management and organization come from seeing how state-owned companies do things,” explained a Shanghai-based management consultant. “In the culture of most state-owned firms, conformity is highly emphasized, and decision making is secretive and top down. In this kind of culture, diversity is something to be minimized, not encouraged.”
This attitude was echoed by other Chinese professionals whom I’ve interacted with, either in person or on social media.
“Companies generally prefer Chinese men to women or foreign employees,” explained a Chinese tech professional to me over WeChat. “Women often have children and don’t want to work overtime. For foreigners, the language and culture issues are just too difficult to manage for most bosses in China.”
Others reported direct discrimination based on race and perceived status. “I once recruited an Indian-British candidate who was very well qualified, but my boss would not accept him, since he said the company was looking for high-end clients and should only hire white people,” admitted a Chinese recruitment professional, who has since left that firm.
When teams of decision makers and influencers are composed of those from similar demographics…they create “blind spots,” or areas of group ignorance, where they are just simply unaware of how others may see the world.
When examining how Chinese firms and professionals view diversity efforts, there is a noticeable gap between the benefits reported from major consulting firms and academic literature, and what the prevailing attitude seems to be in China. One reason for this may be in the precise areas in which the benefits are given. In the Harvard Business Review article cited earlier, the three main advantages that diversity brings with it — fact-based decision making, greater scrutiny of data, and improved innovation — are all in the realm of decision making and idea generation. However, in the highly insular, top-down, and hierarchical cultures of most Chinese organizations, those responsibilities tend to be given almost exclusively to older Chinese men, while young people, women, and non-Chinese staff are tasked with execution, where diversity may provide less of a benefit, and instead be a hindrance.
“When you live in a country that is 92 percent the same ethnicity, and there is a norm of not criticizing others, particularly…magnates who are wealthy, there’s just nobody to stand up and say, ‘This is a bad idea,’” commented China-based media and advertising executive Eric Olander on The China in Africa Podcast.
This is a deep-seated issue within the social dynamics of Chinese power structures. “Because of the top-down management approach, managers rarely ask for genuine input on decision making. They feel they ‘know better,’” explains a second-generation Chinese American who has spent most of his career in China. “On the other side of the coin, managers are often expected to ‘know better’ than their subordinates, so they are under pressure to make decisions without appearing ‘weak.’ In many cases, instead of rewarding their creativity or outside-the-box thinking, many managers consider outspoken subordinates as ‘troublemakers’ and impediments in their decision-making process.”
However, there are also those who view traditional Chinese culture as being well suited to the concept of diversity. “When we isolate ourselves, we become more and more extreme,” explains China-born, Silicon Valley–based cross-cultural facilitator Li Yingying. “Traditional Chinese culture, Buddhism, Daoism, they all emphasize balance, not extremes. By working in diverse teams, we must work toward achieving a balance. To me, that is very aligned with Chinese culture.”
As Chinese firms evolve into global corporations, the diversity imperative will only become more necessary. For those who effectively incorporate it into all levels of their business, they will have a distinct competitive advantage. For those who do not, they will likely continue to make poorly thought-out mistakes, alienating overseas consumers and damaging the global reputation both of their own brand and that of China as a whole.