If you had typed ‘Air China’ into Google Search a week or so ago, you would have seen “Air China racist” as one of the top three 'autocomplete' search terms. Better yet, search ‘Air China + in-flight magazine’. Holy shitstorm of all shitstorms.
Having spent most of my life on the road, I have had the privilege of being among the first readers of these “bilingual” in-flight magazines in China. I used to find them a source of great entertainment. I took immense joy in ridiculing the cheesy Chinese articles and laughing at the even more comic English attempts at the same cheesiness.
But like everything else in China, it got better and it got more sophisticated, at least enough so for me to lose interest. Then I moved on to looking at all the stewardess profiles that read like personal ads. Soon, I lost interest in that as well.
Had I known that they offer “helpful” traveling tips…
Ok, ok, before people start accusing me of making light of the situation, let me tell you why this incident drives me insane on so many levels—but not in the ways you might think.
As a Chinese person, I winced at how utterly offensive the article was. I started ranting to my wife right away: “What on God’s green earth”...”In this day and age, you would think”…“They are ruining the reputation of China and Chinese everywhere”…
But then I remembered a “public safety campaign” that ran years ago at the Guangzhou train station. It read “防火，防盗，防河南” (be on the lookout for fire hazard, theft, and people from Henan). I was able to calm down right away.
See, world? We Chinese are just as offensive and racist toward our own people. What a great relief. Our collective well of ignorance runs much deeper. (For the benefit of Mayor Khan, Dr. Rosina Allin-Khan and Londoners, most residents from Henan are Han Chinese—the majority ethnic group in China, accounting for 92 percent of Chinese population—yet they are being discriminated.)
Incidentally, my hats off to Dr. Allin-Khan. The governor of Henan wasn’t nearly as gracious. He never offered to show the people from Zhuangzhou around Henan to quash such ill perceptions of his people for being scammers and con artists.
What is it then, racism or ignorance? Or is this a classic case of one feeds into another?
Having lived and worked in China for the past 14 years, I have had the pleasure to witness, firsthand, all the amazing changes China has gone through as a nation at a speed that can only be characterised as miraculous. How much the country has opened up in just two decades is mind-boggling. But does that mean there is no work left to be done? Of course not. Many things have kept pace with China’s economic vigor, but many are still playing a catchup game in this new great leap forward.
Among which are our world views; our perceptions and understanding of different cultures and races. Many countries in their exuberance to embrace the new China (namely its outbound tourists and Chinese people’s voracious appetite for designer goods) perhaps overlooked the fact that 120 million outbound tourists only accounts for a very small percentage of the entire population—and that has only occurred in the past 15 years. Visa-free travel is a gracious gesture only recently extended to the Chinese by our world brethren.
For most Chinese who have not had the privilege of ever traveling outside of China, or even come into close contact with a foreigner, where do you think their perceptions came from? Movies, news reports and entertainment of one form or the other.
So before we all collectively throw that first stone, perhaps we can zoom back and examine this glass house for what it is. How are certain races being portrayed in our infotainment? For that matter, how are Chinese being portrayed in our infotainment world?
In his recent article Explaining the rise of Trump, Simon Sinek shared a very interesting perspective on why people voted for Trump. In essence, people are so sick and tired of politicians and their self-serving ways; they just want to vote for someone that is the exact opposite of a stereotypical politician. So it is not a vote for Trump, but a vote against everyone else.
He went on to say that an even more important question must be raised: “Are our politicians a reflection of us? Should we be the first one to throw the stones, or maybe accept that we got the politicians that we deserve? In order for our politicians to change, we as a people need to first change.”
Racism is a very incendiary topic. It is abhorrent because it is a vicious assault on someone’s fundamental identity based on ignorance, bias and unfounded fear. So let’s treat the topic with the utmost seriousness and respect it deserves rather than getting into a hysteria—or worse yet, using it for self-serving agendas.
The question is not whether Air China is fit to operate in the UK. The question is not who to blame and who we should be kicking to the curb. The first thing that everyone should do in this situation is to hold the mirror to ourselves. The most insidious forms of racism are the most subtle, and often masquerade as something noble, righteous and even patriotic. Certainly not in the form of a “Traveling Safety Tip” written by a dimwitted and ignorant employee and published for all the world to see.
The second thing we should do is figure out what we can do, and how we can help. Dr. Allin-Khan was gracious enough to extend an invitation to Air China’s management. But can we do more? How about using some of the money made from Chinese tourists on cultural awareness programs?
While we are on the topic of individual responsibility and collective accountability, I would like to offer a humble word of advice to Air China. The non-apology apology never works. Nor does trying to distance yourself from the publisher by saying it is an arm’s-length organisation, no matter how far your wingspan extends.
The worst crisis is often the best opportunity to demonstrate the integrity and authenticity of your brand. This is not just the work of a "deplorable" employee (we all know how Hillary Clinton got in double over the weekend using that word).
Here is my hindsight-is-20/20 playbook for Air China:
- The first thing to do is pull all the magazines and pulp them, which the airline said it did.
- Pick the right medium. Immediately issue a statement acknowledging that what happened is absolutely unacceptable and take full responsibility. Don’t justify.
- If you want to make a formal apology taped or live, let it come from the head of the company, not just a [anonymous] spokesperson. Once again, pick the right medium and stick to it; this will avoid fighting the war on too many fronts.
- Address those who are impacted in a meaningful way. If the London Mayor and Dr. Allin-Kahn had already reached out, engage them.
- Apologies must be accompanied and followed by strong actions. Be ready to address what is currently being done about it and identify the next steps. Don’t just say “we are investigating”. Investigating most often means looking for scapegoats.
- When there is no quick fix, show intent. Racism and/or ignorance is a complicated subject. The issue here is not a rogue employee, or a less than diligent publisher. Culture drives behavior. Not processes or policies.
- Ask for help and get people involved. At the end of the day, racism, bias and ignorance is not an Air China problem, but lies with all of us.
This is how you get in touch with the humanity of your brand and the humanity of others.
Reno Yue currently leads communication strategy for the city of Calgary, Canada. He was formerly the director of branding, advertising and digital marketing for General Electric Greater China and Mongolia.