Air China says racist travel tips were 'misinterpreted'

A statement provided by Air China apologises but attempts to distance the brand from the scandal by blaming the magazine editors.

Screenshot of Haze Fan's Twitter post showing Air China's 'warning'
Screenshot of Haze Fan's Twitter post showing Air China's 'warning'

BEIJING - A statement issued by Air China via email around 6 pm (Hong Kong time) blames editor error and "misinterpretation" for the recent scandal involving its in-flight magazine, which warned travellers to avoid neighbourhoods in London populated by 'Indians, Pakistanis and black people'.

The (translated) statement, apparently written by the publisher responsible for the magazine, Wings of China*, read:

The safety tips seen in the September issue article are inappropriate expressions, and merely mistakes made by our editors, and by no means represent the views of the magazine. This is at odds with our original purpose of promoting the beautiful scenery of London, but instead triggering misinterpretations among media and readers. We are deeply sorry about it.

The airline pointed out that the magazine is published by a "separate entity" and went on to say that the airline had ordered the removal of all magazines from planes immediately and has demanded that the Wings of China editorial team learn from this lesson. (Full statement in both Chinese and English will be supplied the end of this article).

Prior to the statement's issue, Campaign Asia-Pacific asked the industry for their take on the issue. 

'Precautions’ about visiting London neighbourhoods 'populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people' that appeared in Air China’s Wings of China article are "both offensive and factually wrong", commented Lee Nugent, APAC managing director at Text100.

The Chinese version of the tip in the dual-language magazine is more descriptive of those areas, detailing them as “relatively more chaotic".

"One can only assume the writer has never actually visited London, which is one of the world’s great multicultural cities," he said.

Yesterday, the Air China article prompted a British member of parliament, Virendra Sharma, representing an ethnically-diverse area in western London to demand an apology from the airline for "blatant racism". His words are reproduced below.

"I have written in the strongest possible terms to His Excellency Mr Liu Xiaoming (刘晓明), Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China, to raise my concerns.

I am shocked and appalled that even today some people would see it as acceptable to write such blatantly untrue and racist statements. I have raised this issue with the Chinese Ambassador, and requested that he ensures an apology is swiftly forthcoming from Air China, and the magazine is removed from circulation immediately.

I have invited representatives of Air China to visit my constituency of Ealing, Southall to see that a very multi-cultural area is safe, and would be of great value for those visiting London to see.

I will await their response, and if an appropriate one is not forthcoming I shall feel forced to question whether Air China is a fit company to operate in the UK.”

The national carrier of China, as well as its public relations agency Burson-Marsteller (recently appointed in July), had been quiet up till now since Haze Fan, a CNBC news and documentary producer, first spotted the 'tip' and tweeted it to Sadiq Khan, London’s British-Pakistani mayor.

“Almost as disappointing as the article itself was Air China’s apparent lack of response," added Text100's Nugent.

According to a press report on CNN Money, Air China apparently expressed "sincere apologies" on its North American Twitter account on Thursday afternoon (Wednesday night in North America) and that it does not "condone discrimination in any shape or form". Oddly,  it would be more fitting for its UK or global account to issue any official statement. That Twitter apology seems to have been deleted since then, perhaps as a result of internal bungle?

"Today, businesses—particularly as they internationalise, and what’s more international than an airline?—have a responsibility to act swiftly and deal with such events before they become full-blown crises,” said Nugent.

Neither the Beijing nor the London office heads of Air China, Burson-Marsteller or Publicitas (publisher of the offending magazine) have answered questions from Campaign Asia-Pacific beyond the issue of an official statement.  

This is the latest case of a Chinese company coming under fire for deep-seated stereotypes based on race, similar to the Qiaobi controversy earlier in the year that depicted a black man being thrown into a washing machine and then emerging as a fair-skinned Chinese man.

This time, despite the antagonist being an airline brand with plenty of exposure to internationalisation, the ironic aspect is that most of its in-flight magazine readers would not have found the content offensive or racist, said Jerry Clode, head of digital and social insight at Resonance China. 

As it is, Chinese social media is already "full of casual references to race and prescribed behaviour based on race that are negative and retrogressive", he pointed out. 
However, to be fair, there are increasing concerns with Chinese tourists and immigrants being singled out as gullible targets of crime. Protests these past two months by the Chinese community in Paris over the high frequency of attacks on people of their ethnicity—robberies, tear-gas sprays and even killing—are largely due to police indifference.
"While crime against Chinese in cities like London and Paris is a reality, the racial blanketing of what is a safety issue is too simplistic," explained Resonance's Clode.  
The advice is precautionary, and indeed rightly so, but it is "an incredibly clumsy attempt to provide reassurance to local Air China customers", he said, and the state-owned brand obviously did not expect backlash from its international clientele. 
This may suggest Air China has some way to go before it becomes cosmopolitan, especially since rising nationalism means local brands have "become more emboldened to position themselves as stoically Chinese", Clode noted.
Translated extracts from Air China's/Wings Of China's statement:

In order to meet the reading demands of passengers, Air China distributed nearly a hundred different magazines in different languages on planes, and Wings Of China is only one of them. These publications are only supplementary reading materials and none of them represents the view of Air China.

The safety tips seen in the September issue article are inappropriate expressions, and merely mistakes made by our editors, and by no means represent the views of the magazine. This is at odds with our original purpose of promoting the beautiful scenery of London, but instead triggering misinterpretations among media and readers. We are deeply sorry about it.

Upon our notice, Air China has ordered the removal of all the magazines from planes immediately. Air China has also demanded the Wings Of China editorial team to carefully learn from this lesson to review content so as to prevent similar issues from happening again.

The original statement in full: 

* Update: We have added text to clarify the creator of the quoted statement was the publisher, not the airline. 

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