Why Don’t They Make Some Foreigners Kneel?

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The Nippon Paint case fits into a pattern of an emerging politics of consumption. It was one of a series of incidents in 2004 in which Western and Japanese companies apologized to Chinese consumers for their advertising. In December, Nike apologized for a television commercial featuring NBA player LeBron James that had to be taken off air after a ban imposed by the State Council. The ban said that the commercial had violated Articles 6 and 7 of the Guidelines for the Management of Television Advertising, which say that “television advertising should protect the dignity and interests of the state and respect the traditional culture of the Fatherland” and “may not defame national customs and lore”. According to an article on the website of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily, this was a response to complaints by viewers who accused the ad of showing “American culture defeat Chinese culture” or even of defaming China. The commercial showed NBA player LeBron James fight and defeat two Chinese-looking figures – an old wizard and a female fighter – and two dragons. The article included a sampling of netizens’ opinions, some of which condemned the advertising, while others charged these with excessive sensitivity. The tone of the article was set by an “expert”, a professor of advertising at China Media University, who figured that the offensive advertising was not the result of malicious intent but of cultural ignorance, and called for more regulations to curtail what he called “blind and excessive creativity”. The article recalled that a previous pair of Toyota print advertisements encountered similar protests and resulted in an apology by the company. In one of the ads, two Chinese stone lions salute the Prado four-wheel drive as it passes by (selling line: “Prado – You Can’t Help Respecting It”), while in the other, a Land Cruiser tows a stalled Chinese-made Dongfeng military lorry in a mountain wilderness. (Coincidentally or not, the brand name Prado has been translated as “Badao,” meaning “hegemony” or “dictatorship,” in Chinese.)

The Xinhua News Agency had reported that the ads were “seen as degrading to the national motor industry and injurious to the national sentiments of the broad masses of viewers”.[1] Toyota, the advertising company and the magazine that published the ads had all apologized. In its apology to the readers, the magazine, Guoji Guanggao (International Advertising), stated: “because our political level is not high, we were unable to identify the pictures that could easily provoke associations that hurt national feelings … We recognize the gravity of the issue.”[2] Even so, a number of counter-ads fabricated by protesters continued to circulate on the Internet. (In one, with the caption “Prado – You Must Seize It,” the two stone lions were crushing the car with their paws; another showed the lorry in tow shouting abuse at the Land Cruiser; in the third, a donkey was towing the Toyota. The mildest had the Land Cruiser on the lorry’s platform, with the caption “Dongfeng Auto Company’s Honorary Product: Dongfeng, Designated Instruction Vehicle for Toyota Land Cruiser.)[3]

The trend continued in 2005, when McDonalds aired a television commercial – also by Leo Burnett – in which a customer begged a restaurant manager on his knees to honour his expired discount coupon. Reportedly, this scene was included in the nationally broadcast ad although the China Advertising Association, which had vetted the copy at Leo Burnett’s request, recommended cutting it out. This ad too gave rise to caricatures, in one of which the clown that McDonalds uses as a mascot in China pushes a customer down on his knees in front of the “golden arches”.[4] The press reported of irate viewers, such as the one in Zhengzhou who called a local television station asking “Why don’t they make some foreigners kneel” in the ad.[5] Municipal industry and trade bureaus in Xi’an and Zhengzhou launched investigations, accusing the ad to have violated Article 7 of the Advertising Law, which states that advertising must not “harm the public interest of society” or “impede the public order of society and violate good social customs”.[6]

McDonalds stopped airing the ad, but the dust around it did not settle. As late as 16 March 2006, an anonymous poster on the bulletin board (BBS) of a hospitality industry website, HC360.com, suggested “kicking McDonalds out”. The tenor of the posts in the thread was unanimously condemning. In an online survey, 83% of over 10 thousand respondents agreed with the statement that they were “extremely outraged” (ji wei fennu) by the ad.[8] The same moral outrage enveloped print media, television and radio, each hastening to add its criticism: as one journalist commented, it was “as if whoever has fallen behind is unpatriotic”.[9] The effect was a bit like a Cultural Revolution struggle session: if you are not wholehearted in your criticism, you could be the next to be struggled against.

As it turned out, Starbucks was next on the hit list. The first month of 2007 resounded with a Web campaign to oust Starbucks from its shop inside the Forbidden City in Peking, a World Heritage site whose integrity is supposedly protected according to strict UNESCO guidelines. Ironically, the outlet’s opening seven years earlier had been scoffed at only by Western commentators. Reacting to the campaign, an English travel writer recalled:

Three or four years ago I happened to mention it while interviewing a senior official from the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, and she expressed shock … [B]ut the Chinese are only horrified when someone gets the ball rolling and there’s a chance for a bit of xenophobia. UNESCO should have been equally shocked by all the other commercial outlets there, by the studding of the ancient buildings with air conditioners, and so on. Oh, and the basketball court marked out in one square [inside the Forbidden City] – that’s really in keeping.[10]

The campaign was triggered by a Yale-educated television host called Rui Chenggang, who on 15 January called for the removal of the shop saying that it “trampled over over Chinese culture”. In the following three days, dozens of newspapers carried prominent stories about the controversy and – supposedly – half a million people signed Rui’s online petition. Although the incriminated shop hurriedly took off its conspicuous sign, an online poll on the Sina.com website still found that 84% of over 10 thousand respondents agreed that Starbucks should move out.[11] In July, it did so.

Soon, Rui selected his next target: American Express sponsorship signs. As he said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper:

I really loathe them. The introduction to every site says, ‘Made possible by American Express’. It is as if the Mona Lisa had a label saying, ‘Made possible by the People’s Bank of China’,” Mr Rui said. “But please don’t interpret this as an act of nationalism. It is just about we (sic) Chinese people respecting ourselves. I actually like drinking Starbucks coffee. I am just against having one in the Forbidden City. [12]

Compared to the McDonald’s affair, Rui’s campaign was presentable also to Western media: it was couched in terms that were quite similar to the anti-globalisation consumer politics of North America and Western Europe: “We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.” [13] Rui pointedly cited the example of Western Europe, where there was strong opposition Starbucks encountered even at far more innocuous locations than the imperial palace. Rui considered it a shame for China to be such a “pushover” as to become Starbucks’ second largest market in the world without mustering any similar opposition, and cited Westerners, “especially intellectuals,” who also considered Starbucks in the Forbidden City “disrespectful”.[14] By educating his readers that, “though in China’s large cities, Starbucks is a lifestyle choice of white-collar yuppies (xiaozi), in America and other countries, it is just the coffee equivalent of McDonalds,” [15] Rui was explicitly attempting to awaken the missing antiglobalist “slow food” consumer consciousness in the Chinese middle classes, and appealed to “taste” as well as national sentiment. Rui’s approach was to engage rather than to attack. He had first mentioned his objections to Starbucks’ CEO, Jim Donald, at a “Yale CEO party” – he wrote that “the other CEOs” present had all agreed with him – and followed up with a friendly email, to which he received a polite reply.[16] He also asked an “American opinion leader” to pass on his message to another top manager of Starbucks and expressed his confidence that the company would “make the right decision”. Moreover, although in his original post he asked the Chinese companies Lenovo and Haier to replace American Express as sponsor for signs in the forbidden city – “if there really is that little funding for the protection of cultural heritage”[17] – he later changed his mind and declared that sponsorship signs of Chinese brands are as unacceptable in the Forbidden City as Western ones.[18]

All in all, Rui was casting himself as the friendly, cosmopolitan, yet firmly patriotic modern Chinese citizen for whom the hedonistic lifestyle of a showman does not preclude a commitment to “strengthening the nation.” “In retrospect, the more I travel around the world, the more of an internationalized Chinese I am, the more I know how to cherish and respect my own national culture. … Working, studying and living in many countries around the world, I often made an earnest effort to rectify the reputation of the Chinese people.”[19] Indeed, another blogger expressed his admiration for Rui’s tolerance and restraint in avoiding the use of the usual inflammatory language, attributing it to his qualities of a “global scholar”[20].

Still, Rui’s elitist posture of the stern but just schoolteacher was closer to that familiar from Chinese media than that of the global anti-globalist Left. In another blog entry from the same period, entitled “Don’t let Western trash feel too good in China,” Rui railed against a Westerner who did not obey the rules at a ski resort near Peking (he refused to keep to the beginners’ slope and was rude to the attendants) and called on his compatriots to be friendly towards foreigners who are friendly, but “for those foreigners who do not respect Chinese people, there should absolutely be … no kid gloves”. He warned that while there were “many, many foreigners in China who are outstanding, who respect and love China,” but there was also “a fair share of trash and losers.”[21]

So it was no surprise that the response that followed from his online readers was the familiar one. When the usual calls to bomb Starbucks came, Rui felt prompted to post a clarification on his blog: “I’ve never called for the bombing or attacking of Starbucks or any other company or individual.”[22] In a posting whose title, “Harmony is the road,” echoed the Party’s latest slogan (“harmonious society”), Rui reported having made an effort to explain his opinions to “Westerners” and “let them understand the broadmindedness (or magnanimity, kuanhou de xionghuai) of the Chinese people”.[23]

Beyond these cases that achieved national notoriety, many others have had a more limited impact. A newspaper story that claimed that a Japanese mobile phone that displayed the phrase “HelloChow” was an insult to Chinese because, according to a dictionary, “chow” meant “a Chinese dog,” elicited the predictable protests but died down without making a storm.[24] An Internet protest against a Chinese online game – marketed by a Chinese company – that supposedly insulted Bruce Lee, “the pride of the Chinese race,” by designing a “Bruce Lee-style” coat for a dog character and advertising it with the phrase “Walk with Bruce Lee on a leash!” actually provoked dissent among posters, with a smaller party saying that the author had a “brain problem” while most called for the usual “boycott” and “death” to the guilty company (and threatened their opponents).[25] Of note in this case is that although the company under attack was Chinese, the initiator of the thread claimed that the designer in charge was Korean, a point mentioned in several postings.

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[1] “把盗汽车广告惹众怒,丰田向我国消费者致歉” (Prado car ad provokes mass anger; Toyota apologises to our country’s customers), http://news.tom.com/1006/2004923-1351626.html, 23 September 2004.[2] Ibid.

[3] A gallery of the counter-ads is here.

[4] See the story here.

[5] “麦当劳 ‘下跪‘ 引不满郑州撤播” (Zhengzhou withdraws McDonalds “kneeling” commercial after complaints), reproduced from the Renminwang (People’s Daily Online) here.

[6] “工商部门调查跪乞广告 麦当老受询问” (Industry and trade organs investigated begging ad; inquiry targets McDonalds), reproduced from Huashangbao 华商报 here.

[8] See poll results here.

[9] Li Yanjun, “Ying le zunyan zhong le quantao” (Won respect, got into a trap), Yingxiao Chuanqi, http://www.cnyxcq.com/news, accessed 16 May 2006 (link no longer available).

[10] Peter Neville-Hadley, “Starbucks in the Forbidden City,” Oriental-List e-mail, 22 January 2007.

[11] See poll results here.

[12] Jonathan Watts, “Starbucks faces eviction from the Forbidden City,” The Guardian, 18 January 2007.

[13] Ibid. We thank Lorri Hagman for pointing out this article to us.

[14] “我到底想干嘛” (What I am actually after), posted 19 January 2007 on http://blog.sina.com.cn/m/ruichenggang.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “星巴克全球总裁兼 CEO 给我的回信” (Starbucks Global Chairman and CEO’s reply to me), posted 14 January 2007 on http://blog.sina.com.cn/m/ruichenggang.

[17] “请星巴克从故宫里出去 / Why Starbucks Needs to Get Out of the Forbidden City?” posted 12 January 2007 on http://blog.sina.com.cn/m/ruichenggang.

[18] See [14].

[19] Ibid.

[20] “耶鲁世界学者并不缺乏包容新” (Global Yale scholar does not lack a sense of inclusiveness), posted on the 男人世界 blog, http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/4b28fe01010007n9, 17 January 2007.

[21] “别让西方垃圾们在中国感觉太好 – 发生在滑雪场的一幕” (Don’t let Western trash feel too good in China: a scene at a ski resort), posted 8 January 2007 on http://blog.sina.com.cn/m/ruichenggang.

[22] See [14].

[23] “和谐为道” (Harmony is the way), posted 20 January 2007 on http://blog.sina.com.cn/m/ruichenggang.

[24] “日本手机 CECT928 待机画面侮辱中国人” (Japanese cellphone CECT928 displays insult to Chinese,” 21 February 2006, http://tangshan.vutoo.com/html/20060224143933268.htm (now removed).

[25] The thread was posted on the Maopu forum. The company’s website was http://mxd/sdo/com, but is no longer available. The game is called “长剑道” (The Way of the Long Sword).

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