Love can make people do silly things, especially when you love someone who doesn’t love you back. That’s the situation the famed Italian fashion brand Dolce and Gabbana found itself in this week when it had to cancel its Shanghai fashion show after its “DG Loves China” campaign drew wide condemnation from some patriotic Chinese people.
D&G seems to have trouble professing its love for China without causing backlash from some Chinese. In last year’s “DG loves China” campaign, it showed fashion models standing next to ordinary Chinese people such as street vendors and garbage collectors. Such dramatic contrast is normal in a Western fashion magazine spread, but some Chinese netizens were offended because they thought D&G intentionally showed “low class” Chinese people and the unflattering side of the Chinese society in order to undermine China’s rising power image.
This year, D&G planned its great China fashion show in Shanghai for November 21. It promised to be one of the largest gatherings of fashion icons and celebrities in China. Leading up to this big show, DG rolled out a series of short videos, titled “eating with chopsticks” throughout its official social media accounts.
Each video shows a fashionable Chinese model in DG clothes (of course) attempting to eat traditional Italian food such as pizza, spaghetti, or a cannoli with chopsticks. Each video ends with #DGlovesChina and #DGTheGreatShow. DG probably thought it could profess its love for China through humor. But many Chinese in mainland China find these videos neither loveable nor humorous, but downright racist, an intolerable insult to Chinese culture and Chinese people.
Online comments were brutal, and many are not suitable for publication. Some asked DG, “Do you know Chinese invented noodles? This is totally stupid.” Some declared, “We don’t care for Italian food cause it tastes like sh-t.” Many comments also targeted the Chinese model in the video. She was called a “traitor,” an “idiot” who needs to learn how to use chopsticks properly.
The online storm from Chinese netizens quickly worsened into a category five hurricane after someone named “diet_panda” posted a deleted tweet, supposedly coming from D&G designer Stefano Gabbana’s account, containing derogatory comments about China. Gabbana quickly clarified that his Twitter account was hacked and he didn’t write those tweets, because he loves China and Chinese people.
D&G issued an apology to China and Chinese people. But Chinese celebrities immediately announced through Weibo (a Twitter-like social media platform in China) that they weren’t going to attend the DG fashion show. China’s Communist Youth League said foreign companies must show “respect to Chinese people” if they want to invest in China.
In the words of Chinese singer Karry Wang Junkai, who was D&G’s China ambassador, “The motherland is above everything. We are deeply proud and confident about Chinese culture and spiritual aesthetics.” This language reminds me of the public apology issued by another Chinese celebrity, actress Fan Bingbing. I can’t help wondering whether these celebrities really mean what they say or they are so well-indoctrinated that they only say what the government wants them to.
With celebrities cancelling their appearances and booked models refusing to walk the runway, D&G eventually had to cancel its show just hours before its scheduled time.
D&G’s short videos aren’t very funny, maybe even silly. But calling them racist seems like overkill. So why did these ads cause such a firestorm in China? Why are some Chinese so easily offended?
It’s because the Chinese government has long instilled in Chinese people that China suffered a “100-year humiliation” from 1839 to 1949 as a result of Western powers and Japan’s invasion and occupation. The Communist Party gives itself credit for rejuvenating China or, in their words, returning China to its former glory as a world-leading power.
Both the Chinese government and many Chinese people believe China’s new status commands a new level of respect, especially from the west. Thus any slight, whether real or imagined, is often perceived as an intentional denial of China’s righteous place in the world, and results in an outsized reaction.
While China demands respect from the rest of the world, however, it often makes fun of foreigners, sometimes downright humiliating or even putting them in danger. In a comedy sketch at this year’s televised Chinese New Year Celebration gala, an Asian actress played an African lady by wearing blackface makeup and a tribal outfit with huge fake buttocks, accompanied by an African actor in a monkey suit. This show was put on by CCTV, China’s state TV station, and was watched by almost 800 million Chinese. Yet we heard very little complaints of racism inside China, let alone any official apology from the state media.
If we shouldn’t take a comedy routine too seriously, what about this public rant? “Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.”
This public outburst against foreigners posted on Weibo came from Yang Rui, host of “Dialogue,” a knock off of the “Charlie Rose” talk show run by China state TV’s English channel. The “foreign b–ch” he referred to was Melissa Chen, an exceptional American journalist whom China has expelled.
Only in China can a public figure like Yang make such derogatory comments against foreigners, especially female foreign journalists, without any consequence. James Fallow for The Atlantic wrote in amazement that “we’re talking about a government employee (Yang Rui) who is a prominent embodiment of the ‘soft power’ charm initiative through which Chinese officialdom hopes to make the country better understood and liked around the world.”
Yang’s anti-foreigner rhetoric was meant to show his wholehearted support of Beijing’s Public Security Bureau’s crackdown campaign aiming to “clean out” foreigners who live and work in China without appropriate visas. Here is a government that makes foreigners in its detention centers give televised forced confessions. Many foreigners who were subjected to these kind of public humiliations are human rights activists or nongovernmental organization workers who have risked their lives to help vulnerable Chinese, the same low-class segment of the Chinese population that elite Chinese don’t like to see in the spread of D&G’s fashion images.
Chinese people have good reasons to be proud of their culture and ask for respect from foreign visitors and businesses. But there is no need to be so outraged and declare a collective injury of national honor over every silly incident. How about having the cultural confidence to laugh with it?
Respect is earned, not by demanding submission to “my way or the high way.” Respect also goes both ways. An old saying goes, “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.”
As China becomes rich and powerful, it’s important for China and Chinese people to show respect for other cultures and people as well. The Internet age makes it easier for people outside China to examine China closely to see if China is going to be a responsible rising power or a new bully in town. It will only help China’s international image and build good will if China can check some of its government and people’s disrespectful or sometimes even harmful behaviors and comments towards other cultures, beliefs, customs, and foreigners.