In early April, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accused Taiwan of launching a “campaign” of racist attacks against him. “When the whole black community was insulted, when Africa was insulted, then I don’t tolerate it,” he said, adding, “people are crossing the line.” (The Taiwanese heatedly denied Tedros’s claim.)
Meanwhile, in a devastatingly ironic overlap, many in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have decided to blame the thousands of Africans living there for spreading the novel coronavirus. Some restaurants barred black people, while officials forced black people into more onerous quarantines than Chinese and white foreigners — including occasionally confiscating passports — regardless of where they’ve recently traveled. Landlords evicted black tenants. “We have contacted a lot of agents; none of them are leasing to black foreigners,” a Nigerian living in Guangzhou told CNN. Tedros’s response to this coronavirus-fueled attack against black people mirrors that of many international organizations when faced with Chinese racism: silence.
Tedros is not alone. The pull of the Chinese market and the power of the ruling Chinese Communist Party warps the moral compass of global organizations, companies and individuals, often engendering self-censorship and hypocrisy. Companies from Audi to Zara have abjectly apologized to the Chinese people for implying Taiwan is a country, while ignoring human rights abuses they’ve been prepared to criticize elsewhere.
In October 2019, NBA player LeBron James weighed in on Beijing’s side when Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted and then quickly deleted a post supporting the rights movement in Hong Kong. In late January, Tedros lauded China for its transparency and for “setting a new standard for outbreak response” — while Beijing was suppressing information and exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus. (The WHO didn’t respond to requests for comment from Tedros.)
It’s not just China, of course. American hotel chains in Saudi Arabia follow Saudi laws that discriminate against women, for example. But the size of the Chinese market and the calculated vindictiveness of the Chinese Communist Party provokes an especially pernicious level of global self-censorship.
The problem is particularly acute when it involves racism. In March 2019, Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess apologized for echoing a Nazi slogan emblazoned on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A month later, Diess claimed he was “not aware” of the concentration camps for Muslims in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang — despite his company’s factory there. Instead of apologizing, Volkswagen released a statement to the media saying that, while it is “aware of the situation” in the region, “we do not assume any of our employees are forced laborers.” The company is still planning to produce SUVs in Xinjiang this year. “We stand for the peaceful coexistence of peoples and reject any kind of discrimination,” a Volkswagen spokesperson told me, adding that Xinjiang is “a region with growth potential.”
In the United States, the American consumer products giant Colgate-Palmolive prides itself on its “rich diversity” and commitment to human rights. But not in China. In 1985, the company spent $50 million to purchase 50 percent of Hawley & Hazel, the inventors of a hugely popular Asian brand of toothpaste called “Darkie.” Yes, Darkie. The logo featured a sinister black man, grinning like a villain from 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation.” After a major American outcry, Colgate apologized and changed the brand name, from Darkie to Darlie, and the logo to a more debonair black man. But they kept the Chinese name — Black People Toothpaste — and the outfit exactly the same. Why? Because, according to Colgate, “research shows that Chinese consumers perceive” Black People Toothpaste “to be trustworthy, international, and modern.” (Colgate didn’t respond to requests for comment).
After Wired discovered dozens of listings on Airbnb in China that discriminated against Uighurs in the spring of 2019, the company said it took reports of discrimination seriously, evaluating them on a “case by case basis,” and removed roughly half of the listings. But it seemingly kept the other half intact. Indeed, one can still find discriminatory postings for listings in China, such as one that asks Uighurs and foreigners not to book the property, and another, from Guangzhou, that apologized for needing to ban “foreign guests, people from Tibet, Xinjiang, and minors” due to police regulations aimed at these groups.
And the company has so far declined to apologize, like McDonald’s did after an early April incident in which one of its stores in Guangzhou posted a sign barring black people from entering the restaurant. (Airbnb didn’t respond to requests for comment.) McDonald’s issued a statement saying it “apologizes unreservedly” and would conduct “diversity and inclusion” training for its staff. See, Tedros? One can address racism in China.
In his early April remarks, Tedros said he didn’t “give a damn” about criticisms directed at him. He only cared, he said, about defending the black community. Time for him to do something about it.
Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and a contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is also a senior fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and an on-air contributor to CBSN. He is writing a book about China's influence in America.