Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Spreadshirt.com, a German online store that allows users to design and sell their own T-shirts, recently caused a public uproar over racist slurs. "Save a dog, Eat a Chinese," "Save a shark, Eat a Chinese," were found printed on T-shirts sold on the website.
It's not the first time that German designers have displayed blatant racism in their work. Fashion brand Philipp Plein designed a T-shirt several years ago with the words "F**K You China" printed on it and a Chinese-looking clown emblazoned in the corner. Designer Philipp Plein tried to defend himself by saying that the T-shirt was made to protest against China's counterfeit products. The explanation was rather weak and the Chinese public was especially irked as the company was planning to expand its business in China.
In a statement by its CEO Philip Rooke, Spreadshirt said that "after close examination and careful consideration, we have decided to keep these designs on our platform."
The company initially argued that the expressions are meant to be humorous not racist. How could these obvious racist and offensive remarks be allowed to appear on a product? Is Spreadshirt.com too numb about the boundary of racial discrimination or could it be that it just doesn't care about how the Chinese people would feel when the company touts racist slur as creative design?
From time to time, similar incidents have occurred in Western countries, but it is often dismissed as slip of the tongue, a careless joke or even considered as freedom of expression. It is unimaginable that anyone or any company could display racist remarks without worrying about the backlash. Put it another way, will anyone take anti-Semitic expression as humorous or creative in Germany?
Political leaders who are highly sensitive about racial issues also have tendencies to be racist. European Commissioner Gunther Oettinger called Chinese slant eyes, an expression generally considered racist, during a speech in Germany last October. He defended himself by saying that he was using a slang with no disrespect to the Chinese.
In many cases like this, the offenders usually get away with a quick apology. But, frankly speaking, even if an apology has been uttered, few Chinese would believe it is sincere.
Stereotypes of the Chinese community partly result from biased coverage by Western media. Even though only people in certain regions in China eat dogs and the practice is subject to more and more public criticism, the Western media have exaggerated it as a national custom and reinforced the foreigners' impression of China as a country that is unfriendly to pets. China's efforts in protecting endangered species have also been conveniently ignored.
A disturbing pattern has emerged here - although the importance of China and the Chinese market is heralded in the West, privately, many Westerners have not changed their racist disposition toward the Chinese culture or Asian society at large. The racial slur printed on the T-shirt and discriminating remarks targeting local audiences probably reflects what's truly on their minds.
Deep inside, they can't abandon the discrimination against other culture and hostility toward China. They believe that offending Chinese people can score more points and the damage can be controlled.
The Chinese public used to believe that more business engagement can help deepen cross-cultural understanding and reduce racial discrimination. However, this may be wishful thinking. We also used to think highly of the German culture, however, the positive feeling has been worn out by their often coarse sentiment toward Chinese people. It seems that many Europeans are stuck in the outdated snobbery and sense of political superiority despite their declining clout.
Can the elite in the West be relied upon to help improve cultural understanding? Probably not. China is facing much more criticism from the West and is more tolerable about different opinions, however, certain remarks that cross the line are never acceptable.
Philipp Plein has learned its lesson eight years later. Spreadshirt.com is now notorious in the eyes of Chinese people. Those who intend to engage with China should know where the bottom line is.
The author is a commentator with the Global Times. email@example.com Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion