[The passage, written in Chinese and English, said tourists should take precautions “when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people.” It added, “We advise tourists not to go out alone at night, and females always to be accompanied by another person when traveling.”]
By Edward Wong
An article in a recent issue of Wings of China, an Air China in-flight magazine,
has drawn criticism as being racist. Credit Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Like most seat pocket airplane magazines, Wings of China features anodyne articles, along with tips on cities served by Air China, the country’s flagship state-run airline.
But the September issue, dedicated to tourist attractions in London and other well-known British towns, took a sharp detour into an international social media uproar and national embarrassment with some ill-chosen words on safety.
The passage, written in Chinese and English, said tourists should take precautions “when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people.” It added, “We advise tourists not to go out alone at night, and females always to be accompanied by another person when traveling.”
The passage offended Twitter users like Georgina Blewett, who wrote: “Whoever wrote that #AirChina racist guide nonsense should be embarrassed as hell. And the dummy who gave final approval.” Several British politicians also expressed outrage; one invited Air China officials to visit his multiethnic election district to see how safe it was.
Haze Fan, a producer for CNBC in Beijing, brought attention to the passage by tweeting a photograph of it on Tuesday.
“A piece of advice in Air China in-flight magazine. What does @MayorofLondon think?” Ms. Fan wrote, referring to Sadiq Khan, the new London mayor, who is of Pakistani origin and whose Twitter posts regularly praise London’s multiculturalism.
Air China was quick to apologize, saying on Twitter that it did “not condone discrimination in any shape or form” and that copies of the magazine were being removed from all flights.
Joyce Zhang, a spokeswoman for Air China in Beijing, said in an statement on Thursday that the article in Wings of China contained “inappropriate expressions” and that in general its articles did not represent the opinions of Air China. The magazine apologized as well, blaming an “editing error” for the travel warning.
“After the problem was discovered, Air China immediately removed all copies of the magazine from all its flights, and demanded that Wings of China seriously draw a lesson from the incident, strengthen reviews of its contents and prevent similar problems from taking place again,” Ms. Zhang said. “As an airline that has flights across six continents, Air China always highly respects the culture and customs of people of every ethnicity in the world.”
The incident showed that China’s desire to be regarded as an increasingly sophisticated global player taking its rightful place on the world stage can be undercut by the provincial attitudes of some Chinese.
Many Chinese make negative comments in private about people with darker skin color. In an article on CNBC’s website, Ms. Fan pointed to a recent online video advertisement for the clothes detergent Qiaobi that showed an attractive Chinese woman throwing a paint-smeared black man into a laundry machine, only for him to emerge, after being washed with the detergent, as a clean Asian man (presumably Han, the dominant Chinese ethnicity).
In May, the detergent maker, Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics, expressed “regret” over the ad, but also said foreign news organizations had exaggerated it.
The Telegraph, the British newspaper, reported on Wednesday that two members of Parliament, Rosena Allin-Khan and Virendra Sharma, had objected to the text of the travel warning and were contacting the Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming.
“I am shocked and appalled that even today, some people would see it as acceptable to write such blatantly untrue and racist statements,” said Mr. Sharma, a member of the Labour party, according to The Telegraph.
“I have invited representatives of Air China to visit my constituency of Ealing Southall to see that a very multicultural area is safe, and would be of great value for those visiting London to see,” said Mr. Sharma, who is of Indian heritage. “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 U.K.”
Chinese tourists are flocking to Britain in greater numbers to buy luxury goods in the aftermath of the “Brexit” vote and with the British pound slumping. And in 2015, Chinese visitors made 270,000 trips to Britain, an increase of 46 percent over the previous year, according to Visit Britain, an official tourism agency.
In May, Queen Elizabeth II told a Metropolitan Police commander at a Buckingham Palace garden party that Chinese officials had been “very rude’’ during President Xi Jinping’s state visit in October 2015.
Chinese and British officials have said that the two countries are enjoying a new “golden era” in relations.
Follow Edward Wong @comradewong on Twitter.
Vanessa Piao contributed research.