Misrepresenting Minorities in Shanghai's World Expo Publicity Push

On April 28th, the New York Times released a poll showing a marked shift in perceptions of race relations in the United States. Of those polled, nearly 2/3 felt that race relations were on the right track, a dramatic improvement from before and a possible product of the thus far successful Obama presidency.

While certainly a similar poll does not exist in China (nor if it did, would it be free of government manipulation), race relations are decidedly poor here. With last year's riots in Lhasa aimed at ethnic Han Chinese (who comprise 96% of the country's population), popular opinion has turned against the Tibetans for their "ungratefulness" for Chinese investment in their destitute alpine homeland. Additional violence by the Muslim Uighur population in far West China last summer has only solidified the skeptical view the Han majority has of the minorities. Fearing further social unrest, the government has made a massive propaganda push to promote "harmony" and "stability" between the races. For this and a variety of other reasons, harmony is the catch phrase in the official lexicon these days.

Indeed, as the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai approaches, the government has been making a push to showcase the city as a model of social harmony. Just how they are making the sell, however, does little but misrepresent the minorities of China and further exacerbates the underlying disconnect between the majority Han and the minorities.

One need only take a rush hour metro ride in Shanghai to see the disconnect first hand. One ad that has been in heavy rotation for the last six months shows Expo Wave, the absurd Expo mascot, traveling to the far reaches of China. The Expo Wave first goes to Tibet's Potala Palace where Tibetan women adorned in traditional costumes offer him the traditional khampa prayer cloths and jump and clap with excitement. Next, the Wave travels to ethnically Muslim Xinjiang where seductive women strum local instruments, pick grapes, and dance with the blue mascot. Finally, Mr. Wave returns to Shanghai where Han men and women, dressed in Western garb, take photographs of the Wave with their high-tech cameras, all the while surrounded by skyscrapers and neon -- the hallmarks of China's vision of modernity.

The sequence is as laughable as it is inaccurate. It is as if the US government used the most hackneyed stereotypes of Native Americans (think teepees and war paint) and Hispanics (think sombreros and tacos) then contrasted it with White Americans dressed in suits and ties in Manhattan. Shanghai's promo is just as absurd. Portraying the minorities as a predominately feminine, traditional people engaged in little other than traditional song, dance, and merriment is wholly divorced from reality. However, the juxtaposition of these images with the subsequent portrayals of Shanghai residents as individuals at home and adept in the modern era is the most egregious aspect of the advert. And the fact that this advert is part of the Shanghai government's effort to promote social harmony is truly rich.

The saddest, yet perhaps most telling, facet is that the spot was likely not intended to be paternalistic and condescending. In fact, the authors of the segment as in all likelihood saw their work as showcasing the minority people. The fact that this advertisement could pass for acceptable reveals the extent of the disconnect between the Han majority and the minorities. This in and of itself reveals a great deal about the Han's vision of their compatriots.

Thus, while the spot was probably intended to only show the national excitement for Shanghai's hosting of the World Expo, it clumsily made use of counterproductive misperceptions. By promoting the World Expo as Shanghai's "coming out" party by using stereotypes of minority groups as a foil Shanghai's modernity is far from the most responsible way to publicize a world event, much less promote social harmony. While Shanghai hopes to use the World Expo to showcase itself, it is doing so--domestically at least--by using the same crude tactics that form the basis for the ethnic divide the "harmony" obsessed leadership hopes to assuage. While the World Expo promises to bring greater attention to Shanghai, just what it exposes in the process may reveal more than the city ever intended.