This year, a sketch in CCTV (China Central Television – a state-owned broadcaster) annual Lunar New Year Gala has stoked much controversy at home and abroad.

In the short play, which was intended to depict deep collaboration and warm relation between China and Africa, started with a dance supposedly on the African prairie:

The Chinese man in suit who joined the dance was a trainer for hostesses at the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway in Kenya:

It still looks OK so far. What happened afterwards caused much of the controversy.

A young African woman, who was escaping from a date her mother had arranged, bumped into the trainer and used him as ‘fiance’ in front of the mother.

The ‘mother’ was actually a Chinese actress with face painted black and fake huge buttocks. Worse, there was a money pet following her around, actually played by an Ivorian actor

 

Why was there so much controversy? Well, the practice of ‘blackface’, popular in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is now deemed as deeply offensive by many.

The skit has garnered so much attention in the English language media. A quick Google News search generates 4290 results:

Even in China, it was condemned by many on social media, calling it ‘disgusting’ and ‘insensitive’.

Not to be taken too seriously

First, although viewed by up to 800 million people, the New Year Gala should not be taken as seriously as many do. There are multiple levels of approval for programmes to be shown on the Gala – leading to lots of issues of overzealousness (about key government policies) and stereotyping.

Last year, there was a skit about life in Muslim-dominated Northwest that caused controversy about being stereotyping:


Another big, consistent controversy is the focus on Northern China. For instance, in the past the hosts often used the line “now everyone is eating hot dumplings while watching the gala.” The fact is, eating dumplings on Chinese New Year’s Eve is only a Northern tradition. Things like this, and the sketches that feature predominantly Beijing and Manchurian actors, are the main factors of the Gala’s dismal viewership in the South. One research a few years ago indicated that in the Southernmost Hainan province, only 1.3% of the TV-viewers actually watched the Gala.

And the Gala has lost its appeal to the youth. I did not watch it at all this year (only to find a video clip about the controversial sketch afterwards). And all my (young-ish) friends were busy sending and receiving red packets on WeChat.

Some young people last year were even trading an ‘insult’ jokingly online last year: “You watch the New Year Gala. Your whole family do!”.

Cultural insensitivity does exist

At a deeper level, as we work with some Chinese companies in building internet joint ventures in the developing world, we deal with many more Chinese businesses that are expanding overseas.

I have to admit that there is a real issue of cultural insensitivity exhibited by many. We see people simply branding capital cities of some developing country as “China 10 years ago”, without trying to understand the socio-economics specifics of the country; we see people who believe everyone can be bought, at the right price; we see people who only employ Chinese staff, because locals are ‘lazy’…

That said, it is normal. When the US companies first went into China back in 1990s and early 2000s, many had the same insensitivity. Ebay, Amazon, and (spectacularly) Groupon failed in China largely for this reason. Many believed China was a market like the US in 1970s – the truth is, it was not.

But it is not the end of the story

Also, this is not the full picture. In a goldrush, only a small percentage of diggers find real gold. Of course there is an element of luck – but understanding of the market also helps (that’s why sellers of shovels and jeans made money). We see a few Chinese businesses actually succeed: JollyChic in the Middle East, J&T in Indonesia, and Huawei across the world (apart from US and a few other countries which banned its products).

Companies do evolve and adapt as well – Ant Financial struggled with Southeast Asia for a while, and now seemed to have figured out a strategy; Tencent has got much smarter while investing in foreign gaming businesses.

For investors, entrepreneurs and companies in these developing markets, probably the best approach is to watch closely what is happening in China, copy, and adapt. Ultimately, you know your market better – and having the right inspiration from China helps reduce lots of risks.

Let us know if you need any help!

Thanks for reading The Low Down, insight and inside knowledge from the team at Momentum Works. If you’d like to get in touch with us about any issues discussed in our blog, please drop us an email at hello@mworks.asia and let us know how we can help.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at hello@mworks.asia.

 

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Jianggan Li is the Founder & CEO of Momentum Works. Prior to founding Momentum Works, he co-founded Easy Taxi in Asia, and served as Managing Director of Foodpanda. The two years running Rocket Internet companies has given him a lifetime experience on supersonic implementation, and good camaraderie with entrepreneurs across the developing world. He holds a MBA from INSEAD (GMAT 770) and a degree in Computer Engineering from Nanyang Technological University. Unfortunately he never wrote a single line of code professionally - but in his first job he was in media, travelling extensively across Asia & Europe, speaking with Ministers & (occasionally) Prime Ministers. Apart from English and his native Mandarin, he is also fluent in French and conversational in Cantonese & Spanish. He tried to learn Latin (for three years) and Sanskrit (for six months) as well. In his (scarce) free time, he reads, travels, hikes and dives. Pyongyang, Tehran & Chisinau are among the interesting cities he has been to.