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Air China Retracts Magazine That Warned Against London's Ethnic Neighborhoods

Air China has apologized for a story in its in-flight magazine that told would-be visitors to London that "precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people."

China's flagship airline has removed copies of the magazine, Wings of China, from its planes, The Associated Press reports. The airline tells the AP it has instructed the magazine's publishers to "strengthen their content review and avoid making similar mistakes."

Air China North America also tweeted out an apology, describing the text as "offensive language" — then deleted the tweet.

The warning about London's ethnic neighborhoods was first highlighted by Haze Fan, a Beijing-based journalist. In a tweet, she wondered what Sadiq Khan — the mayor of London and a Brit of Pakistani descent — thought about the message.

She included a photo of the paragraph in question, which opened by saying that London is "generally a safe place to travel" but flagged minority neighborhoods as a risk. It then warned travelers not to go out alone at night, and told women never to travel alone.

NPR's Frank Langfitt, who used to report from Shanghai and is now our London correspondent, says that in the accompanying Mandarin text "they describe areas where lots of these people are as 'relatively chaotic,' or you could say 'disorderly.' "

"The reaction today, pretty negative on the streets [in London] — people saying they feel that this is overt racism," Frank says. "And they're also puzzled, because I think there's a really interesting cultural issue here.

"The ethnic neighborhoods in London are seen as selling points for many," Frank says. "If you take places like Brick Lane ... in east London, full of Bangladeshi restaurants, lots of people go there for the food and just the atmosphere."

The AP notes that this isn't the first time an international outcry has been raised over a Chinese company's treatment of race:

"Earlier this year, a Chinese laundry detergent maker apologized 'for the harm caused to the African people' over its TV advertisement that showed a black man being stuffed into a washing machine and coming out a fair-skinned Asian man.

"Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd. Co. said it strongly condemned racial discrimination but blamed foreign media for playing up the controversy.

"The examples highlight how companies and much of the population in China remain somewhat oblivious to racial sensitivities, partly a result of China's overwhelming ethnic homogeneity and a relative lack of contact with foreigners until recent years that has allowed stereotypes to persist."

Frank pointed out that the outcry isn't just coming from London — some people in China, too, see the warning as racist.

And he says there are larger cultural and economic forces at play, particularly when it comes to Chinese tourists traveling abroad.

"In the last decade, because of growing wealth, [Chinese] people have been traveling ... at unprecedented rates," he says, adding, "So I think you're seeing a lot of growing pains."

"Chinese tour groups are often seen in Paris and other places as loud and boorish — you had this case not too many years ago where a kid from China actually was drawing graffiti on the temples of Luxor" in Egypt, Frank says.

"I think in broader context, what you're going to see here is this is a learning process, just as it was for people who were known as the ugly Americans back in the '50s, '60s and '70s," he says. "I think the Chinese are going to have to probably become a bit more aware and sensitive and informed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.