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Racism exposed in the form of T-shirt design

By Li Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-23 08:01

Graphic T-shirt designs should not be used as a shield for racism, and the "open platform principle" an excuse to evade corporate responsibility. But spreadshirt.com CEO Philip Rooke doesn't seem to believe in such universal norms. The Leipzig-based German company he manages allows customers to design and sell T-shirts even with catchphrases like "Save a dog, eat a Chinese" and "Save a shark, eat a Chinese".

These T-shirts, designed by two of spreadshirt.com's customers who could be identified only as Quentin1984 and Monigote, went on sale nearly a month ago and they are still selling despite the strong protests of Chinese people and the Chinese embassy in Berlin on March 10.

In a statement issued on the same day, Rooke said: "We do not judge or censor designs based on their phrasing, social, or political leanings. This open platform principle will mean that, in a few cases, some people may find a design controversial while others do not ... I apologize to anyone who takes any offense" from the designs.

Given the company's stance, it is not surprising that its website also sells T-shirts designed by others that many would find offensive and racist. What if one of the company's customers designed and sold T-shirts with pro-Nazi or pro-terrorism catchphrases?

Adolf Hitler believed till the last minute of his life the cause for which he had wreaked havoc on the world was just. So did Osama bin Laden. Does Rooke also describe their beliefs as just "controversies"?

Do the actions of the man who drove a heavy-duty truck into a crowd of Christmas shoppers in Berlin on Dec 19, killing 12 people, and the group of terrorists that gunned down 132 people in Paris in November 2015 also fit into Rooke's standard of "controversy"?

If the answer is "yes", German authorities have enough reason to immediately launch a probe into the company and prevent it from spreading more racist, religious and cultural hatred.

Going by Rooke's criterion, even the racial discrimination black people in South Africa and the United States suffered could be just a "controversy", because some whites believe that people of different complexions should be treated differently.

People do have the freedom to express their ideas through designs. Yet there is no reason why the protection of animals' rights should come at the cost of vilifying nearly one-fifth of the world's population.

E-commerce companies such as spreadshirt.com are bound by the same legal duties, and social and moral norms, as other enterprises. And the "open platform principle" cannot by any means be an excuse for spreading hatred against a group of people, whether big or small.

That many Chinese have collected piles of data to show the consumptions of dog meat and shark fin have dropped remarkably in China is not the point of the argument, because the crux of the matter here is not food but business ethics.

If the Chinese embassy's protest falls on deaf ears, filing a lawsuit against the company would be the most rational choice. The fact that it may take a court, not common or collective sense, to tell the difference between racism and "controversy", has already tarnished Germany's image among many Chinese people.

According to German statistics authorities, the trade volume between Germany and China reached about €170 billion ($183 billion) last year, and China overtook the United States and France to become Germany's largest trade partner. Given these facts, the German government cannot afford to overlook the T-shirt incident; instead, it must take immediate action against the company and address Chinese people's feelings.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


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