Protocol | China

How Intel got blindsided by China's culture wars

The company hit a gendered nerve, offending both women and men.

Intel headquarters
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Intel has managed to offend both women and men in China within the past week, with a marketing stunt that touched on gender politics and ended in disaster. Intel has become just the latest global tech company to get kneecapped as it tries to wade through China's culture wars.

Over the weekend, the China office of the semiconductor multinational removed a new ad from social media and ecommerce sites that had featured a popular female standup comedian after it drew huge backlash from male netizens. The comedian, Yang Li, often dubbed China's punchline queen, is known for her sarcastic comments on toxic masculinity and misogyny. Her most famous dig — "Why are men so obviously mediocre yet so confident?" — has won laughs from women. Men were more likely to feel wounded. The spiked ad had promoted the Intel Evo platform-based laptops featured a related Yang tagline: "Intel's taste is really good; better than my taste for men."

Intel China's attempt to quell the controversy backfired, prompting a second uproar. On Monday, enraged women — and some men — started a campaign, "Support Yang Li," on social media. The incident was still trending on Weibo's hot topic chart as of Friday. Many female users are calling upon each other to file complaints to Intel's headquarters and to its English social media accounts. They've flooded an Intel corporate Instagram post celebrating Women's History Month, leaving over 1,000 comments condemning Intel's decision to pull the ad.

"To some extent, [what Intel did] is a way to turn corporate social responsibility on its head," Yige Dong, a sociologist at the University of Buffalo, told Protocol. "Canceling Yang Li is attack[ing] women's empowerment ... given [that] China's gender inequalities are increasingly widening."

The waves of backlash Intel has experienced reflect broader gender clashes in Chinese society. Beijing has promoted traditional gender norms since ruler Xi Jinping came to power, telling women "to return home." Meanwhile, Chinese women, especially young women, have become increasingly aware of and vocal about rampant gender discrimination. Over the past three years, China's fledgling (frequently thwarted) #MeToo movement has further opened up the gender conversation.

In this political and social environment, gender is often a lightning rod. Chinese tech companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Bilibili have come under close public scrutiny for misogynistic corporate practices and misogynistic content on their platforms as Chinese women become increasingly adept at exercising their rights as consumers. Intel's marketing debacle shows that global tech companies that bungle the gender issue in China face a growing risk to their businesses.

Elsewhere, some of these issues would be hashed out via the political process. Not so in China. "The marketplace is where identity-based politics, including 'gender empowerment' manifest in China now because of the lack of other adequate public spheres," Grace Gu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches Chinese social media, told Protocol. "So global tech companies [operating in a marketplace with] distinctive culturally- and socially-grounded rules are subject to the influence of these movements and sentiments."

Globally, Intel positions itself as a champion for diversity and advocates for better internet access for women. The chipmaker's marketing has focused on social responsibility. On March 12, Intel celebrated female workers on Instagram in honor of Women's History Month. It's unclear whether Intel's decision to collaborate with Yang was an effort to align its global branding strategy and whether the decision to pull the ad was related to direct sales. There's no gender breakdown of Intel's individual consumers available online.

Intel didn't respond to Protocol requests for comment. But in a response to the Shanghai-based publication The Paper on Monday, Intel noted that the controversy stemming from the ad featuring Yang had surprised the company.

Yang broke her silence on Wednesday, posting on Weibo a note as a token of appreciation to her supporters. "The outcome was not I expected, but I will try my best to do what I believe in and defend myself," she wrote in an oblique reference to the Intel incident. Within the day, the comment had one million likes.

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