Readers’ editor: Is the term “Chinese wall” racist?

David PayneAt The BMJ we often talk about the “Chinese wall,” a clear demarcation between the advertising sales and editorial teams. This safeguard helps to avoid conflicts of interest, and means advertisers have no prior knowledge of an article that may mention their product, either positively or negatively. But is the term racist?We pondered this question at our last management team meeting. The conversation was triggered in part by a similar exchange, this time via email, about the term “balkanization.”

Let’s start with Chinese walls, and our concern that its use, particularly at events where we are describing the aforementioned policy, might cause offence.

In 1988 a Californian judge objected to the phrase on the grounds that it “has an ethnic focus which many would consider a subtle form of linguistic discrimination.”

He added: “Certainly, the continued use of the term would be insensitive to the ethnic identity of the many persons of Chinese descent. Modern courts should not perpetuate the biases which creep into language from outmoded, and more primitive, ways of thought.”

Legal ethicist David Hricik, a professor at Mercer University Law School, Georgia. disagrees. He posted his point view on a legal ethics forum, and online debate it triggered concluded with the recommendation that the term “ethical wall” or “ethical screen” be used instead.

Personally I struggle to see how the term could be racist. Most of the lawyers who took part in the legal forum debate agreed. They also discussed whether or not the term itself refers to China’s impenetrable Great Wall, or to flimsy decorative room dividers.

For the record, the actual wall separating The BMJ’s editors and sales colleagues is in fact a floor. We share a cramped second floor office with BMJ specialty journals and marketing teams. The sales team have an airy refurbished office downstairs. Not that we’re jealous, of course.

This leads me to the term balkanization, which is used, according to its dictionary definition, “to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or non-cooperative with one another.” 

The subeditor copied into the email exchange about its potentially pejorative use said it would be clearer and more in line with BMJ style to use other, simpler terms where possible. Interestingly, it had merely been mentioned in a team discussion about an article. The term itself was not in the article.

The colleague who said it rather neatly closed down the email exchange with these words: “This term isn’t racist : it refers to a political situation where big countries are divided into ‘small quarrelsome states’ (says the dictionary) – quite an apt phrase for our editorial team now I think of it!’ ”

David Payne is editor, bmj.com, and readers’ editor.

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