Company Under Fire For Ad Saying 'You Won't Feel Like You're In China' On Buses

Illinois' Suburban Express later sent an "apology" for its anti-Chinese email blast criticizing international students.

A recent ad from an Illinois bus company is being widely condemned for its racist messaging.

Suburban Express, an Illinois-based company that services University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) students, sent a promotional email to its customers several days ago, touting “passengers like you” among its perks. “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses,” the ad read.

The bus company then issued a follow-up email titled “apology,” wherein it expressed its disappointment at the university’s admission of Chinese international students. (University data shows that there are about 5,900 students from China attending the school, making up approximately 12 percent of its student body.)

The bus company claimed that “mismanagement” put the school in a “financial bind” and therefore pushed the university to accept large numbers of international students. 

“Nearly 20% of U of I students are natives of China, and this high percentage of nonnative english speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students,” the “apology” email read. “We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.”

Suburban Express eventually attempted to walk back its statements on Tuesday, saying the promotion was “grotesquely xenophobic in nature” and the followup email attempted to “excuse a wrongfully nationalist statement.” But by then, the company was already under fire. 

The anti-Chinese ad was swiftly slammed across campus, with the school officials making it clear that such messaging would not be tolerated.

“The message specifically insulted members of our Chinese, Asian and Asian American communities who are a vital and valued part of every aspect of both the University of Illinois and our local cities.” a statement from the Student Affairs office read. “We cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community. But we can, loudly and unambiguously, say that the opinions expressed by Suburban Express are offensive, bigoted, insulting and in direct opposition to the values of this university.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar, chairman of the city council’s Asian-American Caucus, called for the Aviation Committee to hold hearings regarding the incident, as the company frequently shuttles students to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

State Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Monday that she issued a subpoena to the company over potential civil rights violations. 

“I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers,” Madigan said in a press release. “Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person’s race or national origin. My office is investigating to determine whether Suburban Express’ policies and practices violate the law.”

University student group Asian Pacific American Coalition suggested alternative transportation options for those outraged by the incident.

The organization also broke down why the Suburban Express emails were so inappropriate. Using the phrase “passengers like you,” its statement read, implies that white students are given an option to avoid students of color, which points to the “much larger problem of racism and white supremacy in this nation.”

Labeling the company’s follow-up email as a “non-apology,” the group also mentioned how the presence of international students on campus shouldn’t be a source of outrage. 

“Having the ability to network with and learn from students from other countries is a privilege,” the group statement read. “To limit our social understanding to those in Illinois limits our students’ education.”

As the community awaits the results of Madigan’s investigation, the company claims it will take steps to “reform” its practices. 

“Although we have never prevented any student of any demographic from boarding our bus simply because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender orientation or nationality, the comments made have created the image that Chinese exchange students are not welcome, and we are striving to change this,” Suburban Express wrote in a Facebook post.

Read the full statement from UIUC’s Asian Pacific American Coalition below.