A still from the now-removed video YouTube

A Chinese detergent maker has finally apologised for an advert in which a black man is "washed" with one of its products and turned into a fair-skinned Asian man. In a statement released late on Saturday night, Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics also accused western media of whipping up a storm.

The ad, for a product called Qiaobi, first appeared on Chinese social media in March, but it was removed from the internet last week after it went viral in the foreign press. Initially, a representative for the company had tried to insist that critics were being "too sensitive", which only fanned the flames of outrage. Before it was yanked from YouTube, the clip had notched up around 6.5 million views.

In its latest statement, the company said: "We express regret that the ad should have caused a controversy, but we will not shun responsibility for controversial content.

"We express our apology for the harm caused to the African people because of the spread of the ad and the over-amplification by the media. We sincerely hope the public and the media will not over-read it."

The advert showed a black man with dirty clothes and paint on his face flirting with an Asian woman, who quickly puts a detergent tab in his mouth and pushes him into a washing machine. He soon emerges from the washer as a smiling, light-skinned Asian man to the woman's obvious delight.

The advert first came to light in the West after it was shared by Christopher Powell, an American expat musician who works with the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra. His post on Facebook has now racked up more than 6.4 million views.

Racism is a growing issue in China. There are an estimated 600,000 foreigners living in the country, according to the last census, only a fraction of whom are black.