China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest consumer market this year, according to New York-based research firm eMarketer. So it’s not hard to see why international brands were quick to apologise when they got caught in the crosshairs of Chinese nationalists earlier this month.
Their lapse was to classify Hong Kong as a separate country – or fail to make clear they regard the territory as part of China – on their websites or in their merchandise.
The witch-hunt began in the second week of August as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong became more intense. Beijing described the protests as “riots”, lamenting that Hong Kong’s youth had been misled by “external forces”.
Netizens began looking for evidence that foreign countries were trying to “split” China.
The first foreign brand into the firing line was the Italian fashion house Versace, which was selling a T-shirt listing all the major cities in which it had stores. Milan was described as being in Italy, and London as belonging to the UK. But when it came to Hong Kong and Macau, the two cities were labelled as belonging to themselves rather than “China”.
“These brands don’t even hide the fact they want to split our country,” seethed one furious Sina Weibo user.
“If they don’t respect our territorial integrity, they should be made to leave China,” said another.
Within 24 hours Versace was begging for forgiveness on weibo, saying the T-shirt had been withdrawn from sale. “Versace reiterates that we love China and resolutely respect China’s territorial and national sovereignty,” it pleaded. France’s Givenchy and America’s Coach also printed T-shirts that listed Hong Kong and Taipei as separate entities. In its apology Givenchy vowed to “firmly” uphold the ‘One China’ principle and Coach reassured that it “respects the feelings of the Chinese people, and sincerely accepts the supervision and correction of the vast number of consumers”.
American fashion label Calvin Klein, Japanese footwear brand Asics, Austrian crystal brand Swarovski and South Korean tech giant Samsung also came under fire for listing either Taiwan or Hong Kong, or both, as countries on their websites. They all issued contrite statements in response, leading netizens to dub August 11-13 as the “apologising days on weibo”.
Their rapid climbdowns and expressions of regret reflects a new reality: the power of Chinese consumers to wreck a multinational’s sales by boycotting its products. So great is that threat that the firms were willing to risk a similar boycott from clients in Hong Kong angered by the move (i.e. those shoppers sympathetic to the current protests). Some of these people took to Twitter saying it was shameful that the brands had withdrawn their products over the naming issue. “They should be printing T-shirts in support of our protests,” claimed a critic in Hong Kong.
Twenty years ago it would have been sales to Hongkongers that the luxury brands would have been desperate to retain. Now they recognise the far greater purchasing power on the mainland.
However, their contrition didn’t prevent a number of their brand ambassadors in China from announcing that they could no longer work with the companies. Versace was dropped by its key ‘influencer’, the actress Yang Mi (see WiC400); Coach was given its marching orders by the model Liu Wen; and Givenchy waved goodbye to actor and singer Yi Yangqianxi. Calvin Klein, Swarovski and Samsung all lost their ambassadors too.“I love my motherland, and resolutely defend China’s national sovereignty!” supermodel Liu trumpeted on her weibo account.
Another actress who waded into the controversy over the protests in Hong Kong was the star of the forthcoming Disney film Mulan. Liu Yifei came under fire on Twitter after she made clear on social media her support for the Hong Kong police, irking the protesters. The Mulan clash took on a wider dimension when weibo users in China told Disney to ignore the threats from Hongkongers that they’d boycott the film. They promised the US studio that mainland cinemagoers would “guarantee” that Liu’s film earned an enormous Chinese box office, regardless of Hong Kong.
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