Global brands that backed down under China's wrath

08 October 2019 - 12:52
By AFP
Ellen Morey and General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey. The Houston Rockets were racing October 7, 2019, to quell a growing storm in China that saw their games yanked from television over a tweet supporting Hong Kong's democracy protests.
Image: Joe SCARNICI / GETTY IMAGES Ellen Morey and General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey. The Houston Rockets were racing October 7, 2019, to quell a growing storm in China that saw their games yanked from television over a tweet supporting Hong Kong's democracy protests.

The NBA is far from being the first foreign business to be benched by Beijing for touching a politically-sensitive subject.

From airlines to luxury brands, numerous companies have had to apologise or face boycotts for offending China's views on semi-autonomous Hong Kong and self-ruled Taiwan.

The latest offender was the Houston Rockets after general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Chinese state TV and sponsors dropped the Rockets and CCTV suspended plans to broadcast a pair of NBA pre-season exhibition games being staged in China.

State-run tabloid Global Times issued a blunt warning in an editorial on Tuesday: "Global brands best avoid politics".

Here are some of the recent high-profile cases:

'One China' 

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific was heavily pressured in a campaign led by state-run media in August after Chinese authorities deemed the airline's staff too vocal in their support of the protesters.

The airline's then-chairman John Slosar initially insisted he "wouldn't dream" of telling his staff what to think - but Chinese threats to blacklist the carrier forced a U-turn and Slosar stepped down last month.

In recent weeks staff have described deleting their social media accounts, fearful colleagues might inform on them while Cathay announced it had sacked several staff linked to the protests.

US jeweller Tiffany also came under pressure after a tweet showing Chinese model Sun Feifei covering her eye was interpreted as a sign of support for the Hong Kong protests.

Protesters in the city have adopted the pose to indicate police violence.

The picture of Sun - who was wearing a Tiffany ring on the hand covering her eye - was removed by the brand.

'Wrong' labels  

Under pressure from Beijing, a growing number of companies and international airlines - including Delta and American Airlines - have also edited their websites to refer to the self-ruling democratic island of Taiwan as "Taiwan, China" or "Chinese Taipei".

Hotel chain Marriott's website in China was also shut down by the authorities for a week in 2018 after a customer questionnaire listed Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong as separate countries, prompting the hotel chain to apologise and change the wording.

T-shirt blunders 

Luxury fashion brands Versace, Coach, and Givenchy all apologised in August for making perceived affronts to China's national sovereignty with T-shirts listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries.

Versace, in its grovelling apology, said the offending T-shirts were "destroyed" and Givenchy said the brand "resolutely upholds the One China Principle."

This followed a major flareup in May 2018, when Chinese social media users targeted US clothing retailer Gap over a T-shirt showing a map of mainland China that omitted Taiwan.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, Chinese consumers snapped up 32 percent of all luxury goods sold worldwide in 2018, and the figure is expected to grow to 40 percent by 2024.

Tank man 

German camera maker Leica drew fire over an advertisement in April that broached the taboo subject of the 1989 Tiananmen protest crackdown, weeks before the 30th anniversary of the incident in early June.

The ad shows the struggles of a photographer to get in place for the famed "tank man" photo, showing an ordinary citizen facing down a line of Chinese army tanks, before the demonstrations were violently suppressed.

The company distanced itself from the advertisement saying it was not officially sanctioned by Leica.

Earlier in 2018, German automaker Mercedes-Benz apologised for "hurting the feelings" of people in China after its Instagram account quoted exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who is seen as a separatist by Beijing. 

Insulting Chinese culture 

Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana issued a mea culpa last year after its products were pulled from lucrative Chinese e-commerce platforms over racially offensive social media posts.

The controversy arose in November after the firm posted clips on Instagram showing a woman eating pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks, which critics said was culturally insensitive.

It escalated when company co-founder Stefano Gabbana allegedly hurled insults at the country and its people.

The brand's founders eventually apologised to customers but said Gabbana's account had been hacked.

A search for Dolce & Gabbana products on major Chinese e-commerce sites such as Alibaba's Tmall still turn up no results.