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Less than two weeks into October, over half a dozen U.S. organizations have kowtowed to political pressure from China, acknowledging the purchasing power of the world’s largest population and second-largest economy.
The controversy involving the NBA has effectively stung a number of companies, which now find themselves bearing the cross of damage control.
Such a reaction to Chinese pressure, however, dates to at least a few years back. Companies around the world have been conceding to China’s demands, particularly in its assertion of territorial sovereignty.
This list includes the biggest brands that have done so, as well as the reasons that got them into trouble:
Nike pulled Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise in major Chinese cities amid the backlash against the team’s general manager, Daryl Morey, who started a social media firestorm after expressing support for Hong Kong in a tweet last week. As of Oct. 10, three stores in Chengdu, three stores in Shenzhen, and five stores in Beijing and Shanghai have removed Rockets products, according to Reuters. It’s unclear how much the company is losing from the move, but China is reportedly its top source of revenue growth.
On Oct. 9, Apple removed an app that allowed Hong Kong protesters to track police movements. In a statement, the Cupertino tech giant said that HKMap.live — a real-time, volunteer-operated and crowdsourced map of the city’s demonstrations — “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong,” as well as to “target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.” Earlier, it also deleted the Taiwan flag emoji from Hong Kong iPhones.
Chuck Salituro, senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to employees prohibiting any political discussions about China and Hong Kong in any story about Daryl Morey. Deadspin, which obtained and reported about the memo on Oct. 7, claimed that the ban was explicit. Additionally, the outlet cited ESPN sources confirming that “network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.”
Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany & Co. removed a tweet posted on Oct. 7 showing Chinese model Sun Feifei covering one of her eyes with a ring. According to AFP, some Chinese buyers believe that her pose was deliberately adopted from the Hong Kong protester who nearly lost an eye after an alleged encounter with local police.
“We regret that it may be perceived as such, and in turn have removed the image from our digital and social media channels and will discontinue its use effective immediately,” a spokesperson for the jeweler said.
Blizzard suspended a pro “Hearthstone” player from Hong Kong for voicing out support in the city’s protests. The company cited a rule in its Grandmasters competition which states that it can, upon sole discretion, remove a player who brings oneself “into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.” Aside from removing the player from Grandmasters, the company also withheld the prize money for his participation and banned him from “Hearthstone” esports for an entire year beginning Oct. 5.
— 🎃 Inven Global 🎃 (@InvenGlobal) October 6, 2019
On Oct. 5, Vans pulled a design submitted in its Global Custom Culture shoe contest that featured Hong Kong’s national orchid, masked protesters and a yellow umbrella symbolizing the city’s demonstrations. According to High Snobiety, the design from Canada-based artist “Naomiso” received more than 30,000 votes since voting commenced on Oct. 1. The entry was leading the contest until the company removed it — all while claiming that it has “never taken a political position.”
On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey published a tweet saying “Fight For Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong,” along with an image. He immediately took down the post after a lightning-quick backlash from Chinese fans, sponsors and brand partners. The controversy has since escalated to include more Chinese companies cutting ties from the NBA.
1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
On Sept. 25, The Guardian reported leaked documents showing how TikTok instructs moderators to censor videos that mention the Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the banned religious group Falun Gong. Banned content is divided into two categories: a “violation,” which sees the material deleted and puts the user at risk for being banned from using the app, and “visible to self,” which keeps the material but limits its distribution through the app’s algorithms. Posts about Falun Gong are marked as a “violation,” since the organization has been categorized as a “group promoting suicide.”
On Aug. 13, Austrian jeweler Swarovski apologized to China for implying Hong Kong as an independent country, according to NBC News. Jiang Shuying, a brand ambassador, terminated her contract with the company.
“Swarovski takes full responsibility and sincerely apologizes to the people of China, as well as to our collaborative partners and Brand Ambassador, Ms. Jiang Shuying, who have been deeply disappointed due to misleading communication on China’s National Sovereignty,” it said.
Coach issued an apology on Aug. 12 in response to a backlash for a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan separately from China. In its statement, the company declared that it “respects and supports China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The shirt, part of a Coach and Disney collection, was released in May 2018, the South China Morning Post noted.
Italian fashion house Versace apologized to China on Aug. 10 over a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries.
Donatella Versace, the company’s chief creative officer, penned her own apology on Instagram, writing, “I am deeply sorry for the unfortunate recent error that was made by our Company and that is being currently discussed on various social media channels. Never have I wanted to disrespect China’s National Sovereignty and this is why I wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it might have caused.”
The Company apologizes for the design of its product and a recall of the t-shirt has been implemented in July. The brand accepts accountability and is exploring actions to improve how we operate day-to-day to become more conscientious and aware. pic.twitter.com/5K8u3c4Dbm
— VERSACE (@Versace) August 11, 2019
On Aug. 9, China ordered Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, to suspend workers who support pro-democracy protests in the city. That weekend, the airline fired two employees and suspended one pilot in response to the order, the BBC reported. Later, it sacked 20 pilots and cabin crew, prompting a protest of at least 2,000 people.
On July 18, Paramount debuted the first trailer of “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to the 1980s classic “Top Gun,” at San Diego Comic-Con. However, eagle-eyed fans noticed that the new film had removed Taiwanese and Japanese flags on the back of Tom Cruise’s leather jacket. According to CNBC, a possible reason is that the film was partly produced by Chinese company Tencent Pictures.
Dolce & Gabbana
Last November, Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel a show in Shanghai amid a fiery backlash against ads that featured an Asian model helplessly trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks. The scandal escalated after co-founder Stefano Gabbana allegedly responded that “the country of [shit] is China.” The company apologized for the matter on Nov. 23, 2018, but by February 2019, it again struck nerves for selling “Year of the Pig” T-shirts with price tags of up to $1,145.
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American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines
In early 2018, China ordered foreign airlines to avoid referring to Taiwan as a non-Chinese territory on their websites. Beijing set a deadline of July 25, 2018 for companies to make changes. By the date, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines all complied, listing only Taipei’s airport code and city.
On May 14, 2018 Gap issued an apology on Weibo over a T-shirt that left out Taiwan and islands Beijing has been claiming in the South China Sea.
“Gap Inc. respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We’ve learned that a Gap brand T-shirt sold in some overseas markets failed to reflect the correct map of China in the design,” the company said, according to CNN Money.
Between Feb. 5 and Feb. 15, 2018, Ray-Ban quietly changed its website from listing “Taiwan” to “China Taiwan,” Inkstone News reported. According to the outlet, the company’s prior reference did not draw any public attention. Apparently, the move came after a number of foreign companies changed a similar reference.
Daimler apologized to China on Feb. 6, 2018 after its Mercedes-Benz brand caused an outcry by quoting the Dalai Lama, The New York Times reported. The quote, which was posted on Instagram, says, “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” It reportedly received more than 89,000 likes prior to its removal, Bloomberg noted.
Gap Apologizes to China for Offense Caused By T-Shirts. Users pointed out that a map printed on the shirt omitted territories claimed by China, including parts of southern Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea. pic.twitter.com/XBStuZvePs
— Sabrina Volarondo (@ivolinav) May 15, 2018
Muji, operated by Japanese retailer Ryohin Keikaku Co., removed maps in their store catalogues deemed “erroneous” by China’s National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation by Jan. 30, 2018. According to Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times, the maps failed to include “some important islands,” which Beijing assumes within its territory. Japan, however, considers the same islands within its jurisdiction and has since declared that it cannot “accept the measure based on China’s unilateral claims,” the Japan Times noted.
Irish medical device company Medtronic apologized to China on Jan. 12, 2018 after treating Taiwan as an independent country on its website.
“We sincerely apologize for causing misunderstanding among the public,” the company responded, according to Nikkei. “[Medtronic] completely understands the stance of the Chinese government on relevant sovereignty issues.”
Alongside Medtronic, Zara was forced to apologize on Jan. 12, 2018 for listing Taiwan as an independent country. A little more than a year later, the company faced backlash for an ad that “uglified” a Chinese model with freckles. It defended the ad, explaining that the model naturally had freckles and that it had no intention of making her “ugly.”
On Jan. 11, 2018 Marriott International released an apology after listing Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet as separate “countries” in a survey questionnaire.
“We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China,” the hotel chain said.
China suspended the company’s website and mobile app for a week and launched an investigation to determine if it had violated advertising and cybersecurity laws.
German carmaker Audi apologized to China on March 16, 2017 for using an inaccurate map of the country during a presentation at its annual press conference. According to Global Times, the map excluded Taiwan, South Tibet and Aksai Chin in Xinjiang. The company acknowledged that it had offended Chinese people, saying, “It was a serious mistake for which Audi wants to sincerely apologize.”
Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We sincerely apologize for any actions that may have suggested otherwise.
— Marriott Bonvoy (@MarriottBonvoy) January 11, 2018
Feature Image (background, left) via CNN