As the protests in Hong Kong increase, international luxury brands are caught in the crossfire.
Global brands such as Versace, Coach, Calvin Klein, Givenchy ASICS and Swarovski are controversial on the mainland this week because they list Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as separate countries or regions that are not part of China – their official websites or brand T's -shirts.
China's state media propaganda machine is in full swing to counter Beijing vote, and many Chinese social media users are now involved in an online hunt for international companies that appear to be the "one-country-two-system" principle disobey While Hong Kong enjoys "a high degree of autonomy," it is part of China.
Versace: How the ball started rolling
On August 8, a picture of a T-shirt made by the Italian fashion house Versace in the social media made the rounds. A Chinese Internet user wrote, "I recently discovered this and wondered if the design of this T-shirt meant that Versace supported Hong Kong's independence."
By August 11, the T-shirt was announced by hundreds in Chinese social media because it seemed to call Hong Kong and Macao independent countries.
The hashtag "Versace Suspected of [Supporting] Hong Kong and Macao Independence soon received more than three million views on Weibo, one of China's most popular social media platforms.
Many commentators condemned the brand, while others blamed it for having "two faces" and profiting from Chinese money while disregarding Chinese sovereignty.
The Versace brand issued a statement on August 11 on its official Weibo Account (link in Chinese), according to which the T-shirts – which also contained several misspellings – had been recalled and destroyed at the end of July. It "deeply apologized for the controversy" that this was due to a "design flaw".
Versace said it "loves China" and "resolutely respects China's territorial sovereignty".
Donatella Versace, designer and creative director of Versace, also personally apologized on Instagram: "I never wanted to disregard China's national sovereignty, so I personally wanted to apologize for this inaccuracy and its inconvenience."
A well-known entertainment blogger with over four million fans, @Yubapo, responded to Weibo and said, "Versace apologized, but what good is that, why should such a large company have so little general knowledge?"
Marketing crises: It's raining apologies
Last week, the controversy over Versace has led to a marketing crisis for several international luxury brands that are afraid of losing access to the massive and lucrative Chinese market.
Chinese netizens began to search websites in an online witch hunt for international fashion companies operating in mainland China and not listing Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macao as part of China.
Less than 24 hours after Versace's apology, Coach, Givenchy, ASICS, Samsung, Calvin Klein, Swarovski, and Fresh were also uncovered online for their erroneous geographic listings.
Many people swore not to buy again from these brands. "They openly challenge the sovereignty of our country," wrote a legitimate blogger. "We can not tolerate it!"
Each company apologized to Weibo on Monday and Tuesday reaffirming its respect for China's sovereignty.
These excuses were widely watched online – the hashtag "Swarovski Apologizes" alone had more than 730 million views from Weibo.
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With so many apologetic statements in social media, some Chinese netizens said that this was an "international apology day".
"Which brand apologizes today?" This week has become a recurring phrase in Chinese social media.
"Learn from their mistakes"
The People's Day Daily of the Communist Party said on Tuesday Western brands should also "learn from their mistakes" in the long run and should not ignore the "one China principle".
The newspaper published an online illustration showing the stamps on a tear in a "One China" picture. "This is well known – and it is the end result," reads the picture.
Although discussions about the protests in Hong Kong have been silenced in Chinese social media, the state media have recently begun to publish numerous articles and illustrations on the riots.
The media have strongly condemned the demonstrators for causing chaos, and repeatedly stressed that there is a China and that Hong Kong is a part of it.
In comments from various popular Chinese social media platforms, thousands of web users are showing support for this attitude.
Although the witch hunt this week is an extreme testament to the cyber-nationalism of Chinese consumers, it is not the first time that Chinese social media users have campaigned against foreign brands for political reasons.
The Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana became the target of an online storm in 2018 when it launched a promotional video for its China fashion show, which was considered racist by many Chinese people.
In the same year Mercedes criticized the Chinese netizens, because they quoted the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post. The company apologized later.
A Korean commercial by American footwear maker K-Swiss also provoked outrage in Chinese social media in 2016 because it portrayed a Chinese character in a way many described as "humiliating" for China.
In 2016, so many companies and celebrities were embarrassed to apologize that an activist in Taiwan named Wang Yikai launched a competition on the subject of "sorry for China."
The winner was a parody of the Hong Kong group on the song "Sorry Sorry" by Super Junior. In it the group says that they are sorry that they do not love China enough because they do not have a made in China smartphone.
Celebrity brand flight
Although these types of marketing crises are often temporary, brands can be badly hit by boycott campaigns and negative publicity.
This week, Chinese actress Jelly Lin, Calvin Klein's brand ambassador to the Asia-Pacific region, announced the immediate cessation of cooperation with the American fashion house. Chinese star Yang Mi also ended her relationship with Versace, while Chinese singer Jackson Yee and supermodel Liu Wen ended their partnership with Givenchy and Coach.
Chinese actress Jiang Shuying, also known as Maggie Jiang, announced Tuesday that she will end her collaboration with Swarovski
China Fashion Week responded to the controversy this week and wrote that "all brands doing business in China should respect their national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
In the meantime, posts accusing foreign brands of violating China's borders are flooding the social media.
As long as the riots in Hong Kong continue, it is expected that the controversy will continue to increase.
Some commentators have already sent a warning to foreign brands: "Are you ready to apologize?"
Manya Koetse is editor-in-chief of What's up Weibo, a website that reports on the trends on China's most popular social media platform.