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'Insulting China' and the business of fomenting online rage

Brands from Zara to Givenchy have borne brunt of Chinese netizens' fury

| China

One of the most viral phrases on Chinese social media in recent years -- and one which causes the worst kind of crisis for foreign companies -- is "insulting China." When China's netizens perceive that a brand has demeaned their country, the fury is instant and the apology from the brand normally swift.

But while the media likes to attribute growing nationalism to such bust-ups, behind accusations of "insulting China" are more complex motivations and sentiments, including political incitement.

"Insulting China" can come in different forms. Some companies and individuals are accused of insulting Chinese culture and saying racist things. Last November, Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana canceled a fashion show in Shanghai and its founders apologized after one of its advertisements, mocking the use of chopsticks and the way Chinese people talk, caused great offense, alongside screenshots of one of the designers making derogatory comment about China.

In February, Chinese customers accused Zara of "uglifying China" when it did not remove the freckles from a Chinese model's photos promoting its latest makeup products. And in June, Chinese netizens went mad at an economist with UBS because he used the phrase "Chinese pig" in a report on the impact of the outbreak of swine flu that has hit China's pork market hard.

However, more and more "insults" are about the one-China policy. In January 2018, the Marriott hotel chain was forced to apologize after it listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Tibet as countries in an email to its members.

Amid the recent protests in Hong Kong, foreign luxury brands including Versace, Coach, Asics and Givenchy apologized for labeling Hong Kong as separate entities. This fits with a growing enmity among the Chinese toward "foreign hands," which China accuses of "making a mess and chaos in Hong Kong."

No matter if the "insulting" behaviors were simply tone-deaf ignorance or cross-cultural misinterpretation: to avoid further brand damage and financial loss, most companies issue an apology in no time, rather than explain what happened.

But these apologies do not bring forgiveness or understanding. Chinese netizens choose to have less and less tolerance for such behavior.

China's censorship mechanisms and propaganda machines direct the online discussion by deleting comments and topics that the government does not like and disproportionately promoting subjects it wants to make important.

The internet, stirring up netizens' emotions, helps them to congregate and enjoy a "carnival" of fury in the virtual world. Picking up and broadcasting mistakes from a Western company or individual is politically correct in China's current environment, especially from countries in dispute with China.

Not long after the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, visited Sweden in September 2018, the Chinese government said that a Swedish satirical TV show that had taken a stab at Chinese tourists had "grossly insulted and viciously attacked China and the Chinese people."

Soon on Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform, people suggested boycotting Sweden, including not traveling there and no longer buying from IKEA, H&M and Volvo.

However, no matter how fanatical it looks, social media and the internet only show one side of the truth, and it is hard to know how close that is to reality. You do not know what the silent majority think. What's more, even many people and groups who shout loud might not believe what they say.

To many people, who want to reveal their inflated nationalism, patriotism is a business without risk. Foreigners are the safest target. By calling to boycott brands and public figures who say controversial things, many influential online publications have won praise and followers, which can be transformed into advertisements and money.

Every party involved knows what the costs and gains are. Foreign brands apologize in hope of solving the crisis and keeping their share of the Chinese market. Chinese celebrities terminate their contracts with the brands to show loyalty and keep their fans' favor.

State propaganda machines do not want to miss the opportunity to teach foreigners a lesson and consolidate its audience. And social media channels pile up the most sensational words to attract views. As for the angry netizens, they feel their demands have been heard and opinions respected.

Do foreign brands have other options? Not unless they want to forfeit their share of the world's fastest growing market. Chinese buyers account for at least a third of the world's luxury sales and two-thirds of the industry's growth. Chinese customers understand and play their cards well.

Each crisis comes like a storm, and disappears quickly. It is not because people forget but because the topics are no longer "profitable" and "enjoyable" when there are other things in the spotlight.

It does not take long before the next brand ends in a similar fire, and the cycle repeats itself.

Despite all this, there is still lingering light, signs of an environment developing for more nuanced discussions on what is insulting and what is not in China. Earlier this year, not long after social media users accused Zara of "uglifying" China, different voices appeared saying freckles did not equal ugliness and "insulting China" should be used more carefully.

State-run media outlet China Daily said netizens were being defensive, with "oversensitivity and a lack of cultural confidence." It remains to be seen whether this state tolerance endures when the next fire breaks out.

Karoline Kan is the author of "Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China." She is based in Beijing.

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