HONG KONG — May 25th at the amfAR Cannes gala was meant to be a night of revelry and high spirits all in the name of a good cause. But the charity fund-raiser, a fixture during the week-long film festival, became inadvertently drawn into a dose of heated Chinese geopolitics.
An announcement two days before the event that two auction lots related to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader, were to be included led to Chinese celebrities backing out of the event. Model Ming Xi had excitedly been posting on social media in anticipation of the night, encouraging her fans to support amfAR’s fight against HIV, but in a since-deleted Weibo post, she revealed she would no longer attend due to “special circumstances.” According to Jing Daily, the “Weibo post also showed emoticons of a heart, the Chinese national flag, and a flexed arm.”
Liu Wen and actress Fan Bingbing were reportedly also on the guest list but pulled out too.
Under amfAR’s Instagram post, comments quickly grew political and ugly. Several users left Chinese-language posts disparaging the HIV charity for having anything to do with the Dalai Lama.
Despite the Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics, he remains a persona non grata in China, where he is accused of encouraging Tibetan separatism. Over the years, Tibet has been a pitfall for many brands and celebrities. Lady Gaga and sales of her music were banned after she met the Dalai Lama last year. Actor Richard Gere said he has been banned for life from the country, telling the Hollywood Reporter last month that with China’s increasing importance at the box office, his long-standing pro-Tibetan independence views have cost him big-budget film roles.
But it’s not just the Dalai Lama that can lead to a serious and sudden cold shoulder from the Chinese. Ongoing tensions with South Korea over the deployment of the THAAD missile system, hints of dissent in Hong Kong and the issue of Taiwan — an island whose sovereign status has been in a decades-long deadlock — have proven to be quicksand for brands.
Moreover, the frequency of politically sensitive incidents is set to increase as China expands its sphere of influence, said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies.
“It’s gotten considerably worse actually because China is projecting more soft power around the world, and they have drawn a red line, so to speak, around figures like the Dalai Lama,” Lam said. “Beijing is very cynical about converting its commercial might to squeeze so-called pro-independence movements, whether it’s in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. So far, they’ve been fairly successful. The Chinese market is a huge one — very few companies would run the risk of running afoul of the authorities. In a way, this is a crude level of bullying but it works.”
Here are the issues where brands should tread carefully around:
South Korea THAAD
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is an advanced ballistic missile technology installed in South Korea to ward off the nuclear threat from North Korea. However, because it has the range to reach China and could be used against the country, Beijing has strongly objected to it.
Its deployment has led to a retaliatory banning of all manner of South Korean celebrities and products since last year, and so, despite the hallyu wave, companies and magazines have had to pull South Korean stars off campaigns and covers. Chinese customs banned the import of certain South Korean beauty products, and authorities also halted group tours to South Korea, although individual travel is still permitted.
Inhae Yeo, a director at the consultancy Oikonomos said, “The biggest visible effect is the decline in the number of large group of tourists visiting the country which as a result has impacted popular shopping destinations like the duty-free shopping malls — Shilla and Lotte — and street shopping zones — Myeongdong and Garosugil — as well as popular tourist attractions like Jeju Island which have all seen a decline in Chinese tourists visiting.”
She added: “The impact would be more serious on the businesses who have a presence in the Chinese market due to the heavy government restrictions as well as customers boycotting. I would be very concerned about these businesses and especially those who are at its early stages of branching out in China.”
South Korean firm Lotte had 90 percent of its supermarkets in China closed, although the company said at the time its fashion business had not been affected.
Hong Kong Democracy
It’s been three years since rallies demanding universal suffrage erupted in the streets of Hong Kong. While there are no longer protesters barricading roads downtown, the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing has since strained further with the central Chinese government exerting more of its influence over the former colony.
The most recent major brand to get into trouble in connection with Hong Kong politics was Lancôme, which canceled one of its sponsored concerts last June featuring Cantopop singer Denise Ho. Suspecting the brand had been pressured to halt the event over her pro-democracy views, she shared an open letter to Lancôme on social media asking the company to explain why her event was called off. Angry that the brand appeared to pander to Beijing in its effort to stifle freedom of expression, Hong Kongers staged a boycott of Lancôme products.
“I am quite shocked that a global brand such as Lancôme, they would succumb to the pressure from Chinese tabloid news or the Chinese market,” Ho said at the time.
A political firestorm erupted in January 2016 around Taiwanese teenager Chou Tzuyu, a member of the South Korea girl group Twice. In a segment for a South Korean television show, the girl band members waved the flag of the country they represented, with Chou waving the Republic of Taiwan flag.
Taiwan, which has ruled itself since 1949, keeps a flag distinct to that of the People’s Republic of China; Beijing, however, considers Taiwan a renegade province. The move generated an online backlash in mainland China, which resulted in Chou’s management arranging a public apology, where she tearfully read off a script. Chou’s scheduled appearances in Mainland China were quickly canceled.
The controversy occurred just as the Taiwanese were going to the polls to elect Tsai Ing-Wen as president, a politician who holds views that are less Beijing-friendly than her predecessor. Since Tsai took office, China has cut off the stream of mainland Chinese group travelers to Taiwan. Like South Korea, the island was once a booming destination for mainland Chinese, but those tour groups have since evaporated, causing Taiwan significant economic pain.
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