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The Chinese Animation Dream: Making Made-in-China ‘Donghua’ Great Again

The Chinese animation industry is a much-discussed topic in the media and on Weibo. Will China’s ‘donghua’ make a comeback?

Manya Koetse

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The Chinese animation industry is a hot topic these days. With China’s rising power and growing influence on global markets, its animation industry is lagging behind and still seems to have limited appeal for audiences inside and outside of mainland China. But there might be big changes on the horizon for the industry. Will the golden days of Chinese animation return? A short overview of the development of the Chinese animation market by What’s on Weibo.

The Chinese animated movie White Snake (白蛇:缘起), produced by Light Chaser Animation and Warner Bros, has been under the spotlight since its release on January 11. The fantasy animation, that has raked in 300 million yuan (±$44 million) at the box office, has triggered discussions in the media on the status quo and future of China’s animation industry.

Although China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is still much room for improvement. Not only are many ‘donghua’ (动画) still lacking when it comes to quality and script, but the Chinese animation market is also facing fierce competition from the American and Japanese markets.

 

‘JAPANESE CULTURAL INVASION’

“Making China’s own animated heroes become examples for the Chinese youth”

 

A recent Foreign Policy article by Tanner Greer discusses the great popularity of Japanese manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) in the People’s Republic of China. The influence of Japanese popular culture in China is not necessarily appreciated by the Chinese government, which is concerned with maintaining a certain control over matters of cultural dissemination.

Since Japanese comics and films began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. To counter the impact of foreign animation/cartoon products, the authorities not only attempted to curb the inflow of these products but also to promote the production of its own China-made animations, that should reflect the ideals of the Party.

As early as 1995, President Jiang Zemin wrote a letter to the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (上海美术电影制片厂), writing that “inspiring people through excellent work is an important task of the cultural front,”1 and expressing his wishes that, “under the guidance of the Party’s literary and artistic principles, animation art workers will continue to release ideological, artistic and enjoyable art products, providing more and better spiritual sustenance for the youth and for children, making China’s own animated heroes become friends and examples for the [Chinese] youth” (1995; Saito 2017, 141).

Twenty-four year later, China’s animation industry has seen enormous growth but is still not as well-received by the Chinese public as Jiang had probably hoped for. Meanwhile, the demand for Japanese and other foreign products is still going strong: the animated movies that are in the top 3 of highest box office successes in mainland China are all foreign productions.

The 2018 Chinese animation The King of Football (足球王者) took approximately 60 million yuan ($8.8 million) to make, but became a commercial flop, raking in less than 1.8 million yuan ($267,000) at the box office (Yau 2018).

The King of Football turned out to be a flop at the box offices (image via PTT新聞).

The new animation White Snake is doing much better than the 2018 Football flop, and has made some Chinese state media note that the overall quality of domestically produced animation is steadily getting better, especially over the past few years. Yet, critics also note that despite several successes since 2015, the Chinese animation has yet to come out of its “low point” (China Daily Culture 2019).

 

GOLDEN AGE OF CHINESE ANIMATION

“Chinese films should be based on real Chinese traditions and stories”

 

If the current era marks a certain ‘low point’ in Chinese animation, then when was its ‘high’ performing time? The first so-called “golden age” of Chinese animation actually occurred in the 1957-1965 era. Long before that, in the 1920s, China’s renowned Wan brothers produced their first animated short, inspired by the success of Disney and the Fleischer brothers (Chen 2017, 175; Lent & Ying 2013, 20-22). It led to the production of China’s first fully-animated film Blood Money (血钱) in 1932.

The Nanjing-born Wan brothers (萬氏兄弟) are the twins Wan Laiming and Guchan (1900), Wan Chaochen (1906), and Wan Dihuan (1907), who are generally credited with starting Chinese animation. The first three names are the brothers who later joined the renowned Shanghai Animation Film Studio that was led by cartoonist Te Wei (特伟, 1915).

Te Wei is one of the major names in the Chinese School of Animation; he previously headed the Northeast Film Studio, that was founded in 1949.

Three Wan brothers, with in the middle Wan Laiming, on the right Guchan, and Chaochen on the left (image via vmovier.com).

Although the Wan brothers were initially inspired by American animation, along with German and Russian styles, they soon focused on finding a more Chinese-oriented style in their work. In a 1936 interview, the brothers stated that Chinese films should be based on “real Chinese traditions and stories,” and should also be “educational” besides entertaining (Lent & Ying 2013, 22-23). Focusing more on Chinese artistic traditions was also something that was encouraged by Te Wei.

The Shanghai Animation Film studio started doing just that, and creators began committing themselves to learn from classical Chinese literature, paintings, and art, to build on truly Chinese animation canon that would incorporate a certain ‘national identity.’ For their 1956 24-minute animation The Conceited General (骄傲的将军), they even invited opera teachers to their work studio to learn from their Peking Opera movements and apply it to their animated characters (Chen 2017, 185; Lent & Ying 2013, 25-26).

From the ‘Conceited General.’

The first color animation Why Crows Are Black (乌鸦为什么是黑的, 1956) became the first Chinese animation to be recognized internationally at the 1956 Venice Film Festival. The 1960 success of Where is Momma (小蝌蚪找妈妈) was followed by others, with the 1961/1964 Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫) winning multiple awards, becoming one of China’s most-praised animation classics.

During the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China’s animation industry suffered a huge blow and its first boom was halted. Starting from 1977 to the mid-1980s, a “second wave” of success followed, with new films that also carried that distinct style of Chinese animation; works such as the 1980s Three Monks (三个和尚) and the 1988 Feeling from Mountain and Water (山水情) are some example success stories within this second ‘golden age’ (Chen 2017).

In a 2001 interview, Te Wei stated that there were multiple factors at play that contributed to the success of Chinese animation over the 1960-1980 period. The animation creators at the time, for example, were not pressured for deadlines and had unlimited creative time. There were enough financial resources to fund the studio (state support), little government control, a prosperous production system, and there were multiple generations of animators working together at the studio (Lent & Ying 2013, 27).

 

LOSING THE MAGIC TOUCH

“You can see Disney in it. But at least they tried”

 

So what happened to the golden days of Chinese animation? After the Mao era, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping famously initiated China’s Reform and Opening, starting the process which transformed the country and also had drastic consequences for China’s creative industries.

Following the emergence of the market economy, creators of Chinese animation had to focus more on the commercial value of their works. But while concentrating on consumer-based commerce, they also still had to make sure their productions were politically correct and in line with the (censorship) guidelines.

Starting from the 1990s, Chinese animation was officially defined as an “industry” and became a focus in the development of the national economy, with the government paying close attention (Chen 2017, 158; Wu 2017).

As described by John Lent and Xu Ying, animation studios started to struggle to support themselves and sped up productions to satisfy the rising domestic TV market, while also becoming “workstations” for overseas clients (2013, 27).

Japanese animations, such as Astro Boy, started getting more and more popular in mainland China since the early 1990s. (Image via Variety).

Although the number of productions went up, the high production pressure affected creativity and the artistic quality of Chinese animation.

Meanwhile, the market came to be dominated by imported, sometimes pirated, foreign animations. Astro Boy, Doraemon, Chibi Maruko-chan and other Japanese popular culture became more influential among Chinese youth in the 1990s. This also changed viewers’ preferences and aesthetic standards, and many Chinese animations adopted more Japanese or American styles in their creations (Ho 2018, 167; Liu 2007, 29).

With the rise of the internet in China, the inflow of (pirated) animations and cartoons from outside of China, and their major impact, began to become much harder to combat.

Some films, such as the 1999 Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯) by Shanghai Animation Film Studio still succeeded in becoming a high-quality commercial success, although Chinese cartoonist Te Wei did note: “You can see Disney in it. But at least they tried” (Lent & Ying 2017).

 

THE RISE OF CHINA’S ANIMATION?

“Chinese animations keep on getting better and better, and it makes me feel proud”

 

For the past few years, especially since the propagated concept of the ‘Chinese Dream’ has popularized within Chinese society, an idea that focuses on ‘national rejuvenation,’ the ‘comeback’ of Chinese animation has become a much-discussed topic in state media and on social media.

The main idea disseminated by state media and government, is that Chinese donghua (动画, animation) should be developed with specific Chinese characteristics, should not blindly follow its (foreign) competitors, and should propagate Chinese culture and socialist values. The slogan “Revive the Country’s Creativity” (振兴国创) is repeated in dozens of these articles.

Some media claim that Chinese animation is no longer at its low point now, but has reached a stage of “adolescence” (Xinhua 2019). This resonates with earlier government articles proposing that China should become “an internationally strong animation country” by 2023 (GWP 2008).

There are many ways in which a ‘healthy development’ of China’s animation market is now promoted. Since 2010, animation companies in China enjoy certain tax benefits, there have been national award for the best animations since 2011, and since long there have been measures stipulating that a certain percentage of broadcasted animations must be China-made (Saito 2017).

A noteworthy animation that was released in 2018 is The Leader (领风者), a web series that focuses on the live and work of Karl Marx, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

The idea that was promoted with the release of The Leader was that promoting Chinese ‘mainstream values’ could also have a broad audience appeal, “as it can also be thrilling and attractive” (Global Times 2018).

The ‘rejuvenation’ of Chinese animation is not just a cultural and ideological project, there are economic motives at stake too; China’s animation industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Some media predict that 2019 might be a pivotal year for China’s animation. The successes of the 2015 Monkey King: Hero is Back (西游记之大圣归来), the 2016 Big Fish and Begonia (大鱼海棠) and the current White Snake film, might been strong indications that Chinese audiences are ready for more high-quality domestically produced animations that are based on classic literary works or historical themes, and incorporate Chinese traditional culture or socialist values.

The Legend of Nezha (哪吒之魔童降世), Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), and Phoenix (凤凰) are some of the much anticipated made-in-China animated movies to come out this year.

On Weibo, Chinese animations are a daily hot topic, and so is their overall development. The phrase “I support made-in-China animations” frequently pops up, but so do the questions (“when will our animations rise?”) and the criticism.

“They are in the stage of imitating and exaggerating to keep up with international standards,” some say: “But their scripts are still unclear and somewhat embarrassing.”

“The dialogues are still their main problem,” others say. Many people on social media express this idea of ‘China-made animations’ being of a certain low quality, although there are also many who say their views have changed after seeing White Snake in the cinema.

White Snake movie poster

Some commenters write that “Chinese animations keep on getting better and better, and it makes me feel proud.” This idea of a strong Chinese animation market also triggers patriotic reactions elsewhere on Weibo.

Many netizens, however, still allege that the animations made during the “golden years” of China’s 1960s to 1980s were simply the best. “In those years, the animations they produced were just all classics. Nowadays, I can’t even bear to watch anymore.”

Others agree, writing: “They were just so Chinese.”

By Manya Koetse

 

References:

CGW Central Government Web Portal. 2008. “文化部发布关于扶持我国动漫产业发展的若干意见.” Gov.cn http://www.gov.cn/gzdt/2008-08/19/content_1075077.htm [2.10.19].

Chen, Shaoping. 2017. “Industrial transformation in Chinese animation cinema (1995–2015).” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 15(2): 157-174.

Chen, Yuanyuan. 2017. “Old or New Art> Rethinking Classical Animation.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 11 (2): 175-188.

China Culture Daily 中国文化报. 2019. “[国产动画2018:正在蓬勃生长 期待“冲破天际”]. People’s Daily, January 8. http://ent.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0108/c1012-30509797.html [1.26.19].

Jiang Zemin. 1995. “为少儿提供更多更好的精神食粮 [Providing the youth with more and better spiritual sustenance].” 中国共产党新闻 [News of the Communist Party of China], August 28. http://dangshi.people.com.cn/GB/242358/242773/242777/17735177.html [Jan 25 2019].

Global Times. 2018. “Nation to release first animation on Karl Marx.” Global Times 19 Dec http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1132690.shtml [10.2.19].

Greer, Tanner. 2019. “Super Patriotic Anime Youth Wars!” Foreign Policy, January 23. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/23/super-patriotic-anime-youth-wars-china-japan-pop-culture/ [Jan 25 2019].

Ho, Wai-Chung. 2018. Culture, Music Education, and the Chinese Dream in Mainland China. Singapore: Springer.

Lent, John A. and Xu Ying. 2013. “Chinese Animation: An historical and contemporary analysis.” Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 23(1): 19-40.

– 2017. Comics Art in China. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Liu, Qing Fang. 2007. “When Chinese Animations meet GLobalization.” Master Thesis, Cultural Economics and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Saito, Asako P. 2017. “Moe and Internet Memes: The Resistance and Accommodation of Japanese Popular Culture in China.” Cultural Studies Review 23(1), 136-150.

Yau, Elaine. 2018. “Why Chinese animated films do so badly in China compared to Western ones.” South China Morning Post, October 17. https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2168973/why-chinese-animated-films-do-so-badly-china-compared-western-ones

Wu, Weihua. 2017. Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture. London: Routledge.

Xinhua. 2019. “不再低幼 国漫进入“青春期”.” Xinhua Feb 3rd http://www.xinhuanet.com/ent/2019-02/03/c_1124081879.htm [10.2.19].

1“用优秀的作品鼓舞人,是文化战线的重要任务”
*” 当年的动画片和电影几乎部部经典!现在的基本上都不能看了。。”
*”那时候的动画片都很中国”

Other relevant links:
http://www.p5w.net/news/cjxw/201812/t20181219_2237399.htm
http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2019-01/03/c_1123941747.htm
http://www.xinhuanet.com/ent/2019-02/03/c_1124081879.htm
http://www.chinanews.com/cul/2018/05-12/8512351.shtml
http://media.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0125/c40606-30590294.html
Spotted a mistake, typo, or want to add something? Please let us know through email.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

How Chinese Kuaishou Rebel ‘Pangzai’ Became a Twitter King

He’s been called a ‘Twitter king’, but how did the unexpected online fame of this ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?

Jessica Colwell

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Twitter has fallen in love with a Chinese farmer after his drinking videos on Kuaishou were cross-posted abroad and went viral. He has embraced his new fans and Western social media, arguably becoming one of China’s most successful cultural ambassadors of the year.

He describes himself as the “inventor of tornado beer drinking style” and as an “ordinary peasant from China.” ‘Hebei Pangzai’ only joined Twitter in August of 2019, but he already has a Twitter following of more than 111.6K.

Although his account is temporarily restricted by Twitter at time of writing (“due to suspicious activity”), his popularity is only growing. Some Twitterers, such as the China twitterer Carl Zha (@CarlZha), are even initiating a “#FreePangzai campaign” to restore the account of the “one true King.”

But where and when did the online fame of ‘Hebei Pangzai’ start?

Let’s begin our introduction to Pangzai with one tweet from March of this year, when Twitter user ‘Hunnaban Trenchboss’ posted a video from Chinese short video app Kuaishou (快手) showing a man – ‘Pangzai’ – wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette while preparing an incredible mixed drink.

The man in the video smoothly pops the cap off a bottle of beer with a chopstick, pours some in a large jar, then twirls the bottle and propels the rest of the beer in a tornado of force down his throat.

He follows that up by pouring in more beer, some blue liquor, an egg, some Pepsi, and a hefty glass of baijiu – which he dumps in only after lighting it on fire, igniting his finger, and coolly lighting his cigarette. He then chugs the entire concoction in a matter of seconds.

“How do I become as cool as this guy, The Coolest Guy?”, the tweet said.

The same video was shared again in August by a few Russian accounts, was retweeted by an American account, and then went completely viral, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of retweets.

That video has now been viewed almost 12 million times on Twitter, and has inspired tens of thousands of fans who herald him as ‘king.’

The man in the video referred to as ‘Pangzai’ (胖仔, ‘chubby dude’) is Liu Shichao (刘世超), a 33-year-old farmer and small-time Chinese internet celebrity from a city called Xingtai in Hebei Province.

According to an interview with Technode, he found out about the video on Twitter when some of his new foreign fans opened Chinese social media accounts to find him and tell him about his overnight online fame.

“One message told me that I was a celebrity now in America,” he told Technode: “So I chatted with the person [who sent the message] for a whole day, with the help of translation software.”

Within two days of his video going viral, Pangzai had figured out how to use a VPN, opened his own Twitter account and started uploading videos.

He even posted a reply on the original viral video to alert everybody to his account.

Liu’s early response to his viral video on Twitter.

Since then, Liu ‘Pangzai’ has amassed over 111,000 followers and has posted many more videos of everything from drinking, to cooking, to exploring his countryside hometown.

But it was the drinking videos specifically that earned him his following, both abroad and in China.

 

IT STARTED ON KUAISHOU

“Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account.”

 

Liu began his internet career three years ago on Kuaishou, a Chinese short video app massively popular among China’s lower-tier cities and countryside.

In contrast to the polished, celeb-heavy platform Douyin, which is most popular among urban youths, Kuaishou is a platform for the masses. Its users are known for their crazy antics and general disregard for personal safety.

Liu Shichao’s Kuaishou account has 354,000 followers, but the majority of his videos have been removed.

Pangzai epitomizes the typical Kuaishou account. Posting under the handle “Chubby Dude from Hebei” (@河北胖仔), he uploads videos of himself eating and drinking in eye-popping combinations, or sometimes smashing things – from bricks to unopened water bottles – with his bare hands.

Liu’s video of breaking bricks with his hands was also popular on Twitter.

Liu also gained notoriety, and a couple hundred thousand followers, from his mastery of the so-called ‘beer tornado technique’ (小旋风 xiǎo xuànfēng).

According to an interview with the BBC, he peaked at 470,000 followers on Kuaishou and was monetizing his online fame with some 10,000 RMB ($1420) per month.

Liu’s signature beer tornado technique features in the first video he posted to Twitter.

Unfortunately for Liu, China’s Cyberspace Administration announced a crackdown on vulgar and illegal content across multiple social media platforms in spring of 2018, with a focus on Douyin, Kuaishou, and its sister news company Jinri Toutiao. Kuaishou was pulled from app stores until it cleaned up its act.

It is unclear just how many videos and accounts have been removed as a result of the cleanup. We can get a rough idea from an announcement by Kuaishou earlier this year that in March of 2019 alone, it removed an average of over 11,000 videos and blocked almost 1,000 accounts every day.

The result for Liu was that his account was suspended for four months and the majority of his most popular videos, including the one that went viral abroad, were removed for promoting ‘unhealthy drinking habits.’

When you look at his Kuaishou account today, you won’t see many videos focused solely on baijiu and beer chugging.

The videos that remain on his account do include drinking (and his signature tornado move) but it is always accompanied by eating food or some other activity (such as sitting deep in a field of corn, munching on roast duck and dribbling baijiu down a corn leaf into a glass.)

In a video posted to Kuaishou, Liu pours baijiu into a glass from a corn leaf, before then lighting it on fire and chugging it.

Liu still has 354,000 followers on Kuaishou. His Chinese fans, like his foreign ones, marvel at his cool and collected manner as he eats and drinks all sorts of disgusting things.

Canned herring features heavily in his most popular recent videos, where he can be seen sipping the juice directly from the can.

In one of his videos on Kuaishou, Liu eating herring directly from the can, to the disgust of his fans.

“This has to be the most unaffected anyone has ever been by eating canned herring,” says one fan. “The flavor is disgusting! 99.9% of people who try this would vomit,” another online commenter replies.

 

AN UNEXPECTED TWITTER KING

“Liu is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life.”

 

This year, Liu seems to have embraced his newfound international stardom with grace and savvy.

He uses Twitter’s in-app translation to help him communicate with fans and has been highly interactive on the platform.

Liu ‘Pangzai’ was also quick to open up a Paypal account and share it with followers, and has recently made YouTube and Instagram accounts to prevent scams pretending to be him. He has also collaborated with a Twitter fan to sell T-shirts online in America.

Many online fans have dubbed him ‘king’, perhaps the highest praise one can receive on the internet today.

But in contrast to the sunglasses and chill demeanor of his videos, Liu does not appear to be an internet celebrity overly obsessed with being cool.

Instead, he is like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble, and genuinely excited to share his life (and drinking habits) with the rest of the world.

Liu began using translation software to communicate with fans soon after joining Twitter.

After reposting all of his old drinking videos from Kuaishou, Liu started asking Twitter fans what they would like to see from him. Many responded that they wanted more about his life in rural China.

He has since followed up with videos showing him fixing a pipe with his friends, exploring his local market, cooking sweet potatoes, and, of course, a tutorial on how to master the ‘tornado beer’ technique.

Liu explaining on Twitter how to perform the tornado beer technique that helped make him famous.

Many have expressed concern for his health in light of his drinking habits, but he has assured everybody that everything he does is “within his ability” and that he doesn’t drink like that very often.

Liu is grateful for all the support and praise he has received from abroad. “It’s crazy to have all of these foreign friends all of a sudden,” he recently said in an interview with Deadspin: “I really have to thank them a lot. If I have a chance I will find them and we can drink together.”

Seemingly to that end, Liu has recently organized a party to be held near his hometown in China, exciting fans all over the world and spurring many to apply for passports and visas.

Once Liu began inviting people to his party, he changed the date and location in order to accommodate more attendees.

The date is set for December 14, 2019 in Zhuamadian City, Hebei Province; too soon for many to make it, but he promises another party in the spring. There is talk also of organizing a visit for Liu ‘Pangzai’ to go to America.

 

WINDOW INTO CHINESE SOCIAL MEDIA

“Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet.”

 

Although there are many vloggers like Pangzai in China, he stands out on Twitter as some sort of window into Chinese social media, especially because this online world is usually so separate from the Western realms of social media.

The recent explosive growth of Chinese social media apps such as TikTok has not done much to facilitate this kind of cultural interaction between China and the West.

Although Tiktok is, in fact, a Chinese app (called Douyin 抖音 in China), there are actually two different versions of the same app in mainland China and abroad, meaning that the other ‘Pangzais’ of the Chinese internet still remain within the social media spheres of the PRC, rarely gaining fame outside of the Great Firewall.

In China, aside from his fans on Kuaishou, Liu’s growing notoriety abroad seems to have flown completely under the radar of the Chinese internet. He is mentioned only one or two times across Weibo, and searches for his name and handle on WeChat, Baidu, and various Chinese tech news sites bring up nothing.

Liu is a rare example of genuine soft power coming out of China. A pure, grassroots man of the people with strong cultural appeal who sincerely enjoys sharing his life and his culture with the rest of the world. His tweets are full of affection and appreciation for his fans, as well as frequent prompts for followers to share their own lives and customs of their home countries.

To watch his introduction to Twitter and rise to fame is to see the best of the internet: cultural interaction, genuinely shared delight, and mutual admiration inspired by hilarious antics caught on camera.

His Twitter fans express their hope that Twitter Support will soon lift the temporary ban on their ‘Twitter king.’ To them, it’s perfectly clear: this online king is nowhere near dead, long live Pangzai!

Follow the #FreePangzai hashtag on Twitter.

Update: Panghaizi is out of Twitter jail!

 
Want to read more about unexpected online celebrities from China? Also see:
The Story of Two Farmers Who Became Internet Celebrities;
The “Vagrant Shanghai Professor”;
From Farmgirl to Fashionista: Weibo Celebrity Fairy Wang.

 

By Jessica Colwell
Follow @whatsonweibo

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These Are the Foreign Brands Apologizing to China amid Hong Kong Tensions

Who’s apologizing and why? An A-Z list of the foreign companies caught up in China’s online brand hunt.

Manya Koetse

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First published

Foreign luxury brands hoping to appease the Chinese market are walking on eggshells as the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening. Chinese netizens and state media recently condemned foreign brands for showing any signs of disregarding the One-China Policy. An online witch hunt has begun: this is the list of brands.

While the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening, the propaganda machine in mainland China is running at full speed to condemn anti-Beijing ‘rioters’ and promote the one-China principle.

As state media has been intensifying its news coverage on the situation in Hong Kong, with virtually all outlets using similar narratives, Chinese web users started to focus on foreign (luxury) brands and whether or not they list Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan as being part of China.

Starting on August 8, Chinese social media platform Weibo has seen dozens of hashtags taking over Chinese social media in relation to the big brand scandal; one foreign brand after the other was exposed as ‘ignoring’ China’s one-China principle on their website or products.

By the beginning of this week, the online brand hunt had almost become like an online contest, with thousands of netizens suggesting new brands that are allegedly not respecting China’s sovereignty.

Although the trend initially began with Chinese web users condemning brands -starting with Versace-, Chinese state media soon also reported about the online controversies and intensified the movement.

Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily wrote that Western brands are quick to apologize, but should also “learn from their mistakes” in the long run, and cannot disregard the One-China Policy if they want to do business in China.

“This is common knowledge, it’s the bottom line,” – online propaganda poster by People’s Daily shows foreign brands and a crack in the “One China” symbol.

State media outlet Global Times also published an illustration online, writing the slogan “China can’t be one bit less” (“中国一点都不能少”) that has been used by state media to emphasize China’s one-China principle since the 2016 South China Sea dispute.

Illustration by Global Times.

In response to the controversies, it has been raining apologies from foreign brands on Chinese social media the past days.

Who is mainly responsible for this online witch hunt? Although it first started with Chinese web users sharing images and screenshots of foreign brands and their ‘erroneous representation’ of China, state media and celebrities soon also started to play a major role in this issue and have contributed to the enormous snowball effect of the trend.

What’s the ‘correct’ way to list Hong Kong or Taiwan according to the one-China principle? Below is an image of the (adjusted) website of Valentino where it lists countries and lists Hong Kong and Taiwan as being part of China.

Here’s a list of the global brands have become tied up in controversy on the mainland this week (this list might still be updated):

 

● ASICS 亚瑟士

Japanese footwear brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/asicsofficial (240,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“ASICS lists HK & Taiwan as Separate Countries” (#亚瑟士将香港与台湾列为国家#): 110 million views.

What’s the problem?
The ASICS website listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “ASICS apologizes” hashtag (#亚瑟士致歉#), 6,5 million views on Weibo. The footwear brand emphasized that it abides by the one-China policy and that it will correct its “mistakes.”

Consequences:
Besides some netizens who vow not to buy any of the brands in this list disregarding the PRC’s one-China policy, there are no indications as of now that the brand is affected by the issue.

 

● CALVIN KLEIN

American fashion brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/calvinklein (303,000 fans)

Hashtag:
“CK Exposed for Insulting China” (##CK被曝辱华##): 1,5 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Calvin Klein faced criticism for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries or regions on its website.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 13, followed by “CK apologizes” hashtag (#ck道歉#), 15 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jelly Lin, Calvin Klein’s brand ambassador for the Asia-Pacific region, announced an immediate termination of collaboration with the American fashion house. The hashtag for this event (#林允终止与CK合作#) received no less than 510 million views. Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang), a Chinese member of K-pop group Exo and a Calvin Klein model, warned the US clothing company to respect Beijing’s “one China” policy but did not stop working the brand (he did terminate collaborations with Samsung, also in this list).

 

● COACH 蔻驰

American luxury accessories company 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/coachchina (4+ million fans)

Hashtag:
“Coach Lists HK, Macau, Taiwan as Countries” (#蔻驰将港澳台列为国家#): 6 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Less than 24 hours after Versace’s apology, Coach was among the second batch of brands, along with Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh, to be exposed online for erroneous geographic listings. Coach got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan,’ while Shanghai and Beijing are listed under China.

The tshirt that got Coach into trouble.

The brand was also found to have listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent countries under its website’s  “search country” option.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Coach apologizes” hashtag (#蔻驰道歉#), 300 million views on Weibo.

Consequences:
Coach’s China ambassador, supermodel Liu Wen, said on Weibo on Monday that she had cut off her endorsement deal with the fashion label (#刘雯终止与蔻驰合作#, 6 million views) as the brand “seriously impacted the national sentiment of the Chinese people.” State media outlet Global Times suggested the brand faced “potential boycott in China.”

 

● FRESH 馥蕾诗

American beauty brand 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/freshbeauty (339,500 milion fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this incident.

What’s the problem?:
Fresh faced backlash for listing ‘Hong Kong’ as a separate region on its official (English) website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Fresh apologizes” hashtag (#fresh道歉#,) 8 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
No known direct consequences.

 

● GIVENCHY 纪梵希

French luxury fashion and perfume house

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/officialgivenchy (1.5 milion fans)

Hashtag:
The topic ‘Givenchy T-Shirt’ (#纪梵希t恤#) became big on Weibo. The hashtag page has over 500 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Like Coach, Givenchy also got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan.’

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Givenchy apologizes” hashtag (#纪梵希道歉#,) 290 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese singer Jackson Yee terminated his brand partnerships with Givenchy (#易烊千玺与纪梵希解约# 680 million views).

 

● POCARI SWEAT 宝矿力水特

Japanese sport’s drink

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/pocarisweat (15400 fans)

Hashtag:
“Pocari Sweat Get Out of China”(#宝矿力水特滚出中国#) is one of the early hashtags associated with the Pocari controversy. With just over 300,000 views, it did not gain huge traction on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Pocari Sweat is among the earliest brands – if not the earliest- to be caught up in the brand controversy relating to the protests in Hong Kong. As described by Japan Times, pro-democracy demonstrators praised Pocari after it pulled advertising from Hong Kong television station TVB, which protesters accuse of pro-Beijing coverage. Pocari became a popular drink among Hong Kong protesters.

Apology?:
The mainland China office of the brand issued two apology statements on July 11 and 21 in which it emphasized that it operates separately from the Hong Kong division and that it respects China’s “one country, two systems” policy.

Consequence:
Pocari Sweat was condemned by Chinese state media, but it is not clear if people in mainland China are drinking less Pocari because of the issue.

 

● VALENTINO 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
www.weibo.com/valentinoofficial (413,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
No particular hashtag.

What’s the problem?:
Valentino listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries in the region/language menu on its foreign website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 13, in which Valentino apologizes for making “a mistake” on its website. The website has since been changed.

Consequence:
No known consequences, the website seemed to be quickly adjusted, and many netizens expressed their praise for that and for the fact that the recent trend seems to make foreign brands more aware of the importance of respecting the One-China Policy.

 

● VERSACE 范思哲 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/versacechina (850,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“Versace Suspected of [Supporting] Hong Kong and Macau Independence” (#范思哲涉嫌港独澳独#): 3.2 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Versace is the first brand to be targeted in this week’s brand-hunting trend. An image of a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries was first posted on Weibo by a female netizen on August 8, who wrote: “I discovered this recently, and wondered if the design of this t-shirt means that Versace is supporting Hong Kong independence?” Three days later, the image had circulated so much that it became a trending topic. Commenters called out the brand for being “two-faced” and for profiting from Chinese money while disregarding Chinese sovereignty.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 11, followed by “Versace apologizes” hashtag (#范思哲道歉#,) 860 million views on Weibo. In its statement, Versace stated that the t-shirts had already been recalled and destroyed in late July, and that the fashion house “deeply apologized for the controversy” that was caused by an “error in its t-shirt design.” Versace further stated that the brand “loves China” and “resolutely respects China’s territorial sovereignty.”

Donatella Versace, the designer and chief creative officer of Versace, also issued a personal apology through Instagram, writing: “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 may have caused.”

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity Yang Mi ended her relationship with Versace. The announcement received a lot of attention on Chinese social media (#杨幂终止与Versace合作# 1.1 billion views).

 

● SWAROVSKI 施华洛世奇

Austrian jewelry company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/swarovskicom (500,00+ fans)

Hashtag:
Swarovski, together with Calvin Klein, was one of the brands that popped up in the general ‘luxury brand scandal’ after the Versace controversy had snowballed and had moved to Coach, Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh. The Swarovski issue was exposed just a bit later and had no separate hashtag on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Swarovski went trending on Chinese social media for classifying Hong Kong as a country on its website.

Apology?
Swarovski issued an apology statement on August 13. The hashtag “Swarovski Apologizes” received over 750 million views on Weibo (#施华洛世奇道歉#).

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jiang Shuying, also known as Maggie Jiang, announced on Tuesday (August 13) that she would be ending her cooperation with Swarovski (#江疏影与施华洛世奇解约#, 410 million views).

 

CURRENTLY UNDER SCRUTINY BUT NO APOLOGIES:

 

● AMAZON 亚马逊

American e-commerce company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/amazonchina (4.4 million fans)

Hashtag:
“Amazon T-shirts” (#亚马逊t恤#), 140 million views; “Amazon Sells Hong Kong Independence Shirts” (#亚马逊售卖港独T恤#), 18 million views.

What’s the problem?
Amazon is one of the latest brands to be added to the virtual PRC wall of shame of international brands going against Beijing’s “One China” principle. On August 14, screenshots of the Amazon e-commerce platform selling t-shirts promoting an independent Hong Kong and displaying anti-China slogans went viral on Weibo.

Reaction
Amazon did not apologize for the merchandise sold on its platforms, but the company did respond to ChinaNews (#亚马逊回应T恤事件#), emphasizing that Amazon always has and will respect China’s one-China principle, and abide by local laws of the countries Amazon is active in. There were also netizens on Weibo saying they understood that Amazon cannot be responsible for all the merchandise sold by its online shops around the world.

 

● SAMSUNG 三星 

South Korean Tech Company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/samsung (2.8+ million fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this issue, although the announcement that Zhang Yixing would terminate his contract with Samsung did receive over 980 million views, making it one of the bigger hashtags in this brand scandal.

What’s the problem?:
Samsung faced criticism on August 14 for damaging China’s “territorial integrity” by displaying choices Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan as “countries” on its website.

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity and K-Pop star Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang) announced on August 13 that he would no longer work together with Samsung as a brand ambassador for “hurting the national feelings of Chinese compatriots” (#张艺兴与三星解约#, 980 million views!).

 

By Manya Koetse

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