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Nike’s new unofficial China sponsor: Bo Xilai

In this photo released by the Jinan Intermediate People's Court, Bo Xilai, center, who was tried last month on charges of taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power, stands inside the court in Jinan, in eastern China's Shandong province, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. The Chinese court convicted the fallen politician of corruption and sentenced him to life in prison. (AP Photo/Jinan Intermediate People's Court
AP Photo/Jinan Intermediate People's Court
Standing trial in style.
By Gwynn Guilford
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What do basketball star Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai have in common? They’re both the face of Nike in China.

That’s the upshot of Bo’s footwear choice for his sentencing on Sunday, which wrapped up what was perhaps the most high-profile court case in China’s history. Internet users noticed that the former Communist party chief of Chongqing, who was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, sported a pair of black sneakers (link in Chinese) with chunky white trim along the bottom (the image above is the one widely circulated in the Chinese media).

Internet users eventually determined that Bo’s shoes were none other than the 2011 limited edition Nike Footscape Woven Chukka Freemotion 3HC (link in Chinese; registration required), a favorite among Hong Kong luminaries like the actor and businessman Edison Chen.

Ordinarily, it probably wouldn’t be a good thing to be associated with a bribe-taking fallen bureaucrat—particularly one famed for owning a French villa and having a Porsche-driving son (paywall). The sneakers in question aren’t cheap, reportedly retailing for 1,199 yuan ($196).

But though some users ridiculed Bo for wearing such lavish kicks, the online consensus was that even though he’s headed to prison for life, at least he is still looking sharp (links in Chinese). “Nike rakes in some free advertising!” declared others. And indeed, the surge of inquiries about the Nikes “is expected to set off a wave of sales on Taobao [China’s massive online marketplace],” as one Chinese newspaper reported (link in Chinese).

Frankly, Nike needs all the help it can get. Just 20 months ago, it projected that China sales, which contribute about 10% of its revenue (pdf, p.7), would double within four years, hitting $4 billion. But its prospects have since faded; when it announces earnings tomorrow, it will likely reveal the fourth quarter in a row of falling sales in Greater China. If it somehow avoids racking up a fifth, perhaps Nike will have Bo to thank for reigniting the Chukka trend in China.

Of course, Bo’s association with the brand means Chinese government officials will now have to steer clear of Nikes for a while. Fortunately for Nike, it’s never been a Communist party favorite. On the single widely known occasion that a Chinese official was seen in sports shoes, it was a pair of grey New Balances.

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