This innocent-looking t-shirt has become so controversial in China that Versace, the company that made it, has today apologized for it publicly, stopped selling the shirt, and destroyed all of the ones it hadn’t sold. It is far from the first such apology by a major brand to China, as the list below demonstrates.
In Versace’s case the issue, as those red lines and question marks indicate, is how the shirt appears to define what is and is not part of China. And that is something both the country’s leadership and its nationalist social-media factions are extremely sensitive about.
The shirt, these groups say, incorrectly suggests that Hong Kong belongs to the country of “Hong Kong” and Macau to the country of “Macao.” Both Hong Kong and Macau technically are part of China, but they are also what’s known as “Special Administrative Regions” and have a far higher degree of autonomy than other areas of China.
It has been enough to spin up widespread outrage in China, leading Versace’s Chinese brand ambassador, the actress Yang Mi, to end her cooperation with the company. “The motherland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacred and inviolable,” Yang’s studio said in a post on Weibo explaining the decision. This of course comes at a time when the people of Hong Kong have been taking to the streets to assert their dissatisfaction with China’s control over them.
It has also led Versace to join the ranks of prominent international companies that, in the past year or so, have felt the need to release groveling apologies to the government and people of China following similar controversies over Chinese “sovereignty.”
Usually the Chinese government forces these companies to issue such apologies, threatening to cut off access to the Chinese market if they refuse. The apologies are all strikingly similar.
What happened: The t-shirt above.
Its apology (link in Chinese): “In recent days Versace has seen widespread discussion of one of our t-shirts. We would like to express our deepest apologies for this incident. Our design incorrectly labeled the country names for some cities…This is our company’s mistake and we express our deepest apologies for any harm it may have caused. Versace affirms that we love China and resolutely respect the sovereignty of its territory.”
What happened: Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau were listed as separate countries in a customer survey.
Its apology: “Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China…we don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.”
What happened: Listed Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries on its website.
Its apology: “It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”
What happened: Listed Taiwan as a country on its website.
Its apology (link in Chinese): “Our company’s ‘JOIN LIFE’ collection website incorrectly referred to Taiwan as a ‘country.’ We express our sincerest apologies for this.”
What happened: Released a t-shirt with a map of China that did not include Taiwan in its territory.
Its apology: “Gap Inc. respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We’ve learned that a Gap brand T-shirt sold in some overseas markets failed to reflect the correct map of China in the design…We sincerely apologize for this unintentional error.”
What happened: A McDonald’s ad released in Taiwan included one shot of a student ID. The ID listed the student’s nationality as “Taiwan,” suggesting that Taiwan is a country.
Its apology: “The ad company did not carry out strict background checks on the film and this caused a misunderstanding that we deeply regret. We have always supported the one-China policy and continue to uphold Chinese territorial sovereignty.”