The face of global luxury brands in China is at the heart of a #MeToo storm

Brands are increasingly caught up in China’s gender rights awakening.
Brands are increasingly caught up in China’s gender rights awakening.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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The #MeToo movement has waxed and waned in China, where online discussion about allegations against public figures is allowed but also frequently censored. Now, a Chinese woman’s allegations that an A-list star engaged in predatory sexual behavior has sparked an outpouring of support for her, and calls for the luxury world to distance itself from the man in question.

Canadian-Chinese pop star Wu Yifan, who goes by Kris Wu, is a former member of the South Korean boy band EXO who has become one of the most popular brand ambassadors in China for global fashion houses from Louis Vuitton to Bvlgari.

In an interview with Chinese news portal Netease published yesterday, Du Meizhu, 18, detailed a number of allegations against Wu, and said she was seeking justice for eight victims, including herself and two minors. Chinese law stipulates people under 18 are minors, while the age of consent is 14.

Du told the outlet that in her case, she was told by Wu’s agent that she would be sent for an interview, but was actually sent to Wu’s flat, where Wu and some of his staff were also there. Du said she was stopped from leaving and threatened with the consequences of offending Wu, a household name in the country. After that, she said, Wu and several others pushed her to drink, and she eventually woke up in Wu’s bed.

Du also described alleged incidents involving other women, saying that they had contacted her after she made allegations against Wu in a social media post earlier this month. In the interview, she demanded that Wu issue a hand-written apology to his alleged victims and asked him to quit China’s entertainment industry.

In a Weibo post today, Wu denied all the allegations, and said he had only met Du once, at a friends’ party last year. He added that he “takes full legal responsibility” for his statement, and that he would have sent himself to jail if he had done any of the things he is accused of. In a separate statement, representatives for Wu said that Du had fabricated the facts, and that they have filed a police complaint and initiated legal proceedings against Du on those grounds. Wu’s team didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

The Netease interview with Du followed a post on her Weibo account on July 8, in which she first detailed allegations that Wu had dangled lucrative promises, such auditioning for one of his music videos or a possible contract with his studio, to lure women into meeting up and later coercing them into sex with him.

While Du’s allegations await further investigation, the Chinese internet has quickly and overwhelmingly come out on the side of Du. Ten of thousands of angry comments have flooded the Weibo pages of brands including Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari, and Lancôme, which have had partnerships with Wu or used him as a brand ambassador. They called on brands to immediately terminate their contracts with Wu and said only by doing so could the brands restore reputations that have been stained by Wu’s scandal.

“Because of such an ambassador, the public is very disappointed with the company, we are not sure where is the brand’s spirit?” a comment read under Bvlgari’s most recent Weibo post, while the top comment under Louis Vuitton’s most recent post on the platform questioned whether the brand would like to use a “rapist” as its ambassador, receiving over 100,000 “likes.” Porsche has announced that it is terminating its contract with Wu, but posts showing Wu promoting other luxury brands’ products could still be found on the companies’ Weibo pages at the time of reporting.

Quartz has reached out to Louis Vuitton, Lancôme and parent L’Oréal, and Bvlgari, which are yet to issue public statements on the evolving #MeToo storm against Wu.

Meanwhile, nine other brands have announced their termination of contracts with Wu as of press, including Chinese cosmetics maker Kans, whose sales reportedly surged after it became one of the first companies to make the move. Tencent Video and German tissue brand Tempo are among the companies that have ended their collaboration with Wu.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement that began with the New York Times’s account sexual assault allegations against former Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, it has become increasingly common for brands to move quickly to cut off ties with celebrities who face such allegations. For example, Netflix dropped Kevin Spacey’s role in the final season of House of Cards after the megastar faced a series of sexual assault allegations. Spacey has said he didn’t remember some of the behavior he was accused of, and said such actions would have been “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”

Global brands have long understood the need to toe the Communist Party’s political line, which includes not referring to Taiwan as separate from China, or avoiding making any statements on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. But when it comes to #MeToo and women’s rights in China, brands may be navigating uncharted terrain on how to do the right thing without accidentally stepping on a political landmine. After all, China has clamped down on feminist activists as part of a larger crackdown on dissent, and platforms have closed feminist social media accounts, while at the same time the government has made it possible for the first time for women to bring civil sexual harassment claims to court.  Starved of other channels of action, feminists are increasingly active online—and so are male opponents—and companies seem uncertain what to do.

Intel, for example, appeared to nod at the country’s feminist movement when it featured stand-up comedian Yang Li, known for her riffs mocking Chinese men, in an ad in March. But then it pulled the ad when it faced a huge backlash from male commentators who were angry about Yang’s jokes—and faced criticism from women instead.

In Wu’s case, his nationality further complicates the matter at a time when tensions between Canada and China are high. After the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Vancouver in 2018, China detained two Canadians and tried them for spying. Du has asked Wu to “leave China immediately,” a talking point that has been enthusiastically echoed by China’s increasingly nationalist internet.

“You don’t deserve to be on this soil, go back to where you came from, you Canadian. Remember to also get the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine you injected out before you leave, you don’t deserve the jab,” Du wrote in a post on Weibo yesterday.

Correction: a previous version of this story stated Du Meizhu’s age as 19. She is 18.