Versace in trouble for tops implying Hong Kong is not part of China, brand ambassador Yang Mi ‘outraged’

He Huifeng

Italian fashion brand Versace apologised to its Chinese customers on Sunday for producing a range of tops that suggested Hong Kong and Macau were separate countries.

In a Chinese-language statement published on the social media network Weibo, Versace said it had made a mistake in the design and would destroy the offending clothing.

However the brand’s ambassador in China, the actress Yang Mi, said she would end her association with Versace because “as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China” she was “extremely outraged” by the design.

Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily weighed in on Sunday with an opinion piece saying that “the whole matter shouldn’t be over [with the apology]” because Versace’s mistake was grave and came at a critical time when Beijing was fighting against “Hong Kong independence”.

In the current context when … those who support Hong Kong independence are creating trouble wilfully … a global brand like Versace has made a problematic T-shirt that calls Hong Kong a country. Is it really an accident?

People’s Daily

“In the current context when … those who support Hong Kong independence are creating trouble wilfully … a global brand like Versace has made a problematic T-shirt that calls Hong Kong a country. Is it really an accident?” the opinion piece read.

The T-shirts and hoodies, which had a price tag starting at US$380, featured a list of famous cities and the countries they can be found in, for instance “Milan – ITALY” or “New York – USA”.

But while it included both Beijing and Shanghai as part of China, the two former colonies were listed as separate territories: “Hong Kong – HONG KONG” and “Macau – MACAO”.

Images of the shirt started circulating on Chinese social media amid claims that the fashion chain was undermining China’s sovereignty over the two special administrative regions.

Versace said it had taken the range off the shelves. Photo: Weibo

The incident comes at a sensitive time with China’s official media painting the ongoing protests in Hong Kong as a violent attempt to seek independence and undermine the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

“Versace suspected of supporting Hong Kong and Macau secession” became a trending hashtag on Weibo, attracting more than 400 million views by Sunday afternoon, and the claims were amplified and promoted by state media.

In its “profound apology”, Versace, which is now owned by Capri holdings, said it had taken the product off the shelves and destroyed all stocks.

It said it accepted that the design did not correctly reflect the two cities’ status, adding: “We love China and resolutely respect China’s territory sovereignty.”

The apology failed to impress Chinese internet users. Many questioned why Versace did not issue an apology on other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Versace is the latest of a growing list of foreign brands that have been attacked in China for perceived slights to its culture or national sovereignty.

Dolce & Gabbana faced an angry backlash last year over a video that showed a Chinese model struggling to use chopsticks. Calls for a boycott intensified after a social media message from one of its founders insulting China was leaked.

Other companies have been criticised by nationalists for not reflecting the official view as to what constitutes Chinese sovereign territory.

In May last year the US retailer Gap apologised for selling T-shirts with an “incorrect map” of China that did not include Taiwan and parts of the South China Sea.

Marriott Hotels also faced a social media uproar that year for listing Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as separate territories. The Chinese government shut down its local website and Marriott was forced to change its hotel listings in Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” – which in turn led to complaints in Taiwan.

Beijing also ordered dozens of international air carriers to change their websites to ensure Taiwan was listed as part of China – a decision that the White House described as “Orwellian nonsense”. Most of the airlines changed their websites as requested, but United Airlines found an usual way to get round this by listing destinations according to the local currency – a move that differentiated Taiwan and Hong Kong from the Chinese mainland.

The People’s Daily opinion piece on Sunday also suggested that some multinational companies were deliberately challenging Beijing’s claims and sovereignty.

“Why are some multinationals making noises about China’s sovereignty? Maybe it’s because of ignorance and neglect, but maybe some are trying to test [China’s reaction] or even deliberately making trouble,” it said.

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