John Cena, the professional wrestler and star of F9, the newest installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, apologized to fans in China on Tuesday after referring to Taiwan as a country in a promotional interview.
Mr. Cena joined a long list of celebrities and corporations who have apologized profusely after taking a mistaken walk through China’s political minefields, and posted a video apology in Mandarin on Weibo, a Chinese social network.
Beijing views Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island, as a breakaway province and claims it is part of China. Calling it a country is often an insulting claim in China, where issues of sovereignty and territory are passionate subjects fueled by a strong sense of nationalism.
Mr. Cena apologized for a statement he made in an interview with Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS. In it he told the reporter in Mandarin: “Taiwan will be the first country to see the film”.
“I made a mistake,” said Mr Cena in his apology video. “Now I have to say one thing that is very, very, very important: I love and respect China and the Chinese.”
He continued, “I am very sorry for my mistakes. We are sorry. We are sorry. I’m really sorry. You have to understand that I love and respect China and the Chinese. “
Mr. Cena has studied Mandarin for years and is a regular contributor on Weibo, but many of his Chinese fans have not been quick to forgive.
“Please say ‘Taiwan is part of China’ in Chinese. Otherwise we will not accept your apology, ”replied one Weibo user in a comment that has been liked thousands of times.
Western companies and celebrities doing business in China – and this can be very big business, especially for the entertainment industry – are often forced to walk a political tightrope so as not to offend China’s sensibility. For many, this is achieved by staying away from politics as much as possible and staying away from questions about mass imprisonment in Xinjiang, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, or the status of Taiwan and Tibet.
The ramifications for those who try their hand at Chinese politics have been made clear. The NBA struggled to contain a violent backlash when Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests in 2019. (LeBron James, one of the biggest basketball stars, gave a China-friendly response that Mr. Morey “was not made aware of the current situation” by supporting the protesters.)
Film studios often preventively ensure that their content does not run counter to Chinese censorship, a practice that was once ridiculed by “South Park”.
But quite often the political problems arise in cases where a company seemed to have no idea that it accidentally crossed a line.
That list would include Gap, who in 2018 created a t-shirt that omitted Taiwan, parts of Tibet, and islands in the South China Sea from a map of China on the shirt’s design. Luxury brands Versace, Givenchy and Coach said in 2019 they all made mistakes creating t-shirts that identified Hong Kong and Macau as countries.
“Versace affirms that we love China very much and that we resolutely respect China’s territory and national sovereignty,” the company said in a statement at the time.
China ordered 36 airlines to remove references to Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong as separate countries from their websites in 2018, a move the Trump administration dismissed as “Orwellian nonsense.”
This year, Marriott made it clear on its Weibo account that it will “absolutely not support any separatist organization that undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” after a customer survey listed the territories as separate countries.
German automaker Daimler apologized in 2018 after the Mercedes-Benz Instagram account quoted the Dalai Lama, whom many in China consider a dangerous separatist who advocates Tibetan independence.
The release of “F9” was delayed by a year during the coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, tickets worth an estimated 162 million US dollars were sold in eight international markets including China and South Korea. As the latest in a hugely successful series, “F9” is viewed by Hollywood as a kind of blockbuster needed to get people back to theaters.
Amy Chang Chien reported from Taipei and Claire Fu from Beijing.