Last Thursday, we gave you a horological heads-up on the potential impact of China’s crackdown on “effeminate” celebrities. Chinese Luxury Watch Ban Update highlighted Audemars Piguet ambassador Lu Han, suggesting that the relationship with the fresh-faced singer was headed south. Well that didn’t take long . . .
On Monday, newschainonline.com reported that Mr. Han terminated his lucrative sponsorship deal with AP. Reading between the lines, it doesn’t look like Lu Han had much of a choice.
Chinese singer and actor Lu Han, a former member of popular K-pop boy band Exo, said he would cut ties with Swiss luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet after its chief executive referred to Taiwan as a country in an interview.
Yup. AP CEO François-Henry Bennahmias dared to call the island nation of Taiwan a country. To understand the seriousness of this slip, you need a bit of context . . .
The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan nothing more and nothing less than a breakaway province. For decades, the PRC has officially, publicly and unequivocally claimed sovereignty over the world’s most densely populated country.
In 2018, China started “encouraging” international companies to list Taiwan as a part of China on their websites. Companies whose sites implied that Taiwan was a separate entity would be banned from doing business on the mainland.
The Chinese market accounts for half of all Swiss watch sales. Audemars Piguet is a Swiss watch brand. So you’d think chief executive François-Henry Bennahmias would pay homage to – or at least stay stum about – the Party’s “One-China” policy. Nope. Mr. B’s loose lips sank the Han ship. businessoffashion.com:
Lu Han is one of China’s most in-demand celebrity ambassadors, working with brands including Cartier, Gucci and (as of last month) Boucheron. He has been an ambassador for Audemars Piguet since 2018, but said in yesterday’s statement he had decided to end the relationship because “improper comments made by the Audemars Piguet brand seriously violate the one-China principle.”
Chinese netizens had been calling on Lu Han to cut ties with Audemars Piguet following the resurfacing of an interview in which the company’s chief executive, François-Henry Bennahmias, refers to Taiwan as “an ultra-modern, high-tech country.”
Though the original source was not widely shared on Weibo along with the complaints about its content, it likely comes from an article published in Watchonista in May 2020, which features this exact line from Bennahmias as he recounts a speech he had given to students in Taiwan.
Reading his interview with watchonista.com, it’s clear Mr. Bennahmias wasn’t trying to antagonize China. Or defend Taiwan’s democracy. It was a simple hat tip to Taiwan – home to three AP mono-brand boutiques.
Two days after Lu Hun cut his/her/its/their ties with AP, the watchmaker issued an apology on China’s Weibo platform: “We apologize for the recent incorrect statement. Audemars Piguet has always adhered to the one-China position and firmly safeguarded China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
I wonder how that “safeguarding the People’s Republic of China” thing works. Black Panther watches for party leaders? Swiss style money laundering? Anyway, Mr. Bennahmias‘ apology wasn’t enough . . .
Part of the statement issued by Lu Han’s studio announcing the split said that his team had urged Audemars Piguet to apologize on its global platforms in both Chinese an English and they were unsatisfied with the local apology, issued only in Chinese.
Did AP balk at apologizing in English to avoid offending Taiwanese watch buyers or, for that matter, freedom-loving horophiles worldwide? Maybe. Maybe not. AP’s PR peeps probably reckoned the Lu Han horse had bolted. Besides, his days as a “girly boy” celeb are numbered. Unless Mr. Han’s boss – The Communist Party – demands an English mea culpa, why add fuel to the pyre?
I’m sure Mr. Bennahmias got the memo: don’t say anything to offend China’s Communist rulers. A lesson a gaggle of international sportswear and clothing companies learned the hard way.
In March, over 30 Chinese celebrities cut ties with brands such as Nike, H&M and Adidas after state media criticized the brands for expressing concerns over the use of Xinjiang cotton following complaints of abuse and discrimination against ethnic minorities in the region.
More than one million members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been confined to detention camps in Xinjiang, according to foreign governments and researchers.
To punish the “Just Do It” brand for speaking up for Uyghurs, Chinese consumers launched a spontaneous boycott. [/sarc] Nike’s Chinese sales have tanked by nearly 40 percent.
No one expects Mr. Bennahmias to put human rights above profit (he is Swiss after all). But no matter what Audemars Piguet’s Marvelous chief executive says/doesn’t say about Chinese concentration camps, forced sterilizations, unsolicited organ donations and territorial ambitions, AP and its horological brethren are in the crosshairs.
Under the banner of “common prosperity,” The Communist Party is taking aim at wealthy Chinese. “We cannot let an unbridgeable gulf appear between the rich and the poor,” Xi told officials in January. How does a luxury watch “appear” to Party leaders looking to eliminate the gulf between wealthy Chinese and billions of impoverished subjects?
As we’ve said many times, culture eats strategy for lunch. If China’s absolute rulers turn Chinese culture against conspicuous consumption, Swiss watchmakers are f*cked. You heard it here first.