SHANGHAI, China (AFP) — Tiffany & Co. have removed a tweet showing a woman covering one eye after Chinese consumers accused the jeweler of supporting the Hong Kong protesters.
The photo posted on Monday showed Chinese model Sun Feifei wearing a Tiffany ring on her right hand as it covers her right eye.
Angry Chinese buyers believed it was a deliberate echo of the pose adopted by Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators to denounce police violence in the semi-autonomous city.
Hong Kong protesters — who have rallied for months against Beijing's authoritarianism — adopted the pose obscuring one eye after the first of two women received eye injuries during violent clashes with police.
But Tiffany's spokesman said the image was created in May — before the protests erupted — and "in no way intended to be a political statement of any kind.”
"We regret that it may be perceived as such, and in turn have removed the image from our digital and social media channels and will discontinue its use effective immediately.”
The reaction of Tiffany’s echoes those of many Western brands to face recent pressure from China, eager to keep their footing in China's huge — and fiercely nationalistic — consumer market.
The incident comes as the NBA and its Houston Rockets franchise are facing fierce criticism and financial punishment in China over a tweet supporting Hong Kong's democracy protesters.
Both the league and the team have scrambled to apologize over the tweet by Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey, as calls for a boycott gather steam in one of the NBA's most lucrative markets.
But the apologies have sparked derision in the United States, where critics said the league was sacrificing morals for money.
Bucking the trend of other U.S. brands, "South Park” Trey Parker and Matt Stone issued a mock apology to China after censors scrubbed their popular animation from the Chinese web.
"Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” a Twitter account for the cartoon posted in a statement late Monday.
"We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all," the statement continues, a reference to banned memes comparing Chinese President Xi Jinping with AA Milne's portly bear.
"Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn's sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?" the statement concludes.
On Tuesday, searches for "South Park" on China's Twitter-like social media platform Weibo and popular film review site Douban did not return any results. And while information on South Park was still available on a few video streaming sites, episodes could not be played.
The development follows Parker and Stone’s airing of an episode called "Band in China,” which depicts forced labour at a Chinese prison and parodies companies that cave-in to censorship for commercial gain.
"I can't sell my soul like this," says one character, who was under pressure from Chinese censors to rewrite his music.
"It's not worth living in a world where China controls my country's art," he added.
As well as any indication of support for protests in Hong Kong, common crimes include labelling Taiwan as a separate country — China believes it is a renegade province — or discussing Xinjiang, where rights groups say a million mostly-Muslim minorities are being held in prison camps.
Companies ranging from airlines to fashion houses have issued fulsome apologies, often after being charged with "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Such was the case with Tiffany’s.
"I used to be your hardcore fan, but now I'm a Chinese first and foremost. I love my country and I won't allow her to receive any defamation or violation," one person posted on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo.
"Whoever buys their products is blind," another post read.
The jeweler’s campaign had also included model Carolyn Murphy covering her right eye with one of Tiffany's distinctive blue jewelry boxes.
Tiffany's CEO Alessandro Bogliolo said in August that continuous business disruptions in Hong Kong had impacted the company, estimating six full selling days were lost due to unplanned store closures during the second quarter of this year.
Bogliolo said the city was the brand's fourth-largest market by sales — after the U.S., Japan and mainland China.
New York-based Tiffany opened its largest-ever product exhibition in Shanghai in September, a move it hoped would attract young Chinese customers.
The company's sales grew more than 25% in mainland China between March and June — a stark contrast to a three-percent drop in the company's global turnover in the same period.
Tiffany has 35 shops in mainland China, and plans to open branches of its Blue Box Cafe in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
© Agence France-Presse