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Messi vs China’s consumer nationalism

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The legendary soccer player Lionel Messi has fallen from grace in China after not playing in a friendly match between US team Inter Miami and Hong Kong on 4 February 2024.

Inter Miami manager Gerardo Martino claimed that Messi’s absence was due to a hamstring injury. But Messi neither explained his no-show nor interacted with fans in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government and politicians immediately weighed in and demanded answers from the event organiser, Tatler Asia.

Tensions escalated when Messi played in a Japan friendly three days later. Unexpectedly, the epicentre of the controversy shifted from Hong Kong to mainland China, with criticism of Messi exploding on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Disappointment and anger from spectators in Hong Kong was understandable. But it is puzzling that Chinese actors who were not direct stakeholders reacted so fiercely to the incident.

Messi has since apologised twice on Weibo. The messages were translated into simplified Chinese and were primarily directed at a mainland Chinese audience, instead of Hong Kong fans. The highly politicised case demonstrates how the Chinese market is influencing foreign actors.

Hong Kong fans largely regarded Messi’s no-show as a consumer dispute. Spectators who paid 880–4880 Hong Kong dollars (US$112–624) for their tickets asked for refunds and criticised Tatler’s misleading marketing. About 1300 complaints were filed with the Consumer Council. But the controversy was allayed in Hong Kong after Tatler announced a 50 per cent refund on tickets.

In contrast, Chinese state media and netizens characterised the incident as a political issue and the backlash in China was amplified by state media. An editorial in the Global Times speculated about ulterior motives behind Messi’s absence. Hong Kong-based state-owned outlet Ta Kung Pao even linked the incident to the US Central Intelligence Agency, reporting that the late father of Jorge Mas, Inter Miami’s co-owner, was trained by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. This narrative was repeated in China Daily.

Meanwhile, anti-Messi sentiments went viral, with one hashtag attracting 360 million views within a week on Weibo. Social media in China enables netizens to express their opinions, but online narratives are often guided and censored by the state. Nationalistic opinions that do not align with the state’s policy preferences are cracked down upon or defused. For instance, Global Times defended Nongfu Spring when the brand was attacked by nationalists over alleged Japanese-inspired packaging.

Netizens turned on Messi and demanded that Chinese sponsors sever ties with him. The football star is a spokesperson for several Chinese brands, including Huawei, Tencent, Mengniu Dairy and Chishui River Wine and J&T Express. Not only was Messi rebuffed by China, but Argentina’s national team also became a target. Two friendly matches against Argentina were called off by Chinese sporting authorities.

The Messi incident depicts China’s growing consumer nationalism. The rising power’s quest for great power status and its intention to impose Chinese norms on foreign entities explain the state’s manipulation of consumer nationalism. The Chinese Foreign Ministry often slams entities for reaping benefits from China while undermining the country’s core interests. Businesses or individuals who are deemed to be acting against Chinese interests often encounter consumer nationalism.

In China, consumer nationalism is both a form of political consumerism and a tool of economic statecraft. Nationalist consumers, encouraged by state media, seek to punish businesses or individuals deemed to be contradicting the authoritarian state’s political values or harming its preferred international image.

Dissatisfied by its international status, China is sensitive to differential treatment. Chinese state media and netizens characterised Messi’s absence in Hong Kong as a deliberate snub of China. Multinational corporations’ differential treatment also often triggers outcry. Companies like Magnum and Foshan Haitian have been condemned for capitalising on China’s lax food safety regulations by using different ingredients for domestic and overseas products. Fashion and cosmetics companies featuring small eyed or freckle-faced East Asian female models in commercials have also been criticised by Chinese state media and netizens.

Before the Messi incident, many other celebrities had been rebuffed for their opinions and actions outside China. China has become more assertive in international politics and frequently weaponises its domestic market to promote its values. Its 1.4 billion consumer market gives it influence over companies and individuals. Entities with business ties with China are expected to comply with the country’s values even in their overseas operations.

Richard Gere, Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez were banned by China for meeting with the Dalai Lama. Former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom’s team was banned by China for his concerns about human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang. Cathay Pacific, Mercedes-Benz, H&M and many other companies have been targeted by consumer nationalism after being accused of being sympathetic to activists in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.

China is undoubtedly a lucrative market and consumer nationalism makes the country’s values travel globally. Some companies have become more vigilant in their operations in China, while others have attempted to diversify their overseas market. It is reasonable to believe that companies that are more dependent on the Chinese market will be more likely to comply with Chinese values and expectations.

Debby Chan is Lecturer in the Australian Centre on China in the World and Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. Her research concerns social responses to China’s economic statecraft.

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The post Messi vs China’s consumer nationalism first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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