Actor and wrestler John Cena has apologized on Chinese social media for calling self-ruled Taiwan a country while promoting Fast & Furious 9, underscoring the pressure on Hollywood to please Beijing or risk losing the world’s biggest film market.
In the promotional clip, the WWE star said that Taiwan is “the first country that can watch F9.” The phrasing triggered an immediate backlash in China after it was shared on the microblogging site Weibo.
Beijing claims the self-governed Taiwan as part of its own territory, and Chinese nationalists have threatened to boycott foreign companies and celebrities who failed to recognize the island as part of China.
Cena has followed up with an apology to his Chinese audience, which like the promotional clip was also delivered in Mandarin, a language he has been learning for a decade.
“I made a mistake,” Cena said in a video posted on his own Weibo account on Tuesday, after introducing himself with his Chinese name Zhao Xina. “I must say, right now, it’s very, very, very, very, very important. I love and respect China and the Chinese people.”
“I’m very, very sorry about my mistake,” he continued. “Sorry, sorry, I’m very sorry. You have to understand that I love and respect China and the Chinese people very much. Sorry, goodbye.”
In the United States, the apology was mocked and seen as Hollywood’s latest attempt to secure access to the largest film market by strictly toeing the Communist Party’s line. But in China, many commentators thought Cena didn’t go far enough.
While some fans said Cena was a sincere friend to China, others pointed out that Cena had not taken a stance on whether Taiwan is an independent country or not. They speculated the star had avoided mentioning what he was apologizing for in order to please viewers in both mainland China and Taiwan.
“Please say in Chinese ‘Taiwan is a part of China,’ otherwise we will not accept,” says the most liked comment under Cena’s post, which was liked more than 8,000 times.
“The whole thing is about dodging the question, full of rubbish,” another top-voted comment says. The author added three “puke” emojis.
Hollywood has been trying to please the Chinese government and viewers by censoring subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing and incorporating Chinese elements into the films. But it still gets into controversies.
Last year, China banned media coverage of Disney’s Mulan after the film was criticized overseas for being filmed partly in Xinjiang, where Beijing has sought to forcefully assimilate Muslim minorities. Coverage of Chloé Zhao’s historical Oscar win last month was censored in China after the director’s citizenship became a subject of debate in China.
Chinese movie-goers have been big consumers for Hollywood blockbusters. But in recent years, with rising nationalism and an expanding domestic film industry, many have shown a stronger preference for Chinese films that are found to be more relatable.
Fast & Furious 9 has raked in more than $1 billion Chinese yuan ($157 million) in box office revenues since it was released in mainland China on Friday, according to film data platform Maoyan, although it has received a poor rating of 5.5 out of 10 on review site Douban.
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