Chinese model Liu Wen recently made a major, but nonetheless strange, internet “misstep.” She posted on Instagram a photo of herself with Wendi Deng, a media personality, businesswoman, and ex-wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, standing in front of a kumquat tree with the caption “Happy Lunar New Year.” The photo flooded with comments criticizing her for “disrespecting China” or attempting to “pander” to other Asian nations. She eventually changed the caption to “Happy Chinese New Year.”

Chinese model Liu Wen was criticized by some Chinese netizens for using “Lunar New Year” instead of “Chinese New Year” on Instagram

Ostensibly, Liu Wen was not wrong. The term “Chinese New Year” is not, for the most part, the correct nomenclature for the holiday. While the holiday is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, it is celebrated throughout East Asia, including South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam among other countries.

It is often called Chinese New Year in the Western World because in many communities the largest and most prominent celebrations of the holiday are by ethnic Chinese locals. Even in Chinese, the name of the holiday, chunjie (春节) translates as “Spring Festival.”

It’s only in foreign languages that the holiday is referred to as Chinese New Year. Given that the audience for Liu Wen’s post was international, calling the holiday “Lunar New Year” was seemingly more appropriate given that it is celebrated internationally by both Chinese and non-Chinese cultures, although practices associated with the festival can differ dramatically in different countries.

Even in Chinese state media, the holiday is usually called the “Lunar New Year.” In short, there’s nothing controversial in referring to the holiday in these terms as Liu Wen did.

Finally, the post was made in English on Instagram, which is unavailable in China without a VPN. This post was geared as a marketing effort towards an international audience. All of this illustrates the ongoing challenges for brands and tourism stakeholders marketing to a Chinese or Asian audience.

In this case, it seems the internationally-oriented nature of the post is what drew the ire of some Chinese users online. The international, online presence of one of China’s most prominent models not being “sufficiently Chinese” seems to be what has caused Liu Wen problems.

Of course, it’s important to note that many users defended Liu Wen’s original post. Moreover, as noted previously, users pointed out that the holiday is often referred to colloquially by several names both within and outside of China.

The outrage for Liu Wen’s posts seems to be coming from a small cadre of very vocal, nationalist internet users

However, there has always been a relatively small cadre of nationalist Chinese netizens that police the internet for what they determine to be “anti-Chinese” messages on news sites and social media platforms that are blocked in China. Many of these commentators are paid by state bodies to influence global discourse and promote Chinese nationalist messages. They are often labeled the “50 Cent Party.”

Generally, marketing material is geared to be as non-political as possible. There are of course exceptions to this rule, with firms appropriating political messages to better appeal to a certain demographic of consumers.

The issue that brands and tourism stakeholders face in marketing in the internet age is that what isn’t political outside of China, is just the opposite for many Chinese internet users. For example, in the West the Dalai Lama is generally connected to a vague sense of East Asian spirituality and his message has reached a vast Western audience through books like The Art of Happiness. In short, he’s largely a non-political figure for most Westerners.

Western firms like Mercedes Benz and Marriott have come under fire recently for inadvertently making politically controversial “statement” in international, online promotional materials and websites

This is, of course, the exact opposite in China, something that Mercedes Benz was reminded of recently when it posted an image on its Instagram account containing a quote from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, of course, is heavily associated with the Tibetan independence movement.

Marriott was another company that landed in hot water recently because of the behavior of one of its Twitter accounts and the inclusion of Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as “countries” in a drop-down menu.

Of course, avoiding politically controversial subjects like Tibet or the Dalai Lama is an obvious minefield that firms interested in catering to Chinese consumers should avoid, even in English on sites unavailable in China. Moreover, while the Chinese government doesn’t allow these sites to be available in China, it still expects firms catering to Chinese users to keep in line with the government’s stances on a range of political issues. So much so that after the Marriott incident, several Chinese state bodies have pledged to police the online content of foreign firms.

The Liu Wen incident is yet another reminder of how online marketing behavior outside of China is policed by Chinese nationalists and how quickly things can shift from non-political to political within the Chinese context.

Photo: Trip.com

The Liu Wen incident raises the question of whether or not English-language terms like “Lunar New Year” or even “Spring Festival” may become increasingly controversial. Marketing travel packages or destinations to Asian consumers for the Lunar New Year is an increasingly popular practice by tourism stakeholders. Within China, the Lunar New Year/Spring Festival is one of the biggest travel seasons of the year.

Ctrip-owned Trip.com, for example, offered promotions on its WeChat account for the Lunar New Year. Trip.com primarily markets its travel offerings to non-Chinese travelers and its ads, and the website itself, are in English. For non-Chinese travelers from other Asian markets, the holiday isn’t solely a Chinese affair. Referring to it as Lunar New Year will likely result in a more effective pitch for these tourists.

Regardless of whether or not the term “Lunar New Year” will ever be a universally controversial term, this is yet another reminder that brands and tourism stakeholders need to keep a keen eye on their messages on international sites and how the reception to those messages can change rapidly.

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