BEIJING (Reuters) – Those who insult Chinese people should pay the price in order to deter would-be offenders from following suit, Chinese state media said in a sharply worded commentary, after remarks by a UBS economist about pigs sparked an outcry in China.
Paul Donovan, global chief economist of UBS’s wealth management business, said in a podcast on Wednesday that consumer prices in China had risen after an outbreak of African swine fever killed a vast number of pigs and cut pork supplies.
“Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China,” Donovan said in comments that some interpreted as referring to people, not livestock.
His comments caused a furore in Chinese social media and even prompted one Chinese firm to suspend all dealings with Switzerland’s largest bank.
UBS apologised for any misunderstanding caused by Donovan’s comments and put the economist on leave. Donovan also said he was sorry.
“Whether or not Donovan was fired is still unknown, but those who insult Chinese people must pay the price,” the People’s Daily, the newspaper of China’s Communist Party, said in a commentary published late on Friday.
“Otherwise, relapses will be inevitable, and would-be offenders will be incentivised to do the same,” the newspaper warned.
Many tried to explain it away by saying Chinese people are not native English speakers and have misunderstood, said Hao Hong, head of research at Bank of Communications International in Hong Kong and among the first in the Chinese financial community to call out Donovan for his comments.
“But you don’t need to be a native speaker to understand the derogatory connection between the word ‘pig’ and a culture,” Hong, wrote in a post on his personal WeChat account.
Donovan did not respond to a Reuters email seeking comment.
The stakes are high for foreign companies like UBS looking to expand their presence in China as the world’s second-largest economy further opens up its financial sector.
In December last year, UBS became the first foreign bank in China to get official approval to acquire a controlling stake in its local securities joint venture.
UBS has said it was enhancing its “internal processes” to avoid any recurrence of such an incident and remains “fully committed to investing in China”.
The Swiss bank is not the first to trip over cultural issues in China.
Last year, Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana caused an uproar after one of its advertisements showed a model of East Asian ancestry struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks.
“Whenever Chinese nationals respond to insults by foreigners, some people would quickly criticise Chinese people for having ‘hearts of glass’,” the People’s Daily wrote.
“Even some compatriots feel that any Chinese retaliation is like making a mountain out of a molehill. But it is a big deal, and there can be no ambiguity about that.”
(Reporting by Ryan Woo; editing by Christian Schmollinger)