A visit by Taiwan’s President has left a popular bakery caught between two increasingly adversarial governments in Beijing and Taipei.
The Taiwanese chain, 85C, became an overnight pariah in mainland China after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited one of its stores in Los Angeles on Sunday during a stopover on her diplomatic trip to South America.
According to the company’s website, 85C has almost 600 outlets in China.
The bakery’s efforts to make peace failed to placate Beijing and have instead angered their customers in Taiwan, where some angry citizens have accused it of “kowtowing” to the Chinese government.
85C is just the latest business caught in the escalating political crossfire between Beijing and Taipei, which has swept up global car manufacturers and many international airlines.
Despite having been self-governed for seven decades, Beijing still considers Taiwan to be an integral part of its territory, and comes down hard on any suggestions to the contrary.
Tsai’s party historically supports the island’s independence, although she has backed maintaining the status quo since taking office in 2016.
During her visit to the bakery, Tsai was photographed buying a drink and signing a plush toy loaf of bread given to her by the staff.
The Taiwan leader was in Los Angeles before visiting Paraguay and Belize, in an effort to cement relations with two of the island’s remaining 18 formal diplomatic allies.
Caught between Taipei and Beijing
When news of Tsai’s visit was made public, there were growing calls for a boycott of 85C on China’s social media. Users spread information and images that they said exposed the company’s “true face” – including listing outlets in mainland China as “overseas stores.”
The website of its Taiwan-based parent company was reportedly hacked Thursday with unflattering photos of Tsai and mocking captions splashed across the homepage.
But the online fury was just the start of the backlash in China – major food-delivery apps removed 85C from their platforms, causing the parent company’s share price to plummet.
China’s state media also ramped up coverage on 85C’s “longstanding problems,” ranging from food safety to store hygiene, with government inspectors in at least one Chinese city visiting a local 85C shop and finding the condition there unsatisfactory.
Taiwan’s presidential spokesman, Alex Huang, described the political pressure from Beijing as “not in line with a civilized society,” condemning the forced imposition of one’s ideology on a global company as “disrupting market order and freedom of speech.”
The Taiwanese bakery attempted to curtail the fallout on Wednesday by issuing a statement distancing the company from Tsai’s visit and stressing its “firm support” for the “1992 Consensus,” political jargon for believing in a unified China that includes Taiwan.
But instead of solving the company’s problems, it angered customers in Taiwan, while also failing to appease its Chinese mainland audience.
“We oppose and will never allow any businesses to make money from the mainland while supporting Taiwan independence forces and activities,” a senior Chinese official in charge of Taiwan affairs, Long Mingbiao, said Thursday.
Beijing’s dream of reunification
Beijing has long dreamed of reuniting Taiwan with the Chinese mainland since the two sides split after a bloody civil war in 1949. The Chinese military has recently increased drills around the island as tensions rise across the Taiwan Strait.
In a campaign to further isolate the democratic island, the Communist leadership in mainland China has intensified pressure on global companies to drop references to Taiwan as an independent entity – targeting the world’s biggest airlines, hotels and retailers alike.
Taipei has criticized companies for giving in to Beijing, saying “such acts send a wrong message to the world.” The United States has also slammed China’s pressure on businesses, with the White House in May calling the Chinese government’s demands “Orwellian nonsense.”
Back at a busy 85C shop in Beijing, though, both employees and customers appeared unfazed Friday by the ongoing controversy.
An employee, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to speak to media, told CNN business had not been impacted.
“Whether or not the bakery supports Taiwan independence doesn’t affect my decision,” said a customer surnamed Xu. “I come here because it’s convenient.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong in Beijing contributed reporting to this article.