The Chinese government has found new cause for anger against Canada: a Canadian diplomat’s order of hip-hop-inspired T-shirts emblazoned with a bat-like image around the words “Wu-Han.”
The design is a play on the iconic emblem of the Wu-Tang Clan, the New York rap group that helped define the sound of the 1990s.
That logo’s design evokes a pair of wings, but does not, in fact, depict a bat – it is a stylized W, as its creator has made clear.
That distinction, however, was lost on the Chinese internet – and now China’s government, which has hauled in Canadian representatives for a formal démarche about the T-shirts, demanding answers on Monday.
“China is shocked by this” and has asked the Canadian embassy to “immediately investigate this matter thoroughly and give China a clear explanation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
“The actions of the person in question are seriously inconsistent with their status,” he said in reference to the diplomat who bought the T-shirts.
The statement, reported widely by state media, marked one of the most unusual episodes in the continuing fractious relationship between the two countries after the 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and subsequent detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China.
The order for eight T-shirts was submitted in May, 2020, in the midst of a coronavirus epidemic that first began to spread in Wuhan and whose origins may lie in Chinese bats.
China has fiercely contested its own role in the outbreak of a virus that has led to a global pandemic, with officials, instead promoting theories about international transmission via chilled goods or a leak from a U.S. military base that have little international scientific backing.
Earlier this month, images of the Wu-Han T-shirt logo were posted online, along with a delivery destination sticker showing the Canadian embassy’s address in Beijing and the parcel’s intended recipient, Canadian diplomat Chad Hensler.
The social-media post erased the name of the seller. Neither Mr. Hensler nor the Canadian embassy responded immediately to requests for comment.
But a Canadian Foreign Affairs official confirmed Mr. Hensler had ordered the T-shirts, saying they were personal gifts for a team of diplomats who had travelled to Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic to help with the evacuation of Canadian citizens. The team had taken to calling itself the “Wu-Han Clan.” The T-shirts were purchased privately and not reimbursed by the Canadian government, the official said.
The official called the T-shirt issue a “misunderstanding.” Mr. Hensler remains in Beijing.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
The Wu-Tang Clan logo dates to 1993, when it was designed by DJ and producer Ronald Bean, better known as Mathematics, who in a 2007 interview described it as a sticker “in graffiti that was a ‘W.;” The image has been described as “one of the most recognizable rap-derived brands around,” and still appears on Wu Wear apparel that includes authorized Wu-Tang Clan hoodies, shorts and even slippers.
In North America, multiple T-shirt vendors sell Wu-Tang Clan logos modified with bat ears and “Wuhan” text.
The Wu-Han t-shirt ordered by Mr. Hensler does not include bat ears. Nonetheless, it sparked fury online in China. Some accused the Canadian embassy of hypocrisy, after ambassador Dominic Barton in February, 2020, published a social-media video of support for Wuhan.
A person who claimed to be a friend of the T-shirt maker – who he called “W” – wrote in early January that the vendor feared “those T-shirts were used by Canada to humiliate our country. If that was true, wouldn’t W be an accomplice? Has W violated the law by making this clothing for foreigners?”
Another posted a lengthy blog article attacking Canada as a “shameless” Western country possessed of “no bottom line, no morality and no sense of responsibility. … I’d love to ask these nasty Canadian diplomats: Do you smoke too much pot or are you just perverts?”
Some took to the Canadian embassy’s page on the Twitter-like Weibo service to express their displeasure. “If you dare to wear the bat shirt on Chinese soil, you will be sent to your God with an English longbow,” one wrote.
At the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Wang cited the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations as grounds for China’s complaint against Canada. Those conventions give a country the power to send home any diplomat deemed “not acceptable” – but say nothing about what constitutes permissible shopping habits. The conventions also protect the homes, archives and documents of a diplomatic mission as “inviolable,” and bind a host country to “treat consular officers with due respect and take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on their person, freedom or dignity.”
The consular convention, meanwhile, furnishes rights to foreign nationals in custody – including a right to be visited by diplomats from their home country. For seven months last year, the Chinese government refused to allow Canadian diplomats to see Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
With reporting by Alexandra Li
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