2019-06-14 11:02:29

A Swiss investment bank has landed in hot water after one of its economists used what some in China have interpreted as a racial slur during a podcast about inflation.

According to a transcript published Wednesday and later deleted, Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management, suggested that the rising prices of goods sold in China were largely due to “sick pigs,” referring to an epidemic of African swine fever that has ravaged the country over the past year. “Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig,” Donovan said. “It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world.”

After Donovan’s remarks had begun to court criticism online, UBS issued an apology Thursday afternoon. “We apologize unreservedly for any misunderstanding caused by these innocently intended comments by Paul Donovan,” the company said, adding that the offending audio clip had been taken offline. “To be clear, this comment was about inflation and Chinese consumer prices rising, which was driven by higher prices for pork.”

Soon afterward, however, the Chinese Securities Association of Hong Kong criticized the apology, dismissing it as “insincere and remorseless,” and demanded that Donovan be fired as punishment. Meanwhile, financial firm Haitong International Security Group Ltd. reportedly said Friday that it had suspended its business relationship with UBS.

For his part, Donovan also apologized — first on a separate podcast, then again in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “I made a mistake and I unwittingly used hugely culturally insensitive language,” he said. “I have apologized publicly for that, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to reiterate the apology today.”

Donovan’s initial remarks and subsequent apologies have divided public opinion on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. While some have said they were genuinely offended and found Donovan’s apology to be lacking, others have said his comments don’t sound at all racist when taken in context.

“The term ‘Chinese pig’ is commonly used to discriminate against Chinese people,” one Weibo user commented under a related media post. “There are countless other expressions, but (Donovan) just happened to have chosen this especially humiliating phrase. Anyone with English common sense can feel the author’s malicious intent when reading that sentence.”

Another Weibo user who identified herself as Donovan’s acquaintance tried to explain the economist’s comments. “Given the context, it is possible to understand that he is talking about the animals rather than trying to humiliate a nation,” she wrote. “I understand that after the D&G incident, Chinese media have become more sensitive, but D&G and UBS are completely different cases — they’re incomparable.”

In November of last year, Italian luxury label Dolce & Gabbana became embroiled in a firestorm of criticism and had to cancel its Shanghai fashion show after culturally insensitive advertisements and racist Instagram messages allegedly sent by Stefano Gabbana were circulated on Chinese social media.

By comparison, some people are saying the recent case of the UBS economist seems to have been blown out of proportion, the unbridled keyboard-smashing outrage a telltale sign of insecurity. “I feel like netizens have ‘glass hearts,’” 24-year-old Hong Kong resident Yvonne Zhang told Sixth Tone. “Our national honor is so easily challenged.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)