Maserati distances itself from Asian 'Oscars' in Taiwan under pressure from China

Another Western company has been plunged into damage control mode because of tensions with China.

Posted Updated

James Griffiths
, CNN Business
CNN — Another Western company has been plunged into damage control mode because of tensions with China.

Italian luxury car brand Maserati said in a statement that it has asked a local dealer affiliated with the brand to cut ties with the Golden Horse Awards, a festival held in Taiwan that is billed as Asia's equivalent of Hollywood's Academy Awards.

Maserati, owned by Fiat Chrysler, was responding this week to what it said were "recent media reports" that the company had renewed its sponsorship of the awards. The festival, which is held annually in Taipei, has become a flashpoint in the ongoing political tensions involving the island.

Beijing considers the self-governed and democratic Taiwan, an island of 23 million people off China's southeastern coast, an integral part of its territory. The two sides split in 1949 following the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland after a bloody civil war.

"Maserati always respects China's territorial integrity, history and culture, and firmly upholds the one-China principle," the carmaker said in its statement, which was published on its verified Weibo account Wednesday.

The Golden Horse awards were founded by the island's authorities in 1962. But the event has evolved in recent years into a major platform for Chinese-language filmmakers around the world to showcase their work, attracting stars from Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere.

Last year, a young Taiwanese filmmaker stirred controversy when she accepted an award for best documentary at the festival.

"I really hope our country will one day be treated as a genuine independent entity," Fu Yue said. "This is my biggest wish as a Taiwanese."

The speech drew loud applause and cheers from the audience in Taipei. But Fu's comments were greeted with outrage in China, and her social media was inundated with critical comments. The situation escalated after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen — herself a frequent target of angry Chinese nationalists — defended Fu and praised the awards for highlighting the island's freedoms.

"We have never accepted and will never accept the 'Taiwan, China' label — Taiwan is Taiwan," she said at the time.

Other major Western brands, including Christian Dior, Gap, Zara and a handful of US-based airlines, have all apologized in the past couple of years for how they have described Taiwan. Dior, for example, was moved to say it supports China's "sovereignty and integrity" last week after the French fashion house used a map of China during a presentation that didn't include Taiwan.

Ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the former British colony now ruled by China, have also emerged as a point of contention for Western companies operating in China. The NBA recently faced a fierce backlash in the country after a team executive tweeted support for the protests.

Maserati did not immediately respond to a CNN Business request for comment during morning hours in Asia.

This year's awards ceremony is scheduled for November 23. Ahead of the festival, film authorities in mainland China banned Chinese filmmakers and studios from taking part, according to the Global Times, a state-run tabloid in China. Speaking to reporters last month, an official with China's Taiwan Affairs Office blamed the situation on Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party and "Taiwan independence forces."

Maserati appears to have been listed as a sponsor for this year's event as far back as December 2018, according to archived versions of the Golden Horse Awards website. The company said in its statement this week that the sponsorship belonged to a "local dealer" and that it "does not represent the official position of the Maserati brand."

The company said it "deeply regretted" the incident and "will strengthen supervision in the future" to ensure it doesn't happen again.

As of Friday, Maserati no longer appears as a sponsor on the festival's website. Chinese state media previously reported that other sponsors had also pulled out of the awards, though many prominent Taiwanese brands, including airline EVA Air and phone maker HTC, as well as McDonald's Taiwan, are still listed on the official site.

The Global Times this week, citing "mainland film industry insiders," reported that the growing pressure on the awards this year is linked to Fu's "secessionist comments" and the failure of festival organizers to "warn Fu for politicizing the cultural event."

A Golden Horse Awards spokesperson told CNN Business that Modena Motori Taiwan, the Maserati-affiliated dealer, has notified the festival about its decision to suspend its sponsorship.

"There is no pressure on other sponsors, and the 56th Golden Horse Awards will go on as scheduled," the spokesperson said.

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