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Not Chinese enough? Bottled water empire of China’s richest man is facing a nationalist boycott

By Laura He, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — Zhong Shanshan, China’s richest man, is facing a wave of attacks from nationalists who accuse him of a lack of patriotism in a campaign that has hit the price of shares of his beverage company and threatens to hurt its sales.

Zhong and his drinks firm Nongfu Spring, the country’s biggest maker of bottled water, are the latest targets of an army of internet zealots. Calls for a boycott of Nongfu have even alarmed typically patriotic state media outlets at a time when Beijing is trying to rally support behind private businesses to help counter an economic slump.

The criticism was triggered by the death last month of Zong Qinghou, the founder of Wahaha Group, one of Nongfu’s biggest competitors. Zong was a revered nationalist figure who famously took on French food company Danone in a business dispute about 20 years ago, and won.

His passing sparked unflattering comparisons to Zhong and snowballed into attacks on everything from perceived Japanese elements in the packaging of Nongfu Spring products to the American citizenship held by Zhong’s son — a non-executive director of the company and possible successor to take over the business.

“Zhong Shuzi will inherit his father’s huge assets. But as the future richest man in China, he is an American national. It’s unbelievable,” said a Weibo user with the name “Internationale.”

Online critics have compared carp-shaped designs on the label of Nongfu Spring’s brown rice tea drink to Japan’s traditional carp flag koinobori windsocks. They have also circulated photos and videos online linking a temple featured on the label of one of its green tea drinks to Tokyo’s Sensoji.

“A person without feelings for his country … no matter how rich he is, is not as good as an ordinary person with a Chinese heart,” said the Weibo user “Internationale.”

The nationalists have also highlighted the fact that prominent US investment funds, including Vanguard and BlackRock, are major shareholders of Nongfu Spring.

“[The son] will eventually manage the company as an American national. But as a Chinese, I only support our own national brands,” another Weibo user commented.

The boycott calls have become rampant online. In one short video, a small shop was seen replacing all its bottled water from Nongfu with Wahaha’s. In another, a supermarket returned a Nongfu freezer displaying its drinks to the company. The video has gone viral on the Douyin platform with more than 300,000 likes.

The online campaign has dealt a blow to Nongfu’s share price. Its Hong Kong-listed shares have lost nearly 5% since the end of February, wiping about $3 billion off its market capitalization, according to a CNN calculation.

Zhong has also seen $2 billion evaporate from his personal wealth since March 1, according to the Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. He’s currently worth $64.5 billion and is still the richest person in China, according to the Index.

Calling for calm

Zhong has sought to set the record straight about his reported rivalry with the founder of Wahaha, but has been unable to calm tempers online.

“Taking advantage of Mr Zong’s death, a lot of slander against me and Nongfu Spring appeared on the internet. This is definitely not something Mr Zong would like to see,” Zhong said in a March 3 post on his company’s WeChat account.

He called on netizens not to be “misled” by some online influencers who he said had tried to stir up trouble between the two companies.

“Whether Wahaha or Nongfu Spring, we always insist on the same thing — producing good products for the people,” he said.

CNN has reached out to Nongfu Spring for comment.

But his statement wasn’t enough to stop the boycott calls. The nationalism on display has prompted state media to defend privately owned companies.

In the first week of March, Zhejiang Daily, the official paper of the Communist Party in the eastern province of Zhejiang, published an opinion piece and an editorial on WeChat, urging netizens to stop attacking private enterprises and entrepreneurs.

The province is home to many of the country’s most influential private companies, such as Alibaba (BABA) and Geely Auto as well as both Nongfu Spring and Wahaha.

“Zong and Zhong are both excellent private entrepreneurs,” Wei Jiang, former chancellor of Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, wrote in the opinion piece. “Especially now, private enterprises are facing unprecedented challenges. We should protect them even more.”

The newspaper reiterated in the editorial that Beijing’s policy is to support the private sector.

“At present, economic development is turning from warm to cold and facing many challenges. As long as private enterprises are operating legally, all sectors of society should encourage and support them to create more wealth, more tax revenue, and more employment opportunities, instead of doing things that chill the hearts of people in the private sector,” it said.

Nongfu Spring is just the latest major target of China’s nationalists.

They have also been going after Mo Yan, the Nobel literature laureate, for allegedly insulting the People’s Liberation Army and China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, as well as “beautifying” the Japanese army, which invaded the country, in his novels.

Many global and Chinese brands have been caught in the crossfire over the years.

In 2022, Li Ning, a sportswear manufacturer founded by the well known athlete, came under fire for new designs that allegedly resembled hats worn by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The ensuing boycott dealt a blow to the company’s sales and share price, with $2 billion wiped off the company’s market value within two days.

In March 2021, a raft of Western brands like H&M, Nike and Adidas were boycotted by nationalist consumers for refusing to use cotton produced in the western region of Xinjiang.

The United States has banned imports of cotton products from Xinjiang over concerns that they were produced with forced labor — a claim Beijing has denied.

And in 2012, anti-Japanese protests erupted in China after a territorial conflict between Japan and China over the Diaoyu Islands, which are called the Senkaku Islands by Japan.

Many protesters smashed Japanese cars and vandalized shops selling Japanese goods, according to state media. Carmakers such as Toyota and Honda reported falls in their monthly sales in China.

The-CNN-Wire
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Hassan Tayir contributed to reporting.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Business/Consumer

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