John Cena wants Chinese fans to forgive his Taiwan blunder and go watch his new movie

Society & Culture

The movie "Fast & Furious 9" took in $135 million at the box office in China on the weekend. But now one of its stars is apologizing to his Chinese fans for his “mistake” in referring to Taiwan as a country.

john cena
The soundbite that caused John Cena to apologize: "Taiwan is the first country to see Fast and Furious 9."

American action-movie actor and professional wrestler John Cena, who over the years has established himself as WWE’s unofficial China ambassador with his Mandarin fluency, has apologized for calling Taiwan a “country” during a publicity interview for his new film. 

Earlier this month, while promoting Fast & Furious 9, the latest installment of the popular street-racing movie series, in which Cena plays the brother of lead actor Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto, he made a stop in Taiwan and spoke to local broadcaster TVBS. In the interview (in Chinese), Cena told the reporter in Mandarin that Taiwan would be the first “country” to be able to watch the film.

It didn’t take long for Cena’s remarks to inspire some serious vitriol in mainland China, where the government and many online commenters are committed to an unwavering notion that Taiwan, despite being a self-ruled democratic island for decades, is a part of China and should be tamed in its ongoing pursuit of independence.

Social media users condemned Cena for describing Taiwan as a country. Some even called for a boycott of Fast & Furious 9, which, released last Friday, is currently soaring at the box office in China after grossing $135 million over its opening weekend

In response to the backlash, Cena put out a video (in Chinese) on Weibo today. Speaking again in Mandarin, Cena apologized profusely for “making a mistake” after doing “many interviews” for Fast & Furious 9 and receiving “a lot of information” from those who worked with him on the promo tour. “I’m sorry for my mistake,” he said. “I must say now, it’s very, very, very, very important that I love, and respect even more, China and the Chinese people.” 

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However, Cena didn’t refer to Taiwan by name in the video or address the situation in detail. Because of the ambiguity, his apology was poorly received, as many believed it to be disingenuous. “Stop beating around the bush! I won’t forgive you until you say explicitly that Taiwan is part of China,” one of the most-liked comments under his apology post read (in Chinese). “I’m not happy with this half-hearted attempt at redemption. Who knows where he really stands on Taiwan issues?” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Others appeared to be more forgiving. “I like you a lot and I can tell you really love China. Please be more careful in the future,” a supporter wrote (in Chinese). Some suspected that Cena’s “mistake” was caused by him reading off a script given by the reporter or Universal Pictures, the distributor of the film, without paying much attention to its wording. “I believe Cena was set up by someone who wanted to please Taiwanese people and get them to watch the movie. He didn’t mean to offend China,” another person commented (in Chinese). 

Cena has been working to grow his fan base in China for many years by studying Mandarin and having an active presence on Chinese social media. On Weibo, the 17-time WWE professional wrestling champion has more than 600,000 followers, who regularly comment on Cena’s posts by praising his Mandarin skills and perceived passion for the country. 

In a 2017 interview with the Straits Times, Cena revealed that he started wanting to learn Mandarin when WWE tried to break into the Chinese market. He confessed that he later became obsessed with the language and tried to immerse himself in the culture as much as he could. In a video that made the rounds on the Chinese internet last year, Cena professes his love for Laoganma, China’s cult chili crisp sauce, saying that he puts “a lot” of it on his broccoli.

The 44-year-old wrestler-turned-actor is the latest foreign celebrity to be embroiled in a controversy in China for political reasons. In 2017, American pop singer Katy Perry was reportedly “banned from China indefinitely” after a performance in Taiwan, where she donned both a Taiwanese flag and a sunflower dress, which many saw as a pro-Taiwanese statement and expression of solidarity with the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement. Singer and actress Lady Gaga was barred from entering the country in 2016 following a meeting with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. 

Meanwhile, in recent years, a number of international companies have run afoul of Beijing for perceived slights to China’s sovereignty. The U.S. clothing retailer Gap, the hotel operator Marriott, and Delta Air Lines are among businesses that have apologized to China for referring to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet as countries on websites or in promotional material.