The Cheat Sheet

With ‘Chinese pig’ gaffe, UBS reaps what it sows

Venky Vembu | Updated on June 19, 2019

I see you’re pigging out on porcine metaphors...

Oink, oink! You could say I’m going the whole hog!

But why are you ODing on ham?

Because of what happened to a UBS economist last week. The entire episode, centred around the economist’s unintentionally offensive comments and its consequences, would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

What happened?

Last week, UBS global chief economist Paul Donovan was, in the line of work, offering his views on the global inflation outlook. In that context, in an audio commentary, he took note of a swine flu outbreak in China. The general nature of his comments was intended to assure investors that the disease outbreak would not influence global inflationary trends. But in the way that he said it, he ended up inflaming Chinese sentiments.

What exactly did he say?

Referring to the swine flu outbreak, Donovan said: “Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world. China does not export a lot of food. The only global relevance would be if Chinese inflation influenced politics and other policies.”

What’s offensive about this?

To the English-speaking world, nothing really. But across the language divide, in China, the expression “if you are a Chinese pig” was perceived as a humiliating, racist personal reference, particularly coming from a white man.

Oh, come on!

No, seriously. Given the heightened sensitivities triggered by ongoing trade conflicts, Chinese sentiments were easily inflamed. And it wasn’t just some random Chinese people either. Two Communist Party publications denounced Donovan’s comment. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, wondered aloud: “Chief Economist of UBS, Who Gives You the Courage to Insult China?” Donovan’s comments, the article noted, “are unacceptable… On the issues of national pride, national principles and national feelings, we absolutely won’t tolerate the sickening words and behaviour that hurt China.”

Are you for real?

You bet. Worse was to come. Haitong International Securities Group, which competes with UBS for China-related business, suspended its activities with the bank. Within days, UBS found itself excluded from a $1 billion bond sale by the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation.

Whoa! How did UBS respond?

By capitulating wholesale. Donovan apologised for “inadvertently using hugely culturally insensitive language.” The Swiss bank took down Donovan’s audio commentary, directed him to go on leave, and issued a statement to say: “We apologise unreservedly for any misunderstanding caused by these innocently intended comments… To be clear, this comment was about inflation and Chinese consumer prices rising, which was driven by higher prices for pork.”

Why the prickliness?

What is geopolitical power worth if you cannot engineer situations and have moneybags grovelling at your feet? Particularly when they are counting on their China-focussed wealth management business to make up for relatively slow growth in the US and Europe. In some cases, there have been reports that brokerages have even ‘watered down’ their China research in order not to jeopardise their business prospects in the country.

Bottomline?

The entire episode presents a teachable moment. What sounds unexceptionable in English may acquire an altogether different cultural dynamic in another language. In a world where sentiments turn on a dime, it pays to measure your words, particularly when dealing with cultures and countries that prey on imagined slights and insults.

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Published on June 19, 2019

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