Coach and Versace have become the latest foreign brands to face a backlash from internet users in China, drawing fierce criticism across social media for referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

Chinese internet users on Monday circulated an image of US luxury brand Coach’s English-language website that showed both regions could be selected under a menu titled “countries”. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

In a statement on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Coach apologised and said it had corrected its website, adding that it “is committed to long-term development in China and respects the feelings of the Chinese people”. “Coach” was the most searched topic on Weibo on Monday.

The incident came a day after Italian luxury brand Versace was forced into a “deep apology” after outraged internet users posted images apparently showing that one of its T-shirts labelled Hong Kong and Macau as countries. Versace said it had stopped selling the T-shirts.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are semi-autonomous special administrative regions of China.

The social media blowback comes amid weeks of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which Chinese media has blamed on “separatists” who seek independence for the city and who media allege have foreign support, leading to heightened sensitivity about the territory’s status.

Chinese supermodel Liu Wen, who had been an ambassador for the brand, announced on Weibo that she had ceased co-operation with Coach. “The integrity and sovereignty of China’s territory are inviolable!,” Ms Liu said. “I apologise to everyone! I love my motherland and resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty!”

Separately, Chinese actress Yang Mi, who was a brand ambassador for Versace, said she had terminated her contract with the Italian company. “The motherland’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacred,” she said in an internet post.

Coach and Versace are the latest brands to come under pressure from Chinese internet users for appearing to flout Beijing’s territorial claims with websites or product labels, highlighting the political risks for foreign businesses operating in the country.

The controversies highlight the difficulties multinational companies face adjusting to political sensitivities in China without being seen by consumers in more politically liberal countries as yielding to authoritarian demands.

Last year, US clothing retailer Gap issued an apology after being targeted by internet users over T-shirts with a map of China that did not include Taiwan, south Tibet and the South China Sea.

US carriers that fly to China including United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines last year complied with Chinese pressure over how they refer to Taiwan on their websites, ignoring calls from the White House to refuse to accede to the demand.

The Trump administration had urged US carriers to ignore a Chinese demand to say “Taiwan, China” instead of merely Taiwan on their websites. Beijing had threatened to cut market access for 36 foreign airlines unless they altered the wording on their websites.

Nike in June pulled a line of limited-edition sports shoes in China after the US sportswear maker’s Japanese designer supported the recent protests in Hong Kong, provoking an online backlash in China.

Companies closer to home have also had similar issues. Last week, Chinese state-run tabloid the Global Times criticised Hong Kong’s de facto flag carrier Cathay Pacific for displaying a map on a seat back screen that “wrongly implied that Hong Kong and Taiwan are independent countries”.

Cathay subsequently apologised for a “technical oversight that led to some of our in-flight entertainment systems not having the correct information uploaded”.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing and Sue-Lin Wong in Hong Kong

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