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In China, American Apparel courts controversy — but not over what you’d expect

The American Apparel headquarters and manufacturing building in downtown Los Angeles, shown last year.
The American Apparel headquarters and manufacturing building in downtown Los Angeles, shown last year.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

American Apparel is no stranger to controversy. The Los Angeles-based clothing company has endured scandals regarding its risque advertisements and allegations of sexual harassment by its founder, Dov Charney.

Now, it has found itself in hot water over a different issue: Chinese sovereignty.

Tan Qingxia, a popular blogger, said he was shopping at one of American Apparel’s two Beijing branches with his wife on Thursday night when her phone was stolen. Tan returned to the store with a police officer, who asked an employee for the store’s surveillance tape. The employee refused, claiming that because American Apparel is a U.S. company, it could not release the tape without permission from its headquarters in Los Angeles.

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On Friday, Tan wrote about the experience to his 6.6 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog. “I got the contact information of the store manager and will soon ask this proud American clothing store for the footage [again],” he wrote.

The post sparked an outcry, racking up more than 10,000 shares and 8,000 comments, many of which cast the incident as an affront to Chinese sovereignty.

“Is this small store a part of America’s territory?” commented one user.

“Why can the surveillance footage only be seen by the U.S.?” said another. “It’s not even the American Embassy. Can someone tell me what the law should be?”

Chinese consumers hold foreign brands in high esteem, regarding them as superior to local counterparts. Starbucks, Apple, Nike and others enjoy a tight hold on China’s growing middle class, even far beyond the shopping meccas of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Yet Chinese consumers also hold foreign companies to higher standards, and are commensurately sensitive to perceived slights.

On Monday morning — four days after the incident — American Apparel released the video to Chinese police, said the store manager, who refused to give his name to journalists for fear of attracting further scrutiny.

He said it came from video that store employees don’t have access to and is used “to monitor passenger flow in the store … not to record how cellphones are stolen.”

The manager added that the store was inundated with angry calls after Tan’s post went viral. One caller accused the store of being an “American running dog,” he said. Another jokingly asked whether he would call an American fire department if the store caught fire.

“I’m actually the victim here,” he said. “On the one hand, I tried my best to cooperate with police. On the other, I did everything according to the company’s regulations. But we are still largely criticized.”

American Apparel, once a major force in American fashion, has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, burdened by huge debts, falling sales, and a string of highly publicized sexual harassment lawsuits against Charney, who was ousted as CEO in 2014.

The company applied for bankruptcy in October 2015. In November, it announced that it would close all European stores. Its China stores are slated to close Dec. 18.

The state-run China Radio International ran a report in which it said that it should not have been a problem for the store to access the video. “Businesses resisting police investigations may be fined or detained,” the story said.

Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report

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