Leica Camera has sought to distance itself from a promotional video depicting photographers covering the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown three decades ago, after it landed the German company in hot water in China.
The five-minute promotional video, “The Hunt”, depicts various dark moments of war and conflicts through the lenses of photojournalists. But its main plot follows a Western journalist inside a Beijing hotel in 1989 as he tries to go outside to document the shooting of student protesters by the Chinese army, but is confronted and chased by Chinese soldiers.
Released this week, the short film comes at a politically sensitive time for the Chinese government, mere weeks ahead of the 30th anniversary of its bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in the heart of Beijing.
On the eve of June 4, 1989, Chinese troops, backed by tanks, opened fire on protesters while marching into Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the dead ranged from the hundreds into the thousands.
The cinematic ad was met with blanket censorship on China’s social media. By Thursday evening Beijing time, any post containing the keyword “Leica” – in English or in Chinese – could no longer be published on the social platform Weibo, due to “a violation of relevant laws and regulations or the Weibo Community Convention”.
Weibo users flooded Leica’s official account on the platform with comments blasting the company for its “stupid” move, suggesting the ad would not only hurl Leica into a public relations storm, but also put its Chinese partner Huawei Technologies, with whom Leica collaborates to develop smartphone camera lenses, in a difficult position.
Late on April 18, a spokeswoman for Leica said that the ad, which ends with the Leica logo, was not an officially sanctioned marketing film commissioned by the company.
“Leica Camera AG must therefore distance itself from the content shown in the video and regrets any misunderstandings or false conclusions that may have been drawn,” said Emily Anderson by email.
The company has taken measures to ensure that the film is not shared on Leica’s own social media channels, she added.
The video's producers, F/Nazca Saatchi Saatchi, who have made numerous award-winning films for Leica over the past few years, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the provenance of the promotional video.
In recent years Leica, which produces high-end digital and film cameras, has expanded its presence in China, where it operates nine official retail outlets.
In 2016, the company entered a strategic partnership with Huawei, the telecommunications giant and China’s biggest smartphone maker, collaborating on the development of cameras for smartphones.
Leica’s Weibo account already disabled the comment feature under its latest post, but undeterred users left hundreds of comments under older Leica posts.
“Has Leica gone insane? It’s free to look for trouble for itself, but does it want to throw Huawei into a hole too?” one user wrote on Weibo.
“Do you even deserve to collaborate with our patriotic Huawei?” another user said of Leica.
Huawei declined to comment about the Leica advert.
Although the short film does not directly mention the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the implication is more than apparent.
Early in the film, a caption notes the scene is taking place in “Beijing, 1989”. Soldiers – wearing hats with the badge of the People’s Liberation Army and collar studs of Communist stars – demand that the protagonist show his identification documents in the gloomy hotel corridor and prevent him from leaving.
In the final scene, the journalist holds his camera by the window of his hotel room, as Chinese soldiers bang on the door. As he adjusts his camera, the image of a man standing off against a column of tanks – recalling the iconic Tank Man of Tiananmen Square – comes into focus in his camera lens’ reflection. The film cuts to black to the sound of a shutter closing.
The ad was applauded by human rights activists such as Zhou Fengsuo, who called the video a “game changer”.
“It captured the spirit of 30 years ago,” said Zhou, a student leader in the protests and once No 5 on Beijing’s most-wanted list. “I was in tears watching it.”
Zhou said that the Chinese government would be unlikely to openly address the advert to avoid drawing attention to the subject matter. But if Leica’s position in the Chinese market suffers as the result of any retaliatory action by the government, Zhou said he hoped the “international market would [stand] up for them”.
Learning later that Leica had sought to to distance itself from the promotional video, Zhou said it was “a shame”.
“They could do better.” – South China Morning Post