To hip-hop fans, it is an instantly recognizable symbol, a flying letter W that represents the Wu-Tang Clan, the New York rap collective.
To the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it suggests something else: a bat. And so, when Canadian diplomats in China ordered T-shirts with the symbol behind the word “Wuhan,” it became a minor diplomatic incident.
“The Chinese side is shocked by this and has lodged stern representations with the Canadian Embassy in China, demanding that the Canadian side immediately thoroughly investigate the incident and give China a clear explanation,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a news conference on Monday.
Bats are considered one of the possible original hosts of the coronavirus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, and they have appeared in memes about Chinese eating habits that have been criticized as racist. The Chinese authorities have tried to play down the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, instead pushing dubious theories that the virus may have emerged earlier in Europe, the United States or elsewhere.
A spokesperson for Canada’s foreign service told the Reuters news agency that the T-shirt did not depict a bat.
“The T-shirt logo designed by a member of the embassy shows a stylized W, and is not intended to represent a bat. It was created for the team of embassy staff working on repatriation of Canadians from Wuhan in early 2020,” the spokesperson said by email on Tuesday. “We regret the misunderstanding.”
Relations between China and Canada have been tense since December 2018, when Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at the Chinese tech giant Huawei who was wanted on fraud charges in the United States. Two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested in China soon after in an apparent act of retaliation. They have been accused of espionage and remain held in China under isolated and harsh conditions.