Carmakers brace for Yasukuni backlash in China

Bloomberg

Automakers are bracing for a potential consumer backlash should tensions with China escalate after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, which was also Chairman Mao Zedong’s birthday.

Nissan Motor Co., which sells more vehicles in China than any other Japanese automaker, said it was “closely monitoring” developments in Japan-China ties after Abe’s visit.

The appearance at Yasukuni Shrine drew a condemnation from China in less than an hour, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang saying his nation “strongly” protested it.

“As a company we have no means to intervene in politics,” Huo Jing, a Beijing-based spokeswoman for Nissan, said. “All we can do is to be better at our job.”

Toyota Motor Corp. reported its first annual sales decline in China last year after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands, sparking protests across China and a consumer backlash.

Thursday’s visit by Abe coincided with the 120th birthday of Mao, with Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping honoring the founder of the communist state.

“They chose today to visit the shrine, which makes it even harder for Chinese people to accept,” said Cui Dongshu, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai-based Passenger Car Association. “The signal they are sending is very dangerous. It will deter some buyers as they may worry about the safety issue of their car and even themselves if the political environment worsens.”

Japanese automakers have been regaining ground in China, though the recovery has come at a cost as they sacrifice profit for volume, said Cui.

Thursday’s visit may spark a repeat of last year, when consumers boycotted Japanese cars, he said.

Honda Motor Co.’s Beijing-based spokesman, Zhu Linjie, declined comment, citing the company’s policy against commenting on politics.