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John Cena lands himself in an international incident

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‘Bumblebee’ Beijing Press Conference Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

During an interview with Taiwanese news channel TVBS where he was promoting the new Fast & Furious flick, John Cena said, “Taiwan is the first country that can watch F9.”

The remark, delivered in Mandarin, quickly landed Cena in hot water with China. Taiwan has been a self-governing entity since the middle of last century, but China still claims sovereignty over the island. They don’t view it as a separate country. Cena’s remark gives the impression he believes Taiwan is independent from China, and any reference to Taiwan independence is unacceptable to the Chinese government. They will then use diplomatic - and financial - pressure to respond.

It’s that financial pressure which many believe got to Cena, just as it has to big stars and corporations from LeBron James to Disney in recent years. China is the world’s second biggest economy and the world’s biggest box office. F9 opened there last weekend and took in more than $130 million.

So rather than risk further blowback, like damage to future movie projects like The Suicide Squad or any role he might potentially play in WWE’s Chinese expansion plans, Cena posted an apology video on social media platform Weibo.

He doesn’t reference the specific comments about Taiwan, but does say, ““I’m sorry for my mistake. I must say now, [it’s] very, very, very, very important [that] I love, and respect even more, China and the Chinese people.”

According to CNN (who also provided the above translation) the apology is getting mixed reviews in China. It’s certainly getting mostly negative ones here in the United States, where Cena is being slammed for capitulating to his corporate bosses (F9 is distributed by Universal, which like WWE partner NBC, is owned by Comcast).

It’s entirely possible Cena means what he says about China and the Chinese people. He took it upon himself to not only learn Mandarin, but to live there for several months. But that’s unlikely to be the only reason for the apology video, and even if it is, he’s not going to be able to shake the perception he’s only doing it to protect his bank account.

Which is especially thorny because China is a communist autocracy with a poor human rights record, and because taking a stand against the country has become a major political point for the American right.

Controversies tend to blow over quickly in the internet age, but this one could be different. The NBA is still navigating the crisis prompted by former Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s 2019 tweets supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

We’ll see if Cena is able to kick out of this, or if international politics finally turned him heel.