A week after the launch of its viral collaboration with Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum, Hey Tea has been forced to withdraw all items and marketing materials from its “Speechless Buddha” campaign. The tea brand had a run-in with the authorities over the potential “commercial promotion of religion” in their co-branded product, as the memes are based on sculptures of Luohans or Arhats, disciples of Buddha.
On the 4th of December, the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs announced that Hey Tea had withdrawn the product after a “regulatory talk” with the bureau three days before. The Bureau investigated the possibility that the collaboration had violated the Regulations on Religious Affairs as it forbids commercial promotion in the name of religion. The bureau and market watchdogs decided that the “Speechless Buddha” tea latte was in a “grey area”. So, they could only ask for a chat and hope Hey Tea would voluntarily withdraw the items that were “suspected to violate the law”. To the Bureau’s relief, the brand cooperated fully.
On China’s Twitter equivalent, the topic “Hey Tea summoned to regulatory talk for suspected violation of Regulations on Religious Affairs” (#喜茶涉嫌违反宗教事务管理条例被约谈#) garnered a whopping 430 million views and landed on top of the Hot Search list. Netizens are divided on this. Some think the collaboration was disrespectful to Buddhists as the memes trivialise the Luohans. Others feel that no one will convert to or denounce a religion for tea.
Legal experts feel that the Regulations on Religious Affairs only govern religious entities, which Hey Tea and Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum are not. Therefore, Advertising Law should be applied here, which only forbids ethnic, racial and religious discrimination. Also, since the sculptures used in the crossover are art based on religious imagery, whether it is promoting religion is up for debate. However, as the pulling of the viral collab was a voluntary decision by Hey Tea, it makes little difference if the “Speechless Buddha” really broke the law.