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Taiwan bakery chain disappears from major Chinese food apps amid Tsai visit row

By Brenda Goh and Yimou Lee
A woman enters a store of 85 Degrees Celsius Bakery Cafe in Shanghai, China August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Brenda Goh and Yimou Lee

SHANGHAI/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese food delivery platforms Meituan-Dianping and Ele.me have taken down listings for Taiwan's 85 Degrees Celsius Bakery Cafe, checks on their apps showed, amid boycott calls from social media users who said the chain supported Taiwan independence.

The move by the Chinese companies comes after 85 Degrees, which has 628 stores in mainland China, was hit by calls for a boycott on Chinese social media after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was photographed on Sunday visiting one of its Los Angeles stores during her visit to the United States.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue and Beijing, which considers it a wayward province, has in recent months become increasingly critical of how companies refer to the self-ruled, democratic island.

Checks on Tencent-backed Meituan-Dianping and Alibaba-owned Ele.me's apps on Thursday showed that the option for users to order food deliveries from 85 Degrees stores was no longer available.

The Dianping app, which lists reviews and locations for restaurants and shops, displayed the message "unable to find appropriate merchant" when one tried to search for 85 Degrees' stores.

Meituan-Dianping declined to comment while Ele.me and 85 Degrees did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It was not clear when 85 Degrees' listing was taken down from the apps but Chinese state media reported it on Thursday.

On Wednesday, 85 Degrees issued a statement on its mainland website in response to criticism about Tsai's visit, saying that it firmly supported the "one China policy" and encouraged the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Huang Chung-yen, a spokesman for Taiwan's Presidential Office, said 85 Degrees was subject to "unwarranted pressure" and forced to release a "humiliating" statement, adding that Taiwan condemned such actions against freedom of speech.

Shares in Gourmet Master Company Ltd, 85 Degrees' parent company, dropped 7.5 percent to their lowest in more than a year, compared with a 0.3 percent fall in the broader market.

Long Mingbiao, a deputy minister at China's policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters in Beijing that China welcomed Taiwan companies to come to the mainland to invest and develop.

"At the same time, we oppose and will not allow any Taiwan company to earn money in the mainland and then go and support Taiwan independence forces or activities," he said.

He declined to elaborate.

Companies from airlines, such as Air Canada, to retailers, such as Gap and Muji, have apologized for or changed the way they refer to Taiwan in recent months after complaints from the Chinese government.

Many Chinese social media users said on Thursday they were supportive of the removal of 85 Degrees from the food delivery apps, but some lamented that customers were also penalized.

"Politics is politics and business is business, but us people are innocent, we should not wrap it all up in each other," said one with the username "shengxiaomei".

(Additional Reporting by Cate Cadell and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel)