BEIJING French car-maker Citroen has apologized to China for running a full-page advertisement in several Spanish newspapers featuring a poster of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong pulling a wry face at a sporty hatch-back.
Under the Biblical quotation "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," the text talked up Citroen's position as a car sales leader in a bombastic tone.
"It's true, we are leaders, but at Citroen the revolution never stops," the advertisement said.
"We are once more going to put in motion all the machinery of our technological ability, in order to repeat in 2008 the successes obtained in previous years," it added.
The Mao poster is similar to the huge painting of the Great Helmsman gazing out over Beijing's Tiananmen Square, except that it has been distorted to show lips screwed up and eyes squinting.
"The image has been wantonly distorted by the ad's designers. Mao looks very strange," Chinese state newspaper the Global Times observed Tuesday.
The scowling Mao had infuriated Chinese Internet users who saw it as a slight, it said.
"As a Chinese, I felt greatly insulted when seeing this ad," a posting on web portal Tianya (www.tianya.com) said. "It is not only insulting Chairman Mao, but the whole Chinese nation."
"Chairman Mao is the symbol of China, and what Citroen did lacks basic respect to China," another posting said.
Many Chinese retain a God-like admiration for Mao, crediting him with uniting the country after the Communist Party's defeat of U.S.-backed Nationalists in the 1945-1949 civil war.
But historians have blamed Mao's tumultuous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for the deaths of millions through famines caused by disastrous economic policies and the persecution of thousands through politically motivated campaigns.
Citroen had pulled the ad and apologized to China in a letter sent to the Chinese paper, it said.
"Citroen expresses regret for any displeasure caused by the advertisement and apologizes to all who have been hurt by it," the Global Times quoted the letter as saying.
A spokeswoman for Citroen in China confirmed the apology letter.
"Citroen reiterates its friendship with the Chinese people, and highly respects China's representative figures and symbols," the spokeswoman told Reuters by telephone.
(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; editing by Roger Crabb)