The Marriott International hotel chain and Australia’s Qantas Airways have changed their websites under pressure from the Chinese government to remove references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Macau as separate “countries,” rather than regions of China.
Beijing played hardball with Marriott after the hotel company created an online customer survey that asked customers which country they lived in. The choices included Tibet, Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong, all of which China fiercely insists are its territories, although Taiwan is governed independently and Hong Kong is semi-autonomous.
The Chinese Cyberspace Administration declared Marriott’s survey “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” and ordered the Marriott website and mobile phone app shut down for a week, including online booking services for the hundred-plus Marriott hotels in China. Marriott International Group executives were even questioned by the police for potential violations of Chinese cyber and advertising laws.
“Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We sincerely apologize for any actions that may have suggested otherwise,” the company responded in a statement of apology.
Reuters notes that the Chinese government “frequently erupts with outrage at any perceived contradiction to its territorial claims,” and many Chinese citizens evidently share that outrage, as a number of them canceled Marriott reservations in protest. Some Chinese Internet users were also angry that the Marriott Rewards Twitter account “liked” a tweet from Friends of Tibet, an organization supporting freedom and independence for Tibet.
Similar controversies erupted around the websites for Australia’s Qantas Airways, Delta Airlines, the Zara fashion brand, and Medtronic over the past few weeks as China cracked down on foreign websites perceived as insulting or challenging its claims, particularly concerning Taiwan. The “offenses” were as mild as listing destinations claimed by China as “countries” in drop-down menus.
“Cyberspace is not an extralegal place, and multinational corporations should abide by relevant laws and regulations,” Chinese regulators warned, ordering the targeted companies to perform comprehensive “self-examinations” for possible violations.
China also demanded and received public apologies. Marriott issued at least three separate apologies. Delta also apologized “deeply” for its “inadvertent error with no business or political intention.”
“Delta recognizes the seriousness of this issue and we took immediate steps to resolve it,” the company said in a statement. “As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”
“Due to an oversight, some Chinese territories were incorrectly listed as countries on parts of our website. We are correcting this error,” Qantas Airways said in a Monday statement that seemed less apologetic than those of Delta or Marriott.
Qantas “has now deleted several lists that categorized destinations by country,” according to Reuters. A spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether the airline is concerned about punitive action by Chinese authorities.
“Qantas is the first Australian company to respond to Beijing’s heightened vigilance, though all firms exporting everything from iron ore to baby formula should be taking heed,” Reuters advised. “China, which is easily Australia’s biggest trading partner, bought A$93 billion ($73.98 billion) worth of Australian goods and services last year.”
Medtronic waited until ten minutes before the deadline given by Chinese regulators to say it “understood the Chinese authorities’ position but was only trying to help users quickly find the appropriate location,” as reported by Traveller24.
Zara’s response has been the lowest-key of the big companies assaulted by China so far, as several news reports state they posted an apology on their Chinese-language website, but it has not been widely quoted by English-language media. A Zara executive contacted by the Straits Times on Friday was “not able to immediately comment.”
“It’s hard not to see it as part of the wider trend where nationalist issues are being emphasized very deliberately as part of the new era. It’s hard not to think this is the shape of things to come for foreign companies, having to be even more careful about these sensitivities,” an unnamed Western businessman told the Straits Times.
“The companies that come to China should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by China’s laws, and respect the feelings of the Chinese people. This is the minimum requirement of any company going to another country to carry out business and investment,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing on Thursday.
Traveller24 reports Chinese news websites have been posting screenshots of “other prominent foreign brands that included Taiwan on lists of countries before being abruptly changed this week.”