Marriott International was one of several companies caught up in China’s crackdown on foreign corporations that allegedly insult its territorial integrity by treating controversial or semi-autonomous regions like Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao, and especially Taiwan as separate “countries” on their websites.
Days after the story broke, Marriott is still offering fulsome apologies and implementing a draconian “eight-point rectification plan” to get right with Beijing.
In fact, according to an article in the state-run China Daily on Thursday, Marriott froze all of its social media worldwide to placate the authoritarian communist nation. The article stated:
The company was discovered to have classified the four regions as countries in a mail survey to its Chinese members on Jan 9, and “liked” the post of a separatist group on Twitter, which “congratulated” the listing the following day.
The actions resulted in strong reactions from both the public and government of China. At a regular news briefing three days later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged overseas companies to show respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
After identifying its errors, the company has taken the survey offline, “unliked” the post, shut down its six websites and apps in Chinese, and put a freeze on its social media across the world. The CEO has volunteered to issue an apology.
It has also terminated the contract with the third-party vendor that built the survey, a Canadian company that Marriott has been working with for a long time, and with the US-based employee who “liked” the tweet.
The tweet China Daily refers to was posted by Friends of Tibet, which China considers a “separatist group” because it advocates independence for the Tibetan people. Media organizations appear strangely reluctant to actually quote the tweet that just got somebody in Marriott’s customer rewards department fired, but Friends of Tibet helpfully pinned it to the top of their Twitter page:
— Friends of Tibet (@friendsoftibet) January 9, 2018
Twitter is one of several social media services banned in China, so Beijing was able to get a foreign (possibly American) employee fired for “liking” a post on an American social media platform that Chinese citizens cannot use.
As for that worldwide social media freeze, David Ramli of Bloomberg News sees evidence that China Daily was not exaggerating:
Almost all of Marriott’s many global accounts stopped tweeting on Jan 10, followed by a capitulating apology on Jan 11. Since then, its accounts have only sent replies. If it turns out this was ordered by Chinese authorities it greatly changes the calculus of doing business here. https://t.co/G8bf2hs6zf
— David Ramli (@Davidramli) January 18, 2018
“This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career. To regain confidence and trust, the first thing is to admit the mistake, then fix it, and it would come back slowly as we prove we really mean what we say,” Marriott’s Asia-Pacific managing director Craig S. Smith told China Daily on Wednesday.
To that end, Marriott announced an “eight-point rectification plan” that will include “expanding employee education globally, creating straightforward complaint channels for Chinese customers, and more strictly supervising the work of third-party agents for projects largely targeting the China market.”
China’s frenzied crackdown on challenges to its territorial claims, deliberate or inadvertent, has not been limited to travel company websites. The Taipei Times reported on Tuesday that China has taken to destroying entire shipments of Taiwanese food products, if they are not clearly labeled as coming from the “Taiwan Area” or “Taiwan, China,” at a cost of over a hundred thousand dollars U.S. for each lost shipment.
Canada’s National Post reported Wednesday about a Peking University alumnus named Shawn Zang, who currently lives in Canada on a student visa, whose parents back in China were visited by the police within hours of Zhang reposting that Friends of Tibet tweet about Marriott.
“It’s like they are holding my parents hostage there, so that I can’t say things. It is not just Chinese, but many non-Chinese are under this censorship. People in Canada and the United States have to censor their own statements if they want to get business inside China, so they don’t say anything. They surrender to censorship,” Zhang keenly observed.
“In Canada, in general, most Chinese students are not willing to express any opinion about China, or to talk about China. Even my Taiwanese friends are worried about getting in trouble with the Chinese government – they have friends and family, and they don’t want to express opinions. The situation is very disturbing,” he said.
Incidentally, Zhang refused to take down his tweet, but evidently his parents reached an agreement with Chinese authorities to have him remove two posts they didn’t like on Weibo, which is essentially China’s version of Twitter. One of the posts in question was a very, very mild joke involving a popular nickname for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Charles Sturt University professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton, one of Australia’s most prominent academics, told Business Insider on Wednesday that China is “engaging in economic blackmail, imposing acceptance of its geopolitical ambitions on corporations that want to operate in the country.”
“The Marriott incident shows that, for foreign companies, the price of operating in China is succumbing to the Communist Party’s thought control,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton has written an entire book on the subject of China’s dangerous political influence and economic blackmail, entitled Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State. Unfortunately, you can’t read it yet, because China intimidated Hamilton’s publisher into delaying the release of the book by threatening defamation suits. Hamilton parted company with publisher Allen & Unwin in response.
“What we’re seeing … is the first instance where a major Western publisher has decided to censor material of the Chinese Communist Party in its home country,” Hamilton said in November, as he began searching for a new publisher. “We as Australians living in a free society should not allow ourselves to be bullied into silence by an autocratic foreign power.”
It is all part of what the Chinese government sees as an opportunity to remake its image and control free speech around the world by leveraging its economic power. Western companies desiring access to Chinese markets are growing accustomed to compromising Western ideals of free speech and individual liberty. Western businessmen have proven almost universally willing to submit to China’s demands. Few of them respond to Beijing’s “sharp power” the way Clive Hamilton did, not when millions of product sales, plane tickets, or hotel reservations are on the line.
The Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily published a 5,500-word article this week, written as a semi-official declaration of Party thought, declaring that “the world has never focused on China so much and needed China so much as it does now,” so this is the perfect moment to use Chinese economic leverage to reshape global order.
“The capitalism-led world political and economic system is full of drawbacks; the global governance system is undergoing profound changes; and a new international order is taking shape,” the People’s Daily judged, asserting that China is “more confident and capable than at any given period in history seize this opportunity.”
“The amount of publicity the article has received from the propaganda machine also sets it apart. In addition to dominating headlines on party media outlets and online news portals, it was promoted on social media the night before it went to press—rare treatment for commentaries in the paper,” the South China Morning Post observed.
Clearly, Beijing means business and grows increasingly confident of its ability to force international companies to toe the Communist Party line. This is no longer just about blocking access to foreign material the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizens to see. It’s using sharp power to force groveling apologies from Western companies and censor material its citizens cannot see. Tibetan activists hopefully view Beijing’s dramatic reaction to the Marriott “mistake” as a sign of weakness and insecurity, but the People’s Daily portrays it as the roar of a newborn dragon, with more serious demands yet to come.