Not content with squeezing an apology from Mercedes-Benz for the crime of quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram, China excoriated the automaker in an editorial at the Communist Party’s People’s Daily on Wednesday, comparing the Dalai Lama citation to quoting Hitler in an automobile ad.
Mercedes-Benz triggered China by quoting the Dalai Lama’s advice to “look at all situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” This was accompanied by a photo of one of the company’s new sedans. According to CNN, the ad quickly racked up 90,000 “likes” and one very important dislike that trumped them all.
China, which has been flexing its “sharp power” muscles by bullying international companies into obeying its speech codes, expressed outrage that the automaker would dare to quote a “traitor” and Tibetan “separatist” figurehead. Mercedes sells about a quarter of its cars in China, so it did not resist Beijing’s censorship demands for long.
The ad was swiftly taken down, and Mercedes-Benz made a groveling apology on China’s Weibo social media service, professing to understand how the ad “hurt the feelings of people in the country, including our colleagues working in China” and denouncing its own Instagram post for containing “extremely erroneous information.”
It should be noted that Instagram is banned in China, so this is another example of Beijing reaching beyond its borders to strangle freedom of speech in the outside world.
Mercedes was not off the hook yet. State-run Chinese publications such as the Global Times and People’s Daily took the position that Mercedes should never have made its “mistake” in the first place, so removing the ad and apologizing was not good enough. Companies doing business in China are expected to comply in advance with its authoritarian speech codes. Obedience is expected to become a constant state of mind.
“The car company followed in the footsteps of U.S. hotel chain Marriott, who just recently apologized for wrongly labeling Chinese territories as independent countries,” the People’s Daily wrote, hoisting the scalp of an American company previously threatened into submission. “Chasing profits in China while hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, the reason for this conduct of some foreign enterprises is unacceptable.”
“At a Tibet work conference held in August 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that the international community should understand that foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs is intolerable. The President sent a clear message that any country, enterprise, or individual should not challenge the core interests of China, and any activity to split China will never be tolerated,” the Communist paper said.
The People’s Daily then dropped a bomb on Mercedes-Benz by asking the German automaker how people in its country would react “if a foreign enterprise speaks highly of Adolf Hitler and propagates his quotes, or worships views that try to separate Germans.”
The Chinese concluded by sneering that Mercedes’ professed commitment to “social responsibility” is a sham and dismissing its apology as insincere.
“China’s core interests cannot be challenged. Without sincere reflection, any foreign car business will not survive in China,” the People’s Daily threatened.
The Global Times was, unsurprisingly, on the same page. “The issue of sovereignty is where China’s core interests lie and cannot be challenged. Foreign companies must have basic political sensitivities and respect the feelings of the Chinese people when conducting business in China. Otherwise, they cannot win the Chinese market,” it lectured.
According to the Global Times, Mercedes’ image has been “tarnished” by the incident, and it might be looking at a substantial loss of Chinese sales in the year ahead.
In all of these corporate bullying incidents, China is merely imitating the tactics used by American progressives who anoint themselves as spokespersons for vast numbers of aggrieved victims and launch social media campaigns to demand apologies and concessions for such speech crimes as implying there are only two human sexes.
The difference is that China’s authoritarian government doesn’t have to organize boycotts, spin up Twitter bot farms, or wait for Hollywood stars to insinuate its ideology into entertainment products. They can pull just about any company’s plug whenever they want to, and they are growing increasingly bold about telling foreign companies that their behavior outside China must conform to Beijing’s standards in certain matters. The list of such matters can be expected to grow as China is further emboldened by its successes.