The past week has seen a series of moves by the Cyberspace Administration of China and other official bodies to police sensitive political references on foreign companies’ websites, in part based on national security provisions in the country’s new cybersecurity law. The same law was also behind the recent news that Apple would hand over management of Chinese users’ iCloud data to a Chinese firm. From Reuters’ Brenda Goh and John Ruwitch:
China’s aviation authority on Friday demanded an apology from Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) for listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website, while another government agency took aim at Inditex-owned (ITX.MC) fashion brand Zara and medical device maker Medtronic Plc (MDT.N) for similar issues.
[…] The apparent intensification of efforts to police how foreign businesses refer to Chinese-claimed territories – even if only in pull-down menus – underscores just how sensitive the issue of sovereignty has become in a China that is increasingly emboldened on the international stage.
[…] The aviation authority also said it would require all foreign airlines operating routes to China to conduct comprehensive investigations of their websites, apps and customer-related information and “strictly comply with China’s laws and regulations to prevent a similar thing from happening”.
In a statement, Delta apologized for making “an inadvertent error with no business or political intention”, saying it recognized the seriousness of the issue and had taken steps to resolve it. [Source]
The starting pistol in the current volley was aimed at the Marriott hotel group after a Weibo user spotted a "disgusting" affront to Chinese sovereignty in an online survey. From Wayne Ma at The Wall Street Journal:
U.S. hotel giant Marriott International Inc. has been ordered by Chinese authorities to temporarily shut its website and mobile app to Chinese residents after circulating an online guest survey that listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau—all claimed by China—as separate countries.
In a statement posted on its official social media account on Thursday evening, the Shanghai office of China’s Cyberspace Administration said it demanded that Marriott suspend operation of its Chinese website and the Chinese version of its smartphone app for the next week.
[…] The Huangpu district of Shanghai—where Marriott’s business is registered —said late Wednesday that Marriott violated cyber-security and advertising laws and that it had launched an investigation into the hotel group. [Source]
The CAC further accused Marriott of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” To make matters worse, one of Marriott’s official Twitter accounts was then seen to "Like" a Tibet independence group’s post about the listing:
Chinese netizens on Thursday urge investigation on Marriott after @MarriottRewards liked a “pro-independence of Tibet” tweet that congratulated Marriott listing #Tibet as a country on its app. pic.twitter.com/mN6D0tys8n
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) January 11, 2018
One Chinese Twitter user expressed his disillusionment with @MarriottRewards by giving Americans a taste of the same medicine:
This man’s pivot from a Marriott rewards points-accumulation account to supporting Californian independence is peak China pic.twitter.com/NItpxk6biG
— Cooper (@Cooperw12) January 12, 2018
I'm awaiting an angry reaction from the U.S. government and internet users. https://t.co/GPE1iNP5ED
— Sui-Lee Wee 黄瑞黎 (@suilee) January 12, 2018
A Xinhua commentary and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson both rebuked Marriott:
Respecting China’s core interests is the bottom line for companies to operate in the country.
As an international hotel chain with operations around the world, it is hard to understand why Marriott should have listed Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries in its recent questionnaire email to elite members.
Territorial integrity is China’s core interests. Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Tibet are all indispensable parts of China. These facts are beyond doubt and challenge.
"We welcome foreign enterprises to do business in China. Meanwhile, they should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by Chinese law, and respect the Chinese peoples’ feelings, which are the foundation for any corporation to do business in any country," said Lu Kang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in answering a question on the Marriott incident at a news briefing held in Beijing Friday.
[…] To show its sincerity and corporate responsibility, Marriott should, at the very least, immediately look into the matter and deliver a clear and convincing answer to the public. [Source]
The company has rushed to do so, as Caixin’s Teng Jing Xuan reports:
As of Thursday, the official Marriott Rewards Weibo page had made four separate posts apologizing for the survey, which the company said it had taken offline.
[…] Marriott made three posts on the matter Tuesday and Wednesday before making a more strongly worded one on Thursday. “Marriott International respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said. “We absolutely do not support any separatist organizations undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We deeply apologize for any actions that may have caused misunderstandings about the above position.” [Source]
It echoed these sentiments on Twitter:
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.
— Marriott Bonvoy (@MarriottBonvoy) January 11, 2018
The firm’s president and CEO Arne Sorenson reiterated in a statement:
Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite[….]
[…] Upon completion of a full investigation into how both incidents happened, we will be taking the necessary disciplinary action with respect to the individuals involved, which could include termination, changing our approval and review procedures for online content, reviewing our customer feedback channels, and enhancing training to ensure these situations don’t happen again. We are also working closely and co-operating with the relevant Government authorities in China.
As a company, we take very seriously the privilege and opportunity we have to serve guests in countries around the world – and particularly in China, a market we have been in for over 30 years. We also take responsibility when we make mistakes. We will learn from this experience, make changes to ensure errors like this don’t happen again, and continue to focus on making sure our Chinese guests feel respected and have wonderful experiences as we have the privilege of serving them in our hotels in China and around the globe. [Source]
China Daily noted that "Marriott International is not the first international enterprise that has made such a mistake. In May, Coca-Cola put the names of China and Taiwan on separate labels on a drinks dispenser at an exhibition center in Atlanta in the United States, raising strong objections from Chinese netizens." Even Chinese companies have slipped up: last January, Alibaba tweeted a map graphic that showed China without Taiwan or the South China Sea islands, and America without Alaska or Hawaii. The company offered "no excuse [and] our deepest apologies."
The sensitivity of Taiwan’s de facto independence was illustrated in May last year after a ruling by its top court cleared the way for legalization of gay marriage. According to a leaked propaganda directive published by CDT:
News regarding “Taiwan becoming a legal area for same-sex marriage,” raises sensitive political and social issues. Do not hype this story. Regarding terms such as constitution, Judicial Yuan, Legislative Yuan, President, etc., take note to use quotation marks. Make sure not to present Taiwan as a different political entity than the Chinese mainland. [Source]
Earlier that month, Xinhua had issued a set of guidelines covering similar territory. From ZiQing Low at The News Lens:
- Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions, and Taiwan is a province of China. These regions should not be referred to as “countries” in any text, maps or graphs, especially when many other countries and regions are also being mentioned.
- If the use of names referring to Taiwan’s governmental system and other such institutions cannot be avoided, then quotation marks should be used, such as Taiwan’s “Legislative Yuan,” “Executive Yuan,” “Control Yuan,” “Central Election Commission,” “Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Executive Yuan.” The words “central,” “national,” “Chinese Taipei” should be avoided. If it the use of such words cannot be avoided then quotation marks should be used, such as Taiwan “Central Bank.” Taiwan’s “Premier,” “Legislators,” and other such terms should be put in quotation marks. Taiwan’s “National Tsing Hua University,” “Palace Museum,” and other such names should be put in quotation marks. Under no condition should “President (or Vice-President) of the Republic of China” be used to refer to the leaders of Taiwan, even if it is put in quotation marks.
- The so-called “law” in Taiwan should be referred to as “relevant regulations of Taiwan.” When referring to legal affairs in Taiwan, do not use international legal terms such as “document validation,” “judicial assistance,” or “extradition.” [Source]
China has previously attempted to police online references to Taiwan and Tibet through channels such as the United Nations’ NGO accreditation process, as a Human Rights Watch report on Chinese interference at the U.N. described last year:
As noted above, China has been especially insistent in questioning NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, about their views on Tibet and Taiwan. Even NGOs whose work was not focused on China, Tibet, or Taiwan were subjected to such questions. The following examples are illustrative:
The representative of China said the website incorrectly identified Taiwan as a country and he hoped the group would clarify its position on Taiwan and correct that information according to United Nations rules.
−Engineers Without Borders, January 2016
The representative of China noted that ‘Taiwan’ was listed as a country on the organization’s website, and asked for correction.
−Child Soldiers International, January 2016
The representative of China noted that Tibet was listed as a country on its website, asking the organization to clarify its position on that issue.
−Action Against Hunger, May 2016
[…] An NGO representative who observed these proceedings noted that the extent to which China pursued this line of questioning was sometimes so extreme that even small NGOs whose work has little relationship to China could face these kinds of questions. She stated: “There was a Coptic solidarity organization under review [at the NGO Committee meeting in January 2017], and China asked them a question about their position on Taiwan and Tibet.… This Coptic solidarity organization is very unlikely to have anything to do with China.” [Source]
Meanwhile, in another example of corporate deference, American conglomerate Honeywell has eagerly adopted the spirit of the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, according to Global Times:
Senior executives of US-based Honeywell International Inc found ample business opportunities in the report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held in October 2017.
"The more I studied the report, the more excited I am," said William Yu, vice president and general manager at Honeywell Performance Materials and Technologies (PMT) Asia Pacific. PMT is one of the four strategic business groups of Honeywell.
[…] Yu told the Global Times that after the report was delivered at the Party congress, Honeywell sent copies of the report – both in English and Chinese – to the company’s management staff and invited them to study the report thoroughly.
"A couple of weeks ago, we also organized group discussions of the report," Yu said, adding that he plans to invite another expert to explain contents in the report to Honeywell employees this month.
[…] He also stressed that unlike some companies that just studied the report as a matter of routine, Honeywell studied the report for the company’s development.
[…] Lydia Lu, vice president of communications, Honeywell Asia High Growth Regions, said that the company has always had the tradition of studying important government documents in China, including the 13th Five-Year Plan(2016-20). [Source]