China cracks down on foreign firms listing Taiwan, Tibet as countries after Marriott offense

Woman walks past a Marriott hotel in Hangzhou. Photo: Reuters

The Chinese authorities have tightened scrutiny over foreign companies which disregard China's sovereignty after a global hotel chain labeled Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as "countries".

Last week, Marriott International reportedly listed Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries in an email sent to the Chinese members of its loyalty scheme. The action was deemed as disrespecting the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China and triggered indignation among Chinese citizens who called for a boycott of the global hotel chain in China.

Inexplicably, Marriott did not do the same in its English-language version of the email, which was interpreted as a provocation to Beijing. Worse still, Marriott angered Beijing even further when the official Twitter account of Marriott Rewards gave a "like" to a tweet from Friends of Tibet, an India-based advocacy group that supports the independence of Tibet, and congratulated the global hotel chain for calling Tibet a country.

Taiwan is considered by Beijing as an inalienable province of China, although the separatists have never given up their ambition of making the self-ruled island an independent country.

Tibet is governed as an autonomous region of China, while Hong Kong and Macau, the two foreign colonies, returned to the motherland last century as special administrative regions, where people enjoy high degree of autonomy. But in recent years, the central government has been upset with an escalation in the intensity of the movement for Hong Kong's independence from the Chinese mainland.

Shortly after the media reports about Marriott's wrongdoing, the Shanghai Cyberspace Administration launched an immediate investigation into it, with a directive that asked for a one-week shutdown of Marriott's official Chinese website and mobile phone app and ordered the international hotel chain to delete all the content that caused offence and make a self-rectification to avoid any repeat. The behavior of listing Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries "is severely in violation of China's related laws and regulations" and "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people", said an official from the Shanghai Cyberspace Administration.

The Marriott event also drew close attention from China's foreign ministry. At a regular news briefing last week, a spokesperson of the ministry condemned Marriot, urging the foreign companies doing business in China to comply with the Chinese laws and show respect to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Facing strong criticism, Marriott made three apologies on its verified account of Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform in China, with the latest one saying that it "respects China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and will never support any separatist groups undermining China's sovereignty and territorial integrity".

The apologies were followed by a statement from Arne Sorenson, president and chief executive officer of Marriott International. In the statement which was also published on Marriott's Sina Weibo account, Sorenson admitted the company's errors and promised to prevent the reoccurrence of the offense.

"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 contents, reviewing our customer feedback channels and enhancing training to ensure these situations do not happen again. We are also working closely and cooperating with the relevant government authorities in China," Sorenson said in the statement.

However, the online apologies did not quell the anger of Chinese Internet users. Many Internet users left comments on Sina Weibo, saying that they will never book rooms at Marriott hotels and will boycott the global hotel chain together with their friends.

Some Internet users even reminded Marriott of the fate of Lotte Group in China. The South Korean retail giant has been the target of the harshest attack in China since it agreed to offer a self-owned golf course as the deployment site for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in a land swap deal signed with the South Korean defense ministry in February 2017. In September last year, Lotte announced the decision to sell its money-losing Lotte Mart supermarkets in China, which was widely seen as a result of China's economic retaliation over Seoul's deployment of the controversial defense system that Beijing considers as a big threat to its national security.

Similar things happened in 2012 when Japanese carmakers suffered plunging sales and cut manufacturing targets in China following a series of nationwide anti-Japanese protests against Japanese-brand cars and even their owners, which were caused by the heightened tensions over the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea between China and Japan.

In the light of the facts, experts said that the China business of Marriott might be affected as the incident involves China's sovereignty, the bottom line of Beijing. Wu Hai, a lawyer based in Shanghai, said that listing Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries in the promotion email goes against China's Cybersecurity Law and Advertisement Law, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency. Marriott might face a fine of up to one million yuan and even the revocation of business license in the country as the severest punishment, the Xinhua report quoted the lawyer as saying.

Marriott operates more than 100 hotels in China.

The Marriott incident continued to ferment. On Friday, the Civil Aviation Administration of China ordered all foreign airline companies operating flights to China to conduct thorough investigations of their official websites, apps and customer-related information after it found that Delta Air Lines listed Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website. On the same day, the Shanghai Cyberspace Administration asked fashion brand Zara and medical technology provider Medtronic to make public apologies and complete comprehensive self-examinations after the two companies included Taiwan into the lists of countries on their official websites.

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