China’s complex geography lands multinationals in public relations crisis

This year, Beijing has stepped up its policing of the language foreign companies use to refer to Chinese-claimed territories and regions. China’s increasingly assertive behaviour heightens political and reputational risks for corporates, at the same time as the Chinese market is becoming more important for many major industries.

What’s in a name?

The chain of recent events began with U.S. hotel group Marriott International on 12 January. The company had emailed a survey to members of its rewards programme to select their country of residence from a dropdown list, which included Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Taiwan. The first two are Chinese-controlled territories; Tibet is divided between China and India, while Taiwan is autonomous but claimed by Beijing.

Once public, the questionnaire exposed the company to a public relations crisis. A Tibetan separatist group used social media platform Twitter to thank Marriott for supporting its cause. In response, a Marriott rewards programme Twitter account then ‘liked’ that tweet. This angered some Chinese online users who then called for a boycott of the hotel chain. The Chinese authorities summoned Marriott’s representatives for questioning and demanded it shut down its website for a week, preventing it from taking online bookings for more than 300 hotels in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The hotel later issued a public apology saying that it ‘respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China’ and rejects support for any separatist movements. An opinion post in U.S. newspaper The Washington Post calls Marriot’s decision a ‘pitiful apology’.

The authorities then began to scrutinise other foreign companies’ websites. Since January, more than 40 other foreign companies operating in China across a range of sectors have received official warnings over their descriptions of political geography, including retailers such as Zara and Muji, and airlines. In all but one case, Chinese complaints involved the naming of Taiwan, an island which Beijing views as a breakaway territory which will one day reunite with the mainland. Most of the incidents involved the listing of Taiwan as a country rather than a territory, while a handful involved companies being criticised for failing to include disputed territories as part of China, such as in the South China Sea.

Most of these issues gained rapid traction over Chinese social media platforms, which are patrolled by nationalist internet trolls loyal to the Communist Party of China

Most of these issues gained rapid traction over Chinese social media platforms, which are patrolled by nationalist internet trolls loyal to the Communist Party of China, and they eventually became a nationwide debate. The only exception to the bottom-up nature of this campaign was when the Chinese civil aviation authorities issued warnings in late April to 36 foreign airlines, including American Airlines and Delta of the U.S. and Qantas Airways of Australia, to stop listing Taiwan as a country. This is the only instance thus far in which Chinese internet users did not take the lead in calling out foreign companies.

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