Big Business Bending to Beijing

25th May 2018

By Gray

New trend sees China censoring western companies over supposed attacks on their sovereignty 

Last week we saw an international incident brewing between China and, believe it or not, the clothing brand GAP. It all boiled down to a small map of China printed on one of their t-shirts, which China deemed “incorrect” as it did not include Taiwan and parts of "South Tibet". This might seem like a pretty petty thing for a foreign government to be wasting their time on, but it is just the latest in a series of similar events over the past few months.

Beijing has seemingly made it a priority to pressure big businesses into taking the Communist Party line on China's territorial disputes... and so far they are succeeding.

The world's governments bend the knee

As China’s economic clout has grown over recent years, so too has its ability to pressure foreign governments into toeing the party line - a power which they have not hesitated to use. This is certainly true when it comes to Tibet (and the Dalai Lama), but also other disputed and sensitive regions such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Beijing regards all these territories to be an inalienable part of ‘One China’ and doesn't hesitate to take drastic measures against anyone who they see as disputing this 'fact'. It is for this reason that countries tread lightly when dealing with Tibet.

China even accuses the Dalai Lama of advocating for Tibetan independence, despite his long record of pursuing a Middle Way compromise, and so considers any meeting with the spiritual leader as an attack on their soverignty.

After the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in November 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that “the Dalai Lama’s furtive visit to Mongolia brought a negative impact to China-Mongolia relations".

One week later China issued Mongolia their punishment, hitting them with extra fees and charges on the import and transport of goods. Shortly after, the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tsend Munkh-Orgil is reported to have promised China that they would never invite the Dalai Lama again, and was quoted as saying:

Mongolia firmly supports the one China policy, consistently holds that Tibet is an inseparable part of China [and] that the Tibet issue is China’s internal affair

A statement on China's Foreign Ministry website declared: “We hope that Mongolia has taken this lesson to heart".

Slovakia has only recently come out of a yearlong diplomatic freeze with China after its President met with the Dalai Lama.

After the meeting took place in late 2016, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry threatened that "China is resolutely opposed to this and will make a corresponding response".

Another statement read:

We demand the Slovak side clearly recognize the anti-Chinese separatist nature of the Dalai Lama clique and earnestly respect China’s core interests and major concerns.

Britain has felt the freeze too after David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012. The following year Cameron caved in, with a Downing Street source briefing that Britain had "turned a page" on the Dalai Lama and that the Prime Minister had no plans to meet him in the foreseeable future.

Looking at the situation from a new angle

In the past few months however, we have seen a new trend emerging, such that it is not just foreign governments dancing to Beijing’s tune. International corporations are now also feeling extreme pressure to bend over backwards and accept the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ‘One China’ principle.

Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz was forced to issue an apology after Chinese netizens took to their keyboards to condemn the company’s use of a Dalai Lama quote in an otherwise innocuous (and completely non-political) post on their Instagram profile [pictured].

They were quick to issue a grovelling apology which accepted China’s laughable line that the use of a quote from the Dalai Lama had “hurt the feelings of people in [China]” - despite the advertisement being penned in English and posted on Instagram, a site which is currently blocked by China’s great firewall.

More egregiously, in a letter to China’s Ambassador in Germany, Mercedes-Benz also promised:

...no support, assistance, aid or help to anyone who intentionally subverts or attempts to subvert China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A similar set of incidents occured in January, when companies including Marriott Hotels, fashion outlet Zara, and Delta Air Lines were all targeted for drop-down menus on their websites which appeared to recognize Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries. Once again, these incidents were completely insipid and non-political, yet the reprisals went well beyond a little social media backlash, with vocal criticism of these companies coming directly from CCP spokespersons and their media mouthpieces.

In the case of Marriott Hotels, a drop down menu on their app which allowed users to select a "Country" had Tibet as one of the possible selections. Clearly this was not intended as any sort of major statement or attack on China's sovereignty, but that did not stop them from reacting with a disproportionate reponse - completely blocking access to the Marriott website for an entire week. A move which surely saw Marriott's bookings take an enormous dip.

As with the other cases, Marriot’s President and CEO gave a cowering apology:

We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.

This was then backed up by the managing director of their Asia-Pacific office who told Chinese state media outlet China Daily that it was a “huge mistake” and promised an eight-point rectification plan. 

This latest 'scandal' with GAP's t-shirt design ended with much the same result. GAP said they "sincerely apologised for this unintentional error", that they respected China's "sovereignty" and  they would implement "rigorous reviews" to prevent a repeat of the incident.

Unfortunately, these apologies will likely only encourage other businesses to self-censor in the future.

Old narrative, new strategy

The other problem with these statements is that they go beyond merely apologising. Before these incidents neither Marriot nor Mercedes had any official position on the Tibet issue, but now, due to their responses, they have firmly promised to uphold the CCP’s ‘One China’ principle. As such, they have publicly rejected the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.

When viewed in this light, the outcry from Chinese officials over these "attacks" on their sovereignty begins to make more sense. Is it likely that any of these seemingly harmless events have truly "hurt the feelings" of a large swathe of Chinese citizens? It is doubtful. Do these slights by foreign businesses really warrant official responses from senior government officials? Probably not. What is true however, is that these incidents represent a golden opportunity for the regime to further cement their narrative on Tibet, forcing businesses to officially back their side of this debate.

The debate over Tibet is a war of narratives, China's narrative vs the Tibetan narrative, and so far the CCP’s attempt to spread their worldview on the issue has been very successful. For the most part, they already have the governments of every major nation parroting their side, and now corporations are lining up right alongside them.

Does it have to be this way?

As the Chinese economy grows, alongside the country’s middle class, it is no surprise that big western companies will want to tap into its market, but while profit matters so does public opinion.

Big business used to think twice about dealing with China, particularly when its human rights record faced international criticism post-Tiananmen. In the aftermath of the massacre, with its subsequent crackdowns, companies like Rebook International declared that it would not operate under martial law conditions. Likewise, in 1993 Levi Strauss reduced their presence in China because of the countries “pervasive violations of basic human rights”. Four years later Holiday Inn announced that it would not be renewing its partnership under which it ran the main hotel in the Tibetan capital. Their decision to end their decade long presence in Lhasa was, in part, a response to international campaigns highlighting the ongoing human rights abuses there and the erosion of Tibetan culture by China.

Those responses are a world away from the recent sagas involving Mercedes and Marriott. GAP’s apology for its map and airlines changing their websites show that these days companies are much less likely to stand up to China if it means risking their profits in the region. Beijing’s tactics to belittle business and promote self-censorship are working for now, but hopefully at some point companies will realise the costs of doing business in China.