Apologies to china
The definitive list of international companies that have issued apologies to maintain their market access in China in recent years. Plus, a record of the even more widespread phenomenon of self-censorship for the Chinese market.
By now, pretty much everyone has noticed — or should have noticed — how much influence China holds over many international corporations.
Much of the awareness can be attributed to the ongoing NBA-China controversy, where a sports league known in the U.S. for its progressive values is being forced to stay deafeningly silent on the decidedly un-woke policies of the Chinese government in order to keep NBA basketball in Chinese stadiums and on Chinese TV.
But other brands of many types, ranging from fashion and luxury labels to hotel groups and even a medical device company, have all been strongly condemned by the Chinese government and on Chinese social media in the past few years. Increasingly, these companies have bent to pressure and issued apologies, some of them groveling, but almost all of them containing remarkably similar phrases about “respecting China’s territorial integrity.”
Before this summer, China’s two most commonly stepped-in political hotspots for international companies were Taiwan and Tibet. Now, Hong Kong has joined that list. With massive pro-democracy protests erupting in Hong Kong in June and continuing today, any activism — even perceived activism by brands — about the political future of that city by foreigners has become anathema to Beijing.
Tibet is officially an Autonomous Region of China, Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region, and Taiwan is a de facto independent country. But Beijing makes claims of total sovereignty to all these, and even the slightest suggestion that the regions should have more autonomy from Beijing or that — in the case of Taiwan — it should be treated as the de facto independent territory that it is, is viewed as a great offense by Beijing and many Chinese nationalists.
Without further ado, here is the list of companies that have apologized to China. The companies are listed in reverse chronological order of their apologies, with the most recent first. For each company, we note what Chinese social media (and sometimes the government) took offense at, and when the company apologized, with a link to their apology.
The humiliation of Marriott hotel group
Before the NBA, Marriott hotel group was the most extreme example of an American company apologizing to China. After Chinese internet users discovered in January 2018 that Marriott had sent out a customer questionnaire that listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries, the Shanghai office of the Cyberspace Administration of China blocked the company’s website and app for a week. It was during that blackout that Chinese internet users additionally discovered that Mariott’s loyalty program Twitter account had “liked” a tweet by Friends of Tibet, which campaigns for independence for the region.
To redeem its damaged status in the Chinese market, Marriott groveled hard. On January 12, the hotel chain sent out a statement that read, “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.” The company also fired the poor hourly social media manager in Nebraska who was responsible for the Twitter activity, and the company’s president added on January 13, 2018: “Our official [Twitter] account wrongly ‘liked’ the tweet supporting Tibet independence and misled the public” (link).
But Marriott went even further in its apologies, on January 17 issuing an “eight-point rectification plan” promising to follow China’s laws more closely (link in Chinese). The managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office also told Chinese state media China Daily, “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”
Earlier apologies, half-apologies, and coerced censorship
There are earlier examples of international companies apologizing to China, going back to the early 2000s — see the Hong Kong Free Press for a timeline. But the offenses before 2017 were not as often about Beijing’s territorial claims, and the apologies were not always as groveling. For example, in 2007, American toy manufacturer Mattel apologized to the Chinese people for blaming a lead paint problem in its products on its China suppliers, and the harm to the “reputation of Chinese manufacturers” that this had caused.
A few other companies, including Dolce & Gabbana and Audi, have apologized in recent years for racist or sexist ads in China, though this is a much less China-specific kind of corporate mistake and apology than stepping on territorial sensitivities.
There are also a few more recent cases of companies half-apologizing to China, but not exactly admitting any “error” or “mistake,” or specifically repeating Chinese government talking points. The two most notable in this category:
- MUJI, a Japanese lifestyle brand, has been targeted multiple times by Chinese nationalist outrage for different types of transgressions. In January 2018, catalogues from the company that “left the disputed Senkaku Islands off a map” were scrapped after complaints from Chinese officials. And in September 2019, the brand apologized for describing the location of an event in Shanghai as “in the French Concession” (法租界 fǎ zūjiè), following complaints from a number of internet users who slammed it for being culturally insensitive and disrespecting Chinese history. However, the company’s apology statement was general: “We had no intention of harming national sentiment or disrespecting Chinese culture and history.”
- Pocari Sweat, a Japanese sports drink company, withdrew ads from Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing TV station TVB in July, outraging Chinese nationalists. Its apology statement was also fairly generally worded, and without admitting error, stated, “We resolutely uphold ‘One Country, Two Systems’” (link).
Finally, there is another type of corporate maneuvering to maintain access in the Chinese market: self-censorship. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether companies self-censor because of direct orders from Chinese officials, or if they do so because they are proactively avoiding political sensitivities from Chinese nationalists.
One prominent instance of companies being forced to censor by Beijing, rather than self-censorship per se: In addition to Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, along with at least eight other international airlines — Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways, Qantas, Air France, Malaysia Airlines, Japan Airlines, and ANA — were all compelled by July 2018 to change how they listed places like Taiwan and Hong Kong on their websites so as not to imply they are separate from China. In May 2018, the Trump administration dubbed this “Orwellian nonsense.”
All the companies self-censoring
Studios in Hollywood have been self-censoring blockbuster movies in order to get past Chinese censors for over a decade. To give three major examples: A Tibetan monk in Dr. Strange was replaced by a white actress, Tilda Swinton, to avoid any Tibet-related sensitivities; the sequel to Top Gun starring Tom Cruise omitted the flag of Taiwan on his jacket; and in Red Dawn, a remake of a Cold War–era movie, the Chinese army depicted invading the U.S. homeland was retroactively replaced with a North Korean army, after a leaked script was criticized by Chinese state media.
Apple has “given in to China” at least six times, according to Abacus. The most recent example is an app, HKmap.live, which lets Hongkongers track police movements. It was rejected, then approved, and then rejected again on the App Store.
LinkedIn is one of a few American companies to go all in on a censorship-for-market-access trade. See Inkstone for more. Facebook and Google have both flirted with launching censored versions of their products in China in recent years, but neither has done so.
Other self-censorship related to Hong Kong: Tiffany and Co. removed an ad where a model had a hand over one eye, which is a symbol of the protests in Hong Kong. Google censored a Hong Kong protest-related role-playing game. Cathay Pacific warned employees not to participate in protests in Hong Kong, and allegedly fired an employee for her posts on Facebook about the protests.
The gaming studio Blizzard has doubled down on its policy to punish political speech from professional gamers, even after it was met with a huge backlash from gamers after punishing a player from Hong Kong for expressing his support for the city’s protests.
The Harry Potter–themed website, Wizarding World, backtracked on a decision to list Taiwan as separate from China after outrage on the Chinese internet.
Ray-Ban sunglasses “quietly changed its website description of ‘Taiwan’ and ‘Hongkong’ to ‘China Taiwan’ and ‘China Hongkong’” in February this year, according to Business Insider.
Global Blue, a Switzerland-based tourism shopping tax refund company, reportedly fired an employee for referring to Taiwan as “an independent country.”
Air New Zealand turned back a plane to China mid-flight after its paperwork “indicated Taiwan is an independent country.”