China raps foreign firms over 'country' listings

The businesses had referred to Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong as countries

SHANGHAI • The Chinese authorities have rapped Western businesses ranging from the world's biggest hotel chain Marriott to Spanish fashion label Zara for listing Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries, in a fresh show of Beijing's acute sensitivity about the autonomous regions.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China said yesterday that it had asked Delta Air Lines to investigate why Taiwan and Tibet were listed as countries on its website, and demanded an "immediate and public" apology.

The authority also said that 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".

Meanwhile the Shanghai branch of the state cyberspace administration has shut down Marriott's local website for a week after the United States hotel giant mistakenly listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries in a customer questionnaire.

Marriott's Twitter account for its loyalty programme was also found to have "liked" and shared a post by Friends of Tibet, which campaigns for independence for the region, soon after the hotel giant apologised for the first gaffe.

The same regulator accused Zara of placing Taiwan in a pull-down list of countries on its Chinese website. Medtronic had also put "Republic of China (Taiwan)" on one of its websites, the office said in a WeChat post, giving both companies until 6pm local time to apologise.

Medtronic issued an apology via social media, saying it had updated the website. An executive who answered the phone at Zara's Shanghai office was not able to immediately comment.

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 world stage.

The involvement of more than one Chinese authority in rebuking businesses across different industries suggested possible coordination at a high level of government.

"It's hard not to see it as part of the wider trend where nationalist issues are being emphasised very deliberately as part of the new era," said a China-based Western businessman who declined to be identified. "It's hard not to think this is the shape of things to come for foreign companies, having to be even more careful about these sensitivities."

Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that are now part of China but run largely autonomously. China annexed Tibet in 1950, although Beijing has long claimed the Himalayan region has been an indivisible part of China throughout history.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue. The Communist Party considers the self-ruled, democratic island a province and refuses to renounce the threat of force to bring it into the fold.

"The companies that come to China should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by China's laws, and respect the feelings of the Chinese people," Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing yesterday. "This is the minimum requirement of any company going to another country to carry out business and investment."

In a statement, Delta apologised for making "an inadvertent error with no business or political intention", saying it recognised the seriousness of the issue and had taken steps to resolve it.

Last year, German carmaker Audi AG apologised for using a map that excluded Taiwan and parts of Tibet and the western Xinjiang region after it was heavily criticised on Chinese social media.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2018, with the headline 'China raps foreign firms over 'country' listings'. Print Edition | Subscribe