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Hurt feelings: How foreign brands are proving to be a soft target as China wields its power

German automaker Mercedes-Benz unwittingly became an “enemy of the Chinese people” earlier this month, after exhorting its Instagram followers to start their week with a “fresh perspective on life from the Dalai Lama.”

“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open,” it said above a photo of a white sedan on an empty beach.

The company quickly apologised for “hurting the feelings of the [Chinese] people,” becoming the latest in a string of international firms to ask for forgiveness over material that does not align with Beijing’s official position on sovereignty disputes.

mercedes benz dalai lama

Photo: Twitter/China Media Project.

Last month, hotel giant Marriott announced an “eight-point rectification plan” after it triggered uproar online with a customer questionnaire that listed Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries. One of its executives apologised in an interview with state media, deeming it “probably one of the biggest” mistakes in his career.

Rights groups supporting Tibet accused the companies of “kowtowing” to China, saying that the apologies only further China’s efforts to silence international debate on the issue of Tibet, and allow Chinese authorities to use their statements to undermine the human rights of the Tibetan people.

China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s and views its exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a separatist, though he says he only seeks greater autonomy for the region. Beijing claims indisputable sovereignty over Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet and Taiwan.

‘Bargaining power’

Simon Lee, co-director of The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s International Business and Chinese Enterprise Program, told HKFP that it was “quite natural” for businesses to show respect by apologising to their Chinese consumers, due to the size of the Chinese market. China has overtaken the United States as the country with the largest middle class, according to Credit Suisse.

Beijing Marriott Hotel

Beijing Marriott Hotel. Photo: Marriott.

China’s middle class consists of around 225 million households, and that number is expected to increase by 50 million households by 2020. according to consultancy firm McKinsey.

According to Lee, the apologies are linked to the bargaining power of Chinese consumers, who demand more respect for their country as their influence on the balance sheets rise.

“From a business perspective, whenever a company conducts business in any place, they have to respect the political environment, not just the commercial environment.”

Lee said that an apology can be effective in appeasing Chinese consumers, and in the case of big companies such as Marriott and Mercedes, their overseas consumers are likely more concerned about obtaining a quality product and less likely to be politically involved.

“An apology says that we can still maintain the relationship,” he said.

State media appears to have fanned the flames of online indignation in these cases. Outrage over Marriott escalated after it was posted on the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account, with many urging a boycott. Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily published an editorial calling Mercedes an “enemy of the Chinese people,” and a spokesman from the foreign ministry said that “recognising and correcting one’s mistakes is the most basic of ethics.”

delta airlines

Photo: Wikicommons/Andrei Dimofte.

Government agencies also took action by blocking Marriott’s website and app for a week, with the same Shanghai cyberspace authority actively calling out Spanish clothing giant Zara and medical device company Medtronic for similar listings. China’s civil aviation authority also criticised 24 airlines for listing regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries and asked them to correct their websites and apps to ensure they do not make similar mistakes again. It also singled out US carrier Delta Airlines, demanding a public apology.

‘Soft targets’

Political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss, author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, told HKFP: “these companies are soft targets for the Chinese government and media, which have played an important role in highlighting the angry backlash from Chinese netizens.”

“These incidents play into a nationalist narrative of foreign disrespect, a narrative that the Chinese Communist Party has cultivated and continues to amplify under Xi Jinping.”

CUHK’s Lee said that the authorities may have been attempting to send a message to other governments and companies to comply with Beijing’s official stance by doling out punishments to big international conglomerates. He said the central authorities may be hoping that big companies such as Delta and Marriott may be able to exert influence on the US government.

“I think it’s a kind of gesture to give a signal to these commercial enterprises that they eventually convey… to the US government.”

Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Macquarie University and author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China, told HKFP that companies apologising to China for offending nationalist sensibilities are complicit in what Oxford political scientist Stein Ringen calls a “controlocracy,” referring to the sophisticated mix of hard and soft measures used to sustain the Party’s rule.

china flag protest

File photo: In-Media.

“I can’t blame a company for wanting access to China market – this makes perfect sense. I would, however, blame a company for this very unthoughtful, very unhelpful – for example – demonisation of the Dalai Lama, or denial of realities about the current status of Taiwan. If companies are going to go along with these kinds of behaviours, they’re really creating a disturbing precedent for how the world is going to engage with China.”

“Many of us, I think, are complicit to a degree in a political situation that doesn’t serve the best interests of human rights and liberties in China and the problem that I see is that as that political situation continues to deteriorate and continues to tighten, companies seem to be becoming ever more complicit in that,” he said.

He said companies should be aware that they are also being heard outside of China, and that consumers used to free and open speech may find China trying to extend its control-based approach internationally to be problematic.

“I do think that after this situation with Marriott, and the very strange way that the company handled it, if I had a choice… I wouldn’t really be all that eager to stay at a Marriott.”


A timeline of international companies apologising for offending nationalist sentiments. 

2003 Toyota apologises for ‘humiliating’ ads

The Japanese carmaker apologised to Chinese consumers for two advertisements which state media said were interpreted by Chinese people as humiliating them and the domestic industry.

toyota badao ad

Photo: Sina.

One ad showed a Chinese stone lion saluting a Toyota Prado SUV – whose name was translated to Badao, meaning domineering or despotic rule – with the accompanying ad copy: “Badao, you have to pay respect to it.”

Another showed a Land Cruiser towing a Chinese-made truck that appears similar to a Chinese military vehicle on a rocky terrain.

Toyota apologised for any “unpleasant feelings” it may have caused, said they were “solely commercial and contain no other intention,” and said it would stop running the ads.

2004 Nike apologises for “blasphemous” Lebron James ad

Sportswear giant Nike apologised for a TV advertisement showing American basketball player Lebron James battling and defeating a kung-fu master, women dressed in traditional clothing, and two dragons.

The ad was broadcast on Chinese TV, but regulators banned it after commenters in online chat rooms said they were offended by its depictions of Chinese characters losing to the American athlete.

“It also goes against rules that require ads not to contain content that blasphemes national practices and cultures,” the regulator said.

Nike said it did not intend to offend Chinese people or show disrespect to Chinese culture, and the ad was meant to encourage teenagers to overcome temptation, envy, complacency and self-doubt.

2005 McDonald’s apologises for ad showing Chinese man kneeling for discount

McDonald’s Xi’an branch pulled a commercial showing a Chinese man begging on his knees for an electronics merchant to honour his expired coupon. The ad’s message was that the fast food chain’s customers do not have to pay to take advantage of its promotions.

State media reported that Chinese people found it insulting because it suggested that they were so lacking in integrity as to beg on their knees for a discount.

The company blamed its advertising company Leo Burnett for the ad but said: “Even though the ad has no defamatory intent whatsoever … we very much regret the incident and apologize to the public.”

2008 CNN half-apologises for commentator’s ‘goons and thugs’ remark

Amid heavy criticism of what was perceived by many Chinese people to be biased Western media coverage of riots in Tibet months before the Olympics in Beijing, a comment made by CNN’s regular commentator Jack Cafferty further intensified nationalistic fury in China.

Cafferty said on a segment that the US relationship with China has changed, even if China has not.

“I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years,” he said. He later clarified that he was referring to the Chinese government, and not the Chinese people.

A foreign ministry spokesperson condemned the “vicious” remarks as slander against all Chinese people and demanded a retraction and apology from Cafferty and CNN.

CNN issued a statement saying that Cafferty’s comments represented his opinion of the Chinese government, and said it was not their intent to cause offense to the Chinese people.  The network said it “would apologize to anyone who has interpreted the comments in this way.”

2008 Fiat apologises to China after Richard Gere Tibet ad

The Italian carmaker apologised to China after Chinese newspapers reported on a commercial starring actor Richard Gere, who supports Tibet autonomy.

The advert shows Gere driving a Lancia Delta from Hollywood to the Potala Palace – the former residence of exiled spiritual leader Dalai Lama in Tibet. Gere makes handprints in the snow with a child monk, then the camera cuts to the slogan: “The power to be different.”

Fiat said it did not endorse Gere’s political views. “Fiat reiterates its neutrality in connection with any political matter, be it on a national or international basis,” it said. “Fiat Group extends its apologies to the Government of the People’s Republic of China and to the Chinese people.”

2017 Audi apologises for using map excluding Taiwan in presentation

The carmaker apologised for using a map that excluded Taiwan and parts of Tibet and Xinjiang at a presentation at its annual press conference at its headquarters in Germany.

The company apologised for using an “incorrect geographical map” in a statement after receiving heavy criticism on Chinese social media.

“This hurt the feelings of Chinese people. This was a serious mistake for which Audi wants to sincerely apologise. This is also a profound lesson from which Audi learns,” it said.

2018 Marriott unveils ‘eight-point rectification plan’ over Hong Kong and Tibet geography gaffe

The Shanghai branch of the state cyberspace administration launched an investigation of the hotel giant after it created an online furore with a customer questionnaire that listed Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries, saying the company may have violated national cyber-security and advertising laws. One of its employees also “liked” a tweet praising the questionnaire by the “Friends of Tibet” group.

The hotelier was ordered to shut down its Chinese website for a week and amend its categorisation of the regions.

Marriott’s president and CEO Arne Sorenson said in a statement that “Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China… 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.”

The company also announced an “eight-point rectification plan” and Craig S. Smith, the president and managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office, apologised in an interview with state media outlet China Daily. “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career,” Smith said.

2018 Qantas, Delta airlines change categorisation of Hong Kong and Taiwan

Following the Marriott scandal, the same regulator also called out Spanish clothing giant Zara and medical device company Medtronic for listing Taiwan as a country on their websites, after which the firms apologised and changed their websites.

China’s civil aviation authority also asked US carrier Delta Airlines to look into why Taiwan and Tibet were listed as countries on its website, and demanded an “immediate and public” apology.

The airline said: “Delta recognizes the seriousness of this issue and we took immediate steps to resolve it. It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake.”

The involvement of multiple authorities in chiding the businesses suggests possible high-level coordination within the government.

2018 Mercedes-Benz apologises for quoting the Dalai Lama in Instagram post

Although Instagram is blocked in China, the company’s post generated outrage among Chinese internet users with the quote “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”

Mercedes-Benz quickly deleted the photo and apologised on its Weibo account: “Even though we deleted the related information as soon as possible, we know this has hurt the feelings of people of this country.”

Executives at Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler also wrote an apology letter to the Chinese ambassador to Germany saying that “it had no intention of questioning or challenging in any manner China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to Chinese state media.


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Hurt feelings: How foreign brands are proving to be a soft target as China wields its power