Marriott Freezes Its Social Media Globally, And Makes Grovelling Apology To China, All For A Drop-Down Menu And Liking A Tweet

from the rectification-of-names dept

As Techdirt readers are well aware, China is rapidly growing more powerful, both economically and politically. Its economic rise has been clear enough for some time, not least in its technological prowess. Its political might, however, has only recently become more evident, as it begins to assert itself in various ways around the world. China’s sense of its own power, and its increasing impatience with anyone that dares to go against it, is nicely illustrated in a recent incident. It concerns a drop-down menu and a like on a tweet, both belonging to the “global lodging company” Marriott International, which issued the following corporate statement a few days ago:

Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite: First, by incorrectly labelling certain regions within China, including Tibet, as countries in a drop-down menu on a survey we sent out to our loyalty members; and second, in the careless “like” by an associate of a tweet that incorrectly suggested our support of this position [that Tibet is a country in its own right]. Nothing could be further from the truth: 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.

In addition to this grovelling apology, Marriott publicly punished itself by shutting down large chunks of its digital activities, as China Daily, the English-language news organ of the Chinese government, reported:

After identifying its errors, the company has taken the survey offline, “unliked” the post, shut down its six websites and apps in Chinese, and put a freeze on its social media across the world. The CEO has volunteered to issue an apology.

It has also terminated the contract with the third-party vendor that built the survey, a Canadian company that Marriott has been working with for a long time, and with the US-based employee who “liked” the tweet.

It’s not clear whether Marriott was ordered directly to take these actions, or decided to carry them out voluntarily. Either way, it’s striking that Marriott is apologizing so abjectly for actions taken in the US and Canada — not in China — and even shut down its social media activity globally, for a while. That’s a striking demonstration of China’s reach today: no matter where something happens, if the Chinese authorities don’t like it, they now expect businesses that want to work in China to come up with a “rectification plan” for these slips, just as Marriott has done, according to China Daily. That’s probably a reference to a concept in Confucian philosophy, the “rectification of names“, which means making words correspond to reality — in this case, the policies of the Chinese government. An article in Business Insider notes that other multinationals have received loud and clear the message China wishes to send by its humiliation of Marriott:

A number of international companies, including Zara, Marriott, Qantas, and Delta Air Lines, have apologized to China in the last week for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as “countries” on their websites.

Zara, Marriott and Delta Air Lines all deleted references to these regions as countries and were publicly reprimanded by Chinese authorities, while Qantas discovered and fixed the same type of “error” during a routine review of its website.

Expect much more of this kind of thing, as a newly-confident, and increasingly arrogant, China starts to swing its weight around. It will doubtless seize on even the most trivial “hurt”, real or perceived, as a pretext for humbling Western companies and thus, implicitly, their governments — just as they did to China once upon a time.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Marriott Freezes Its Social Media Globally, And Makes Grovelling Apology To China, All For A Drop-Down Menu And Liking A Tweet”

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44 Comments
Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Imagine in the U.S...

Much like US definition of “state”, the word for what everyone applies to “countries.” (Including much of the US federal government: Secretary of State, State Department, etc.)

Or “America” for that matter. The term for the New World – starting with modern-day South America – for about 270 years before some revolutionaries in the British colonies adopted it and claimed to represent all of it.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Imagine in the U.S...

I don’t think they ever claimed to represent all of it.

They called their new federation “the united states of America”, i.e., a federation made by uniting American nations together into one polity.

It’s only later on that the forces of linguistic evolution and the inexorable tendency towards verbal shorthand led people to abbreviate this name as “America”, rather than as e.g. “the United States”; the latter is in fact still used, but the former has the insurmountable advantage of being shorter, both in letter count and in syllable count.

I agree that the result is an unfortunate over-broad claim of what might be called “name territory”, but I don’t think anyone did it intentionally; I think it’s just a natural development from an unobjectionable name which people choose without realizing what would develop from it.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Imagine in the U.S...

A better comparison would be Puerto Rico. How should it be listed on a website drop-down list? Is it a separate country from the United States? Is it in the US, but a territory? Or should it be listed as a US state?

However, I don’t see the US getting upset at a Chinese hotel chain for mis-labeling Puerto Rico. Then again, the US doesn’t have the political history as China and Tibet or China and Taiwan.

Jinxed (profile) says:

I’m not sure what the issue is here. Marriott bungled a couple of things on its media websites, apologized, and took the pages down while they review their sites.

This is the price of doing business with other nations. US companies cannot resist the temptation of reaching billions of potential new customers.

If a company has to bow and kiss the feet when delivering apologies, I seriously doubt this action is worse than losing those potential profits.

Jordan Chandler says:

Taiwan

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), is a state in East Asia. Its neighbors include the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the west, Japan to the northeast, and the Philippines to the south. Taiwan is the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations.

How is it not a “Country”?

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Taiwan

Of course, it’s not nearly as simple as that.

The situation depends on whose viewpoint you adopt.

According to the Taipei government, there is only one China. It is called the “Republic of China”, and encompasses all of China, including both the mainland and the island of Taiwan. The capital is Taipei.

According to the Beijing government, there is only one China. It is called the “People’s Republic of China”, and encompasses all of China, including both the mainland and the island of Taiwan. The capital is Beijing.

Third parties may have third views.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Taiwan

It’s complicated. Both the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) officially claim both the island of Taiwan and mainland China as part of their territory. At the moment, they are in a bit of a miniature cold war, China unwilling to make a move militarily to enforce their claim on Taiwan due to potential international repercussions as well as possible internal issues, while Taiwan is not strong enough to enforce their claim on China even if they wanted to. At the moment, China is pretending that the Taiwanese government is acting under Chinese authority (as otherwise they would be legally obligated to invade) and Taiwan is deliberately avoiding drawing too much attention to themselves.

As part of this, China has cut off diplomatic relations with any country which recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign entity. At the moment, I believe there are only 19 nations which still do so (none of much international significance).

So as far as it being a “country,” it really depends on your definition. It is legally acknowledged as a country by itself, and 19 other countries. It has a government and control over part of the territory it claims (Taiwan, but not mainland China). Further, the US and EU (along with several others) have informal diplomatic relations with it (which are part of the reason China has left it alone).That’s the good news.

But every other country in the world (including the US, EU, China and Russia which are the world powers at the moment) do not consider it a country. It’s the largest “country” not in the UN because it can’t get into the UN. Almost nobody in the UN acknowledges that they’re a country.

But this is all international politics. The Marriot is a US based company. The US says Taiwan is not a country. Nearly all of their business is in countries which say Taiwan is not a country. Ergo, if prompted they’ll say Taiwan is not a country. It’s what their home country says, it’s what their business partners say, it’s what they say.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Taiwan

It’s complicated. Both the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) officially claim both the island of Taiwan and mainland China as part of their territory.

And that encapsulates the problem with politics, politicians wish to rule, and do not wish to co-operate. It is an attitude that leads to Empire, and show up in treaty negotiations, where the objective is to rule, rather than find a basis for cooperation; i.e. the US position on IP.

Anonymous Coward says:

Remember when US companies had a spine?

…Pepperidge Farms remembers.

I have such a difficult time respecting these US companies that are so easily cowed and so meekly lower themselves to tonguing the sphincters of the leadership of other nations all in the name of chasing yet more profit. I know my dollar won’t be missed by them when I am unable to bring myself to support their corporations, but it really is so very sad to watch. Good luck, Marriott, I’ll just find another place to crash for the night.

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