International brands have increasingly learned the lesson that if they don’t bow to Beijing over politics, they shouldn’t expect to benefit from a lucrative Chinese market. For a cautionary tale, just look at Lotte Group. Last year, the South Korean conglomerate decided to sell its supermarket chain in China, after being boycotted by the public for providing land to host an anti-missile system that is deemed a threat by Beijing.
Beijing’s attempts to pressure foreign businesses to stick to its ideological line come amid the country’s growing influence on the global stage and rising nationalism among its online citizens—and increasingly extend to corporate messaging outside China’s borders. Some companies have recently learned the hard way the importance of the subtle art of the apology, which China’s foreign ministry this week called “a basic principle of doing business.”
You can learn from their “mistakes.” A quick apology is good but even better is not becoming an “enemy of the people” in the first place. If you do, be quick to bow (but never bow down literally.) Also important? A little flattery.
The German luxury car maker Monday (Feb. 5) posted on Instagram a photo of a white coupe parked on a beach, with the quote “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” The seemingly benign ad has irritated China’s internet users and state media alike because the quote was attributed to someone they consider a dangerous separatist: the Dalai Lama. The 82-year-old Tibetan religious leader has been living in exile in India after an uprising against Chinese rule failed in 1959.
Mercedes-Benz quickly responded to the online outrage by deleting the ad and posting an apology on Weibo (link in Chinese), China’s Twitter-esque microblogging site. “We fully understand that the incident has hurt the feelings of Chinese people, including our employees in China,” wrote the Weibo statement. “In light of this, we will immediately take measures to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values—including our overseas colleagues—to ensure this won’t happen again.”
Still, the apology wasn’t enough for many. The state-run People’s Daily published (link in Chinese) an opinion piece titled “Mercedes-Benz, what you did makes yourself an enemy of the Chinese people” on Tuesday evening (Feb. 6), even after the apology was issued. The Global Times, a nationalistic state tabloid, also weighed in (link in Chinese): “We have to say Mercedes-Benz’s China branch has a quick response, which reflects the importance of the Chinese market. But even the quickest response is no better than not making mistakes, right?” And China’s foreign ministry offered a key business tip to execs.
In a Chinese-language survey sent out to customers in January, Marriott International listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as options on a question asking customers their country of residence. Chinese netizens spotted the error and took to Weibo to boycott the hotel chain. Authorities in Shanghai launched an investigation into the brand for suspected violation of Chinese cybersecurity and advertising laws, and later shut down its local website for a week. Amid the the backlash, Marriott posted an apology on Weibo, saying the company “respects Chinese sovereignty and its territorial integrity.”
“This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career,” Craig S. Smith, president and managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office, was quoted by state newspaper China Daily as saying in an interview. “To regain confidence and trust, the first thing is to admit the mistake, then fix it, and it would come back slowly as we prove we really mean what we say.”
But to make things worse, an official Twitter account of Marriott later “liked” a tweet from a pro-Tibetan independence activist group that congratulated the hotel group for listing Tibet as a country. Marriott later said it fired the US-based employee who did this.
Following the Marriott incident, a long list of international companies also faced pressure from Beijing and issued apologies for listing Taiwan as independent countries on their websites. They include Spanish retailer Zara, US carrier Delta Air Lines, Australia’s Qantas airline, and medic device maker Medtronic. Last week, Beijing ordered Japanese retailer Muji to destroy a catalog with a map that it says mislabels Taiwan and omits the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that Japan also claims, prompting an official complaint from Tokyo.
Of course, it’s not just about apologies. It’s also about preempting a backlash by showing up and choosing the right words.
In December, Apple CEO Tim Cook attended China’s annual internet conference in Wuzhen, a city near Shanghai, and delivered a surprise keynote speech in which he said:
The theme of this conference—developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits—is a vision we at Apple share.
We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.
As a matter of fact, the Wuzhen summit promotes China’s vision for a more censored and controlled global internet. Cook’s remarks came months after Apple was criticized for removing hundreds of VPN apps from its Chinese app store that help users mask their location and bypass internet censorship in China, as Beijing cracked down on the use of the software this year.
Also at the summit was Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who talked in a group panel about how the company has helped boost China’s economy.
Later, Cook defended his attendance (paywall) at the summit, saying that companies in Apple’s position should participate in China’s tech world rather than be bystanders who “yell at how things should be… you participate, you get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline.”
And sometimes actions speak louder than words.
It’s an open secret that Mark Zuckerberg is willing to do a lot to get Facebook back into China. The tech giant’s founder and CEO once went jogging without a breathing mask in Beijing, when the air quality was at a “hazardous” level. He read Chinese president Xi Jinping’s book on communism, and even bought it for his employees. He reportedly even once asked Xi for a baby name suggestion.
Facebook has so far made little headway in re-entering China, which has blocked the service since 2009.
During his latest appearance in China in October, Zuckerberg was among Xi’s guests at an annual gathering of business elite in Beijing to hear the Chinese leader talk about openness. A Chinese idiom uttered by Xi at the time might be the perfect description of Zuckerberg’s frustrating courtship with China (and perhaps another principle of doing business?): “Despite a failed deal, our friendship remains.”