Ignoring China’s sovereignty proves a risky business
Top firms face paying the price for treating places such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet as countries on their customer websites
The first rule of doing business in a country is to understand its laws and, in the case of China, it would also be prudent to be aware of the importance of sovereignty. Marriott International, Delta Air Lines, Zara and a number of other firms failed to do that with websites showing geographical regions as separate countries.
Confronted with their mistake, they apologised and corrected the oversight, although that may not be enough to protect market shares given the feelings of many Chinese. Respect for territorial integrity can never be taken lightly.
Marriott failed that requirement by referring in a customer survey to Taiwan, the Tibet autonomous region and the Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions as countries. The hotel chain caused further anger when one of its staff “liked” a Twitter account supporting Tibetan independence. Delta Air Lines had Taiwan and Tibet listed among countries in a drop-down box on a website. The Spanish retailer Zara, which has 170 stores on the mainland, named Taiwan as a country in outlining its clothing recycling programme.
There has understandably been a social media backlash on the mainland, with posters expressing outrage and threatening boycotts. Apologies are no guarantee of placating consumers, nor will punishing staff involved, as Marriott is doing over the Tibet independence gaffe. But checking websites, apps and marketing and feedback material to make sure they comply with Chinese requirements is essential. A guide, which those companies that have been caught out ignored, are the country codes of the International Organisation for Standardisation, which does not mention Tibet and refers to Taiwan as a province of China.
As a service to customers, some firms may differentiate between particular areas of China; some regions have differing visa requirements, for example. It makes sense to do what Delta is now doing, and use the term “countries and territories” above drop-down boxes. Sovereignty has become a sensitive issue for the nation, which is increasingly influential on the world stage. Any firm that ignores that is risking business, at its peril.