After one an online drop-down menu from Marriott listed Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as “countries” and Marriott had its Chinese language website shutdown, Chinese regulators from several state bodies have stepped up their policing of the websites of foreign companies. The Chinese government heavily monitors and restricts internet content, but for the most part, the enforcement of these laws have most prominently been used to moderate the content of Chinese websites and Western news and social media platforms. More often than not, Western sites have been outright blocked from China instead of moderated for content.
Delta Air lines and the clothing retailer Zara have also been subject to scrutiny for lists of “countries” on their web platforms
The latest companies that have run into trouble are Delta Air Lines, Irish medical device company Medtronic Plc, and Spanish clothing retailer Zara owned by Inditex Diseño Textil, S.A.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) summoned Delta executives over the company listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries and instructed them to change the “illegal” content. The Cyber Administration Office in Shanghai announced on Friday that Zara listed Taiwan as a separate country on its website.
The crackdown on company “country lists” has not been limited to foreign firms. China Southern Airlines and Air China were also found listing Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as “countries” online.
Even Chinese state-owned airlines China Southern and Air China made similar errors listing Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong as “countries”
Much of the difficulty in these cases stems from the fact that Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong all have separate passports. For purposes of travel, these three regions are effectively separate countries. However, it is less clear why Tibet was listed as a separate country on the Marriott and Delta drop-down menus as its residents carry Chinese passports.
These latest developments are a clear sign that China intends to up the monitoring of content on the websites of foreign and that the state intends to implement Chinese cyber-security law fully.
The Chinese government is strongly signalling that online infractions can harm a company’s bottom line
Another clear implication of this latest crackdown is that content, even on websites inaccessible, like Twitter, or largely unused in China (i.e., English language websites) can result in punishment for companies. The Marriott gaffe and the company’s punishment, which locked it out of providing bookings on its Chinese website, will not be an isolated incident. Moreover, by shutting down Marriott’s site, state authorities are communicating that such infractions can have a significant impact on a company’s China revenue.
Over the past few years, China has stepped up its efforts to enforce its political goals by using the growing power of its consumer market. Tourism has been by far the most prominent tool in this effort. The “travel ban” on South Korea has thus far been the most dramatic example and cost the country and many South Korean retailers millions in revenue. Taiwan and the Vatican have also been targets of similar implementations of tourism diplomacy.
For firms interested in accessing Chinese revenue streams, these developments should lead to careful examinations of all websites and promotional content to steer clear of political controversy in China.