Early last week, a European luxury car manufacturer used a quote from the Dalai Lama on its overseas Instagram account and created an uproar in China. The company took down the post and apologized via Weibo to Chinese audiences the very next day.
In January, a US hotel chain’s website and APP was blocked in China for listing Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as “countries”. A number of other companies were also reprimanded, forcing western companies to re-evaluate their digital platforms to comply with China’s cyber and sovereignty policy.
Beijing froze relations with Oslo when it awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Diplomatic ties were strained, meetings canceled and economic deals hamstrung by an unofficial partial embargo on Norwegian salmon and a freeze on trade talks. Talks only resumed in 2016.
At a time when China is expanding its global influence, the country will not shy away from economic retaliation for any incidents that the government deems as “meddling with China’s internal affairs or insulting Chinese people’s feelings.” Even if the incidents were conducted by overseas branches or subsidiaries of multinationals with operations in China, they are quickly and easily found by Chinese media and “netizens”, who then report them back in China. Often these stories go viral in China and even amongst the Chinese diaspora around the world. Repercussions range from rants against your brand on social media, to declines in sales in China and among Chinese living overseas, to protests outside stores carrying your products in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Although western nations might disagree with the principles that China upholds and the actions it takes in defending its ideologies, doing business in China requires companies to abide by China’s rules, norms and perspectives. That said, Western companies need to be careful that taking a position that is contrary to Western democratic values could prove harmful in their home countries. They will need to walk a fine line.
While Western companies should not jettison key political and cultural values to placate China, they should at least be congnisant of the issues that could cause friction.
Companies (and executives visiting China) are advised to refrain from discussing certain topics to minimize conflict, unnecessary misunderstanding and confusion for their operations in China. These sensitive issues include:
- Sovereignty and territorial integrity – Beijing holds its claims over Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Tibet, Diaoyu Island, and certain islands in the South China Sea as sacrosanct. Companies should avoid referring to any of these territories as separate countries on their websites and other public material. Even a casual reference to one of these territories as a country in a conversation could result in considerable repercussions.
- Political and human rights – Avoid taking a position on matters such as the Tiananmen Square incident (4 June 1989) and other sensitive matters on dealing with political and social issues in China. Also, whatever your views on Mao Zedong avoid public statements; in 2008 a French car maker was forced to issue an apology in China after running a billboard advertisement in Spain that resulted in Chinese netizens venting their spleens against the company’s “insult”. In that instance what was seen as a light-hearted joke in Europe did not translate well. The billboard image of a scowling Mao was replaced by the image of a scowling Napoleon.
- Religion and beliefs – The Falun Gong remains an outlawed cult in China and the Dalai Lama is not accepted as the head of Tibetan Buddhism by Beijing. China requires all religious organisations to be subject to the State and the underground and home-church movements remain illegal. Although it might be tempting to accept an invitation to attend a home-church or underground church service during a China visit these should be avoided. Politely decline all such invitations.
- Separatist movements – China is a large nation comprising 55 ethnic minorities outside the Han Chinese majority. Some members of some of these groups would like to establish their own nations. It is best advised to stay clear of these debates. Practice these words in front of the mirror: “I don’t know enough about the issue to take a position.”
- Cyber censorship – China retains its right to control what news and information is available to its citizens including via the Internet. This is done by what many refer to as “the Great Firewall of China.” Whatever your views on freedom of speech and the need for transparency and access to accurate data, it is not advisable to state them publicly in relation to questions about censorship in China.
Although the risk of conflict over ideologies and values might rise as engagement with China increases, it is not the role of companies or businessmen to take up the cudgels for the West. Australia and other western nations have diplomats whose job it is to defend our way of life and promote our values. Leave it to them to address the above issues. You should focus on selling your company’s products and services and improving share value.
By Alistair Nicholas, Executive Vice President – Director, Special Projects. Alistair was based in Beijing from 2000 to 2013 and assisted many foreign companies dealing with sensitive political issues in the country, including in relation to Taiwan, the Falun Gong, and geopolitical issues in the South China Sea. Based in Sydney, Alistair assists Australian companies with China market entry and public affairs strategies. He can be reached by phone on +61-2-9994-4466 or via email on email@example.com if you would like to discuss your China business needs.