February 13 marks Tibetan Independence Day. One hundred and five years ago today, the 13th Dalai Lama broke away from the collapsing Qing Empire and proclaimed Tibet an independent nation. Since 1951, however, Tibet has been occupied by the People’s Republic of China. The 14th Dalai Lama lives in exile in Dharamsala, India. Any mention of him on the international stage is enough to send Beijing and its minions into fits of apoplexy.
Unfortunately, not only is Tibet today occupied territory, but global corporations are falling all over themselves to apologize for even suggesting that Tibet is anything but an “integral part” of China. Why? Because they desperately fear losing access to the lucrative Chinese market, either because of an edict from Beijing or after drowning in a sea of online nationalist outrage whipped up by tabloid media.
The seemingly endless CEO apology tour began in January, when it was discovered that Delta Airlines listed Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as countries separate from China on their website. The Civil Aviation Administration of China “demanded an ‘immediate and public apology’” from Delta, which it swiftly received. Chinese state-backed media reported that 24 airlines had similar online country categorizations, prompting a flurry of self-correction.
Marriott International was next. The global hotel chain’s website and booking app were blocked in China until amends were made.
However, Marriott’s sins went further than listing Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as independent countries. It was soon discovered that an employee had “wrongfully liked” a tweet posted by the human rights NGO Friends of Tibet. The employee was promptly sacked. Next, among the stacks of cardboard display books in a Marriott hotel lobby in Chongli, a mock copy of David Kilgour and David Matas’ Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs was discovered. A Marriott representative confirmed that hotel management was “assisting” the Chinese state security services “with their enquiries” about the incident.
Descending into self-parody, Marriott dusted off Maoist rhetoric and declared an “eight-point rectification plan” to win back Chinese trust. “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,” said Craig S. Smith, president and managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office to the Chinese state-backed tabloid China Daily. “This [was] a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”
More incidents of self-censorship cropped up in the wake of Marriott’s surrender. The Guardian reported in early February that The Royal Court theatre in London “shelved” the play Pah-La, a work by Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar about contemporary Tibet. “I think what this controversy reveals is how China sows anxiety among artists and arts organisations. We all need to be vigilant to resist this chill on artistic freedom,” said Robert Sharp, the head of campaigns & communications at English PEN.
Last week, the German luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz issued not one but two public apologies for posting a picture of a luxury sedan on a beach. Above the car is a relatively anodyne quote from the Dalai Lama: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” In the bottom right-hand corner is the hashtag “#MondayMotivation.”
Within hours, Mercedes was submerged by criticism from furious Chinese nationalists. Mercedes-Benz began by apologizing on Chinese social network Weibo: “This morning, we were concerned about the release of a very wrong message from our company on international social media. We apologize sincerely. Although we have deleted the relevant information as soon as possible, we are very aware of the harm caused by this incident to the Chinese people… Finally, we sincerely apologize again.” The chairman of Mercedes-Benz’s parent company Daimler sent a personal letter of atonement to Shi Mingde, the PRC’s ambassador to Germany.
What’s going on here? The Chinese Communist Party has hit upon an ingenious method for harnessing capitalism to buttress its totalitarian imperialist aims. By forcing billion-dollar multinational corporations into abject supplication over the minutest of offenses, Beijing wins legitimacy for its occupation of captive nations like Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, and its continued claim to the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Beijing’s hijacking of the narrative needs to be countered. Human rights activists, responsible businesspeople, and democratic governments must come together to work out a strategy to combat this manifestation of what the National Endowment for Democracy calls China’s “sharp power.”
The core of the problem was expressed succinctly on air by former CNN commentator Jack Cafferty after the brutal suppression of the 2008 protests in Tibet: China’s ruling communist clique are “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last fifty years!”
CNN later apologized.