When San Francisco-based US fashion retailer The Gap launched its “City T-shirt” series, it probably had high hopes that the China edition would please a vast consumer base across China. Attention did indeed come quickly, but not necessarily the kind that The Gap was hoping for. Within hours, Chinese social media users had posted photos of the T-shirt on the Chinese Weibo platform. The Gap, so user comments about the T-Shirt, was either just another ignorant foreign company or it was trying to make a political statement. The offending T-shirt depicted a map of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) without including Taiwan, the island that Beijing claims as an integral part of the country, but which has been self-ruled for decades. The T-shirts also failed to show “Southern Tibet” — a territory the PRC claims in the Northeast of India. The Gap was quick to react: “We sincerely apologize for this unintentional error,” said the company, that it respected China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that it intended to strictly follow the country’s laws and rules. The Gap also promised to carry out “more rigorous reviews” to prevent similar incidents in the future. China acknowledged the apology and a spokesperson of Beijing’s Foreign Ministry announced that it “will follow carefully their actions and remarks.” Interestingly enough, The Gap was only the latest company to apologize to the PRC for ignoring its territorial claims. In 2017, German carmaker Audi had to issue an apology for using a map that omitted Taiwan and parts of western China at its annual meeting, and fashion brand Zara also drew Beijing’s ire and apologized for listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website. In January 2018, Chinese authorities even blocked hotel chain Marriott’s websites and apps for several days after the company listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as separate countries. Having more than 600 properties across Asia, Marriott was quick to apologize. Then, in February, German Mercedes Benz had to issue a similar apology for using a quote by the Dalaim Lama – spiritual leader of Tibet to some, but separatist to the PRC – in a social media post. And in April, China’s Civil Aviation Authority issued a letter to three dozen foreign airlines demanding they stop referring to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as sovereign territories. In May, the US White House issued a statement calling the Chinese practice “Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.” While that may be a valid statement from a political vantage point, foreign companies also need to be pragmatic. Any company that is serious about doing business in countries where government or religion hold and enforce strong positions, has no choice but to understand these positions and then comply. Or, of course, to make a statement and stay away.
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