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China Punishes Foreign Firms for Geographical Errors

The Cyberspace Administration of China has blocked access to the Marriott hotel chain’s website as punishment for geographical descriptions that challenge the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty and territorial claims.

In an emailed customer survey, Marriott International asked users questions about hotel facilities and preferred destinations, describing Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet and Taiwan as countries.

Delta Air Lines was this week reprimanded by the Civil Aviation Administration of China for similar descriptions on its website. On Friday, European clothing firm Zara and medical equipment-maker Medtronic were both given less than a day to rectify what the CAC called “illegal content” on their websites, again referring to geographical descriptions.

Former colonies of Britain and Portugal, respectively, Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China after both were handed back to China. Tibet has been wholly integrated into China since 1950. China accuses the Dalai Lama of stoking up a separatist movement. China has punished Hollywood stars Richard Gere and Brad Pitt for appearing in films which may have promoted the notion of a separate Tibet.

Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China and goes under various names in international organizations, has been self-ruled since 1949 in defiance of the Communist regime in the PRC. Mainland China considers Taiwan to be a rebel province with which it will one day be reunited, by force if necessary.

The CAC met with Marriott representatives this week and ordered its website and app to be taken down for a week as punishment. It has been reported that Chinese private sector online firms including Meituan and Dianping have removed Marriott from their hotel booking services.

Marriott apologized repeatedly but then compounded its error. Using Twitter, The Friends of Tibet, a pro-independence organization congratulated Marriott on describing Tibet as a country. A Marriott account was then used to “like” the Friends of Tibet comment.

“Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite,” said President and CEO Arne Sorenson.

Delta was similarly contrite. “It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers,” the company told Reuters.

The Chinese government’s moves against foreign firms’ websites are in line with national policy, but appear unusually aggressive. China has numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors and it has increasingly laid claim to jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea, which has meant disagreements with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Some China commentators have suggested that China plans to annex Taiwan within the next two years. They argue that the U.S.’s isolationist foreign policy under President Donald Trump means that America is unlikely to go to war with China over Taiwan.

Also bolstering such an analysis is the Chinese military, which is now at its strongest ever. In recent weeks, Taiwan has reported increased incursions into its airspace by military planes from China.

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