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The Biggest Place I’ll Never See

I do a fair amount of traveling, and more often than not I stay in Marriott-brand hotels when I am on the road. They treat me nicely as a gold member of their rewards program, and the croissants are usually pretty good.

My journeys this year will likely take me to Marriott properties from California to Copenhagen, but one place I never expect to stay in a Marriott room is China. Marriott is willing to do what it takes to do business in the world’s biggest market. I am not.

Marriott performed a public penance after releasing a digital questionnaire that implied Macau, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan are separate countries, rather than territories under China’s control. Many individuals in China took to social media to express their annoyance and disgust at the survey’s wording. This is more or less what a major hotel operator could expect if it demonstrated a similar level of ignorance in any similarly important market, and online outrage almost certainly would have been enough alone to prompt a hasty corporate apology.

The hotel chain did not only alienate Chinese customers, however; it also alienated the Chinese authorities, who demanded that Marriott temporarily shut down its website and mobile app in China. China’s Cyberspace Administration said that Marriot had “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Marriott complied with the order to shut down its online presence in China for a week, in addition to releasing a formal apology. The company is also cooperating with an investigation into its conduct by the Huangpu district of Shanghai, where its business is registered, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The marketing survey that provoked such offense was a silly and ignorant blunder. Macau, a longtime Portuguese outpost with an ugly colonial history, was restored to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 under a treaty between those two governments. The British government ceded sovereignty over Hong Kong two years earlier, under a pact in which Beijing promised to respect the territory’s freedoms and democratic system for 50 years. (That pledge, now 20 years old, is being systematically undermined already.)

Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is about as much in doubt as American sovereignty over Puerto Rico or the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The India-based Central Tibetan Administration, headed by the Dalai Lama, casts itself as a government-in-exile, but it has never received significant international recognition. In 2014 President Barack Obama explicitly stated that the United States recognizes Tibet as part of China.

Taiwan has many of the attributes of a de facto independent state, but its constitution still enshrines the idea that there is only one China; the essential question is whether Beijing or Taipei is the legitimate ruler. A formal declaration of independence could very well trigger a war, which is probably why Taiwan has not pressed the issue even under a government currently dominated by the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates the separation of the two jurisdictions.

So it is not surprising that the sloppily drawn customer survey triggered social media backlash in China. The gaffe reflects ignorance of the country and its people. As soon as the survey arrived in customers’ inboxes, it was a foregone conclusion that Marriott would need to do a lot of apologizing.

But in mature societies, that apologizing would have played out in the marketplace and in the media. It would not have been forced by a hypersensitive and heavy-handed government. The Beijing regime is extremely prickly about any perceived challenge to its legitimacy precisely because that legitimacy is questionable. There is no doubt that Hong Kong is part of China, but there is considerable doubt about whether the people there, or anywhere else in the country, would choose to be governed by the Communist Party if they had any say in the matter. Since the government and the party are one and the same in China’s system, this discontent calls the government itself into question.

The heads of companies like Marriott, Apple and General Motors are not free to say any such thing because they do business in China. Even the Pope must play by Beijing’s rules to protect his organization’s operations in China. I don’t. As long as I am not physically within reach of the Beijing government and its agents, I can say what I think. (I’ve done so for years, in fact.)

What would happen if I tried to go to China? Perhaps nothing. This column has such a small readership that my views, which are hardly unique in the West, might pass under the radar. I also might get the benefit of the doubt because I write only in English and don’t speak Chinese. Expatriate Chinese, and even foreigners of Chinese descent, have often been targeted for harsher treatment when visiting, surely because they are seen as more of a threat.

If I have succeeded in annoying anyone in Chinese officialdom, the likeliest response would be to simply deny me entry into the country. Even if I obtained the required visa before leaving home, I can be denied entry at the border. That’s a longer trip than I am willing to make just to find out that I am unwelcome.

So there are only two ways I see myself ever going to China, apart from Hong Kong or Taiwan. One is if there is a dramatic change in the Chinese regime while I am still young and healthy enough to make the trip; the other is if I am representing my country in some capacity. Neither is at all likely.

Whether I agree with their approach or not, I understand why American companies would choose to bend to Chinese official whims about what they may say and where they may say it. But I am glad I don’t have to do the same.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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