After the passage of China's new cybersecurity laws, watching out for international consequences might be par for the course for brands that do business there. Per a report in the Wall Street Journal, hospitality chain Marriott International Inc fired 49-year-old social media manager Roy Jones (who was making just $18 an hour) after he liked a tweet praising the chain for listing Tibet "as a country, rather than part of China, in an online survey."
Marriott said the "country" listing was a mistake, while Jones said the errant fave was also a mistake. But as the Journal reported, Marriott not only fired Jones rather than reprimanding or otherwise punishing him, but issued a statement stressing its agreement with the Chinese government's view on the Tibetan separatist movement:
"I was completely unaware of what was going on," Mr. Jones said by phone from Omaha, Nebraska, where he worked at Marriott's customer-engagement center. "We were never trained in any of the social graces when it came to dealing with China."
Craig Smith, head of Asia-Pacific for Marriott, said in a separate statement, "We made a few mistakes in China earlier this year that suggested some associates did not understand or take seriously enough the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Those incidents were mistakes and in no way representative of our views as a company."
(For what it's worth, that Tibet is part of China is the official view of the US government.)
As the Washington Post reported in January, the Chinese government was furious over the matter - which also included the separate dispute involving survey responses listing the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and the partially internationally recognised breakaway state of Taiwan, as separate countries - and requested Marriott shut down websites. The company complied, as it has been "aggressively expanding in China in recent years" and has opened over 240 new hotels there in the past five years. Though Jones said he liked the post by accident during a busy workday, the Journal reported that the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration ordered Marriott to "seriously deal with the people responsible."
According to the Journal, this is part of a larger trend in which Chinese government censors are now scouring the web for violations of its recent cybersecurity laws, which bans anyone from posting anything that "endangers national security, national honour, and interests" or "incites subversion of national sovereignty."
As a result, foreign companies which do business in China are targeted by its government for violations elsewhere. For example, Twitter is banned throughout the country, though former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China James Zimmerman told the Journal, "What companies are up against is what we understand to be a legion of young, talented online technicians that scour the internet for compliance issues."
This is just one incident, but the context conjures up the disquieting possibility of one country's censorship laws triggering a digital race to the bottom outside its borders, an inversion of the typical rhetoric about how the internet makes closed societies more open. (Such a path isn't inevitable, though just look at where the president seems to be taking some cues from these days.) The Journal reported "at least a dozen" Western companies have come under fire for similar incidents.
This whole incident also sort of underscores how it's usually naive to expect big corporations to have anything less than a cosy relationship with the governments under which they do business — it's bad for their bottom line, which is generally all they care about. Google, one of the few major US firms who decided to leave China in 2010 after refusing to comply with its censorship laws, is already laying the groundwork for a return. Competitor Apple has used the opportunity to aggressively expand in China, complying with the new cybersecurity laws by moving encryption keys for Chinese iCloud users to Beijing in an attempt to not be shut out.