This incident is a tough reminder for Marriott and many other global companies that when it comes to China, especially, everything is politics.
Marriott’s Chinese website and mobile app are being shut down temporarily at the request of Chinese government officials in Shanghai as punishment for the company listing Chinese-claimed regions Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as countries in a recent Mandarin-language customer survey sent to Marriott loyalty members.
In a statement issued on January 11, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said “In China, at the request of the Government, we have taken down our Chinese websites and apps to conduct a full review and audit.” He later added, “Upon completion of a full investigation into how both incidents happened, we will be taking the necessary disciplinary action with respect to the individuals involved, which could include termination, changing our approval and review procedures for online content, reviewing our customer feedback channels, and enhancing training to ensure these situations don’t happen again. We are also working closely and co-operating with the relevant Government authorities in China.”
The shutdown of Marriott’s Chinese website and app has a direct impact on the company’s ability to gather bookings from the world’s largest travel market, the importance of which is not lost on global travel brands. Chinese consumers, in particular, rely heavily on mobile applications to do all of their commercial transactions, including booking travel.
The timing of this also takes place at a time when many Chinese travelers are making plans to travel for the start of the upcoming Lunar New Year, which takes place on February 16. Chinese New Year is often referred to as the world’s largest human migration because hundreds of millions of Chinese travelers will return home to celebrate the holiday with family.
Marriott has expressed a deep-seated interest in growing its market share in China. In August, the company formed a partnership with Alibaba Group, often thought of as the “Amazon of China,” to promote Marriott’s hotels to Chinese travelers.
Prior to the shutdown of its Chinese website, the Bethesda, Maryland-based company also issued an apology to the Chinese government, saying: “Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We sincerely apologize for any actions that may have suggested otherwise.”
That apology was also tweeted by the company on its Marriott Rewards Twitter account on January 11:
Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We sincerely apologize for any actions that may have suggested otherwise.
— Marriott Rewards (@MarriottRewards) January 11, 2018
China claims to have sovereignty on all four regions that were listed separately on the Marriott questionnaire: Macau and Hong Kong are identified by the Chinese government as “special administrative regions.” Taiwan governs itself and holds its own democratic elections.
Marriott’s website and mobile app were specifically shut down by the Shanghai Cyberspace Administration and they issued a statement asking Marriott to “take down all relevant content, conduct a thorough check on all contents it posted on its website and online application to prevent anything similar, and address the public’s concern in a timely fashion to eliminate a negative impact.”
An investigation into the incident is also being launched by local Shanghainese authorities as a possible violation of China’s cybersecurity and advertisement laws. The shutdown is expected to last for around a week. Marriott has not yet said how this shutdown or the pending investigation could impact its future business in China, including its partnership with Alibaba Group.
Photo credit: Marriott is being punished by Chinese authorities for identifying Taiwan, Tibet, and other Chinese-claimed regions as their own countries. Pictured is a suite at the Shanghai Marriott Pudong East as seen on May 13, 2016. Marriott