The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China asked Marriott to shut down its website. The company complied.

Chinese and American flags fly last week outside a Marriott hotel in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Marriott International is apologizing to the Chinese government — and changing its practices — after coming under fire for listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau as stand-alone countries on an email questionnaire it sent to members of its rewards program.

The apology comes after the Chinese government, which maintains that those locations are part of China, requested Marriott shut down its six Chinese websites and apps as punishment, and Marriott complied.

Those websites and apps were back up as of Thursday.

Marriott, the world’s largest hotelier, has been aggressively expanding in China in recent years. It says it took down the survey “immediately” and is doing a review of all of its materials, including its websites, according to a company spokeswoman. The Bethesda, Md.-based company is also taking disciplinary action against an employee who used a corporate Twitter account to “like” a post supporting Tibetan independence from China.

“Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China,” chief executive Arne Sorenson wrote in a statement on the company’s website.

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“We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups,” he added. “We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.”

Marriott is among a growing number of companies that have been publicly targeted by the Chinese government for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries. Delta Air Lines and Zara in recent weeks have also amended their websites — and issued public apologies — under pressure from China.

“It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize for the mistake,” Susannah Thurston, a spokeswoman for Delta said in an email. Calling China “one of our most important markets,”  Thurston said that “we are fully committed to China and our Chinese customers.”

A number of major companies, including Apple and Audi, have acquiesced to China’s censorship laws and other demands in recent years, experts said. Apple last year removed messaging and VPN apps, which would allow users to bypass government-imposed firewalls, from its Chinese app store. Audi, meanwhile, apologized for using in a presentation a map of China that did not include Taiwan and parts of Tibet.

Hong Kong and Macau are officially part of China, although they have their own governments and political systems. (Traveling between Hong Kong, Macau and China requires a passport.) Tibet is ruled by China, although some Tibetans argue that it is an independent country that is illegally occupied.

Taiwan, meanwhile, has its own democracy and maintains that it is an independent nation. China, however, claims it as a province.

“This kind of policing has been going on for a long time, but it used to be handled much more discretely,” said Sean Miner, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who specializes in China. “Now, though, China is overtly using its economic leverage to publicly shame companies that it believes are crossing the line.”

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The Chinese market is an increasingly important one for Marriott, which is working hard to woo the country’s growing middle class. It has opened more than 240 hotels — many of them high-end resorts — in China over the past five years as it looks to familiarize a growing population of jet-setters with the 91-year-old brand.

The company has more than 300 hotels in China, about five times what it did in 2012. And those properties are increasingly lucrative. During the first nine months of 2017, Marriott said, revenue per available room, a key industry metric, rose 8.4 percent in Greater China, compared with 1.5 percent in North America and 2.6 percent worldwide.

“China is the biggest single market for us outside the U.S.,” Sorenson said at an industry conference in June. “We’re opening in excess of one [hotel] a week in China.”

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