Underneath the photo was the line: “Start your week with a fresh perspective on life from the Dalai Lama.”
Within hours, angry Chinese Instagram users had flooded Mercedes-Benz's account to express outrage that the automaker had quoted the spiritual leader of Tibet in a post that appeared in their feeds.
Outside China, the 82-year-old Dalai Lama is among the world's most popular figures, perhaps best known for his teachings on peace and compassion, as well as for supporting an autonomous Tibet. The Chinese Communist Party, however, considers him a political agitator, a dangerous exile and a “wolf in monk's clothing,” a sentiment that some Chinese citizens share. The Chinese government considers Tibet to be part of China.
Not long after, Mercedes-Benz deleted the Instagram post in question — coupe, beach, Dalai Lama quote and all — and subsequently published an lengthy apology on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter.
“This morning, we released a very incorrect message on international social media,” the apology began. The automaker said it had offended the feelings of its consumers and employees in China. “In light of this, we will immediately take measures to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, including our overseas colleagues, to ensure this won't happen again.”
The apology wasn't sufficient for some, Shanghaiist reported, with one Weibo user demanding that Mercedes-Benz give its fans free cars and another questioning why the company hadn't also apologized on its social media channels outside of Weibo.
The uproar was the most recent in a string of missteps foreign companies have been accused of making while trying to appeal to a lucrative Chinese market — a response that's not new, given that the Chinese government has been extremely sensitive for years to any suggestions that Hong Kong, Tibet, Macau or Taiwan are independent countries.
However, a greater number of international companies have begun bowing to the demands of Beijing to keep the door to that market open. Last month, the Chinese government criticized at least a dozen foreign corporations — including Marriott, Audi and Qantas Airways — for what it considered to be political slights.
In the Qantas case, Taiwan was listed as a separate country option in a drop-down menu on the airlines' website and in its marketing materials. In another case, Beijing regulators forced Marriott to temporarily shut down its Chinese websites after a U.S.-based employee “liked” a tweet that was supportive of Tibetan independence. Both Qantas and Marriott deferred to Beijing's wishes, with one Marriott executive calling it “a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”
As The Washington Post reported last month, the willingness of companies to bend to China's will — as well as the nature of their apologies — has alarmed some China experts:
The efforts by Beijing to curtail free speech at companies doing business with China fit into a larger narrative about the nature of Chinese relations abroad. In recent months, China has also sought to support pro-Beijing campus groups and has warned Chinese students abroad against involvement in groups critical of China.
“As China’s power and influence grows, corporations will have to ask themselves the same question governments have had to: To what degree do the economic benefits of working with China run counter to the values and principles these companies uphold?” said Ely Ratner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The question becomes whether or not these companies want to be complicit in Chinese authoritarianism.”
The irony of Mercedes-Benz pulling an Instagram post with a quote encouraging people to keep an open mind — to appease China — was not lost on some. Instagram is banned in China, many pointed out. (That did not, however, stop images of the Instagram post from being spread on Weibo.)
“They might have restored their reputation in front of the Chinese,” one user commented on a South China Morning Post story about the Mercedes-Benz controversy, “but lost it in front of the wider world.”