The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How China forces American companies to do its political bidding

Chinese and American flags fly outside a JW Marriott hotel in Beijing on Jan. 11. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

As China's economic might grows, Beijing is leveraging that power to coerce foreign companies to advance its political narrative and punish them when they step out of line. The Chinese Communist Party's treatment this month of hotel giant Marriott after a minor website error takes the effort to a new and dangerous level.

In Washington, the Chinese government's overreaction to Marriott listing Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as "countries" on an emailed questionnaire has sparked alarm. Trump administration officials, lawmakers and experts said the Communist Party is escalating how far it is willing to go in enforcing strict adherence to its political positions among foreign actors. 

After a Marriott Rewards employee "liked" a Jan. 9 tweet by the "Friends of Tibet" group praising the questionnaire, Chinese authorities called in Marriott officials for questioning, shut down their Chinese website and mobile apps, and demanded an apology. The Jan. 11 apology from Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson parroted the language the Communist Party uses to describe groups that stand opposed to Chinese repression or advocate for Tibetan autonomy. 

"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," Sorenson wrote. 

Marriott has more than 300 hotels in China, its second-largest single market, after the United States. While it began disciplinary proceedings against the employee who "liked" the offending tweet, Chinese netizens scoured the Internet and found dozens more foreign corporations that had listed as countries territories that are claimed by China. Chinese Internet bots fueled the purportedly popular outrage. 

Corporations including Delta Air Lines and Zara rushed out apologies of their own. But the Chinese government didn't stop there. Dozens of companies were told to scrub their websites for any related content or face severe consequences. The state-run media organ China Daily piled on with an op-ed headlined "No flouting of China's core interests will be tolerated." Chinese government officials even threatened the family of a Chinese student in Canada who responded favorably to the Friends of Tibet tweet. 

By combining government power, manufactured public outrage and negative state-sponsored media coverage, the Chinese government can place massive pressure on American companies to toe the party's political line. That aggressiveness is now becoming an issue in the U.S.-China relationship. 

"Everyone should be deeply concerned by the PRC's growing comprehensive campaign to exploit trade and commerce to advance its global Communist agenda," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told me. "For decades the Communist Party has limited speech within China on topics and opinions that threaten their one-party rule, and we are now seeing this form of information warfare influence the way American companies conduct business." 

For example, by parroting the Communist Party line on Tibet, Marriott helps the Chinese government whitewash its systematic and brutal repression of Tibetans. As the International Campaign for Tibet wrote in a letter to Sorenson, Marriott could have changed the emailed questionnaire without endorsing China's political position on Tibet.  

"China has been continually attempting to silence international public debates on the issue of Tibet, and your statement unfortunately furthers their efforts," the group wrote, pointing out that the Chinese propaganda machine can use Marriott's statement to further undermine Tibetan human rights. 

The question for Washington policymakers is: Where does this end? What if a Tibetan group wanted to hold a conference at a Marriott hotel in Washington? Would Marriott be within its rights to prevent that? Does official Washington have a role to play? 

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) told me that as China becomes more brazen in its efforts to coerce or control American businesses, the United States must devise a comprehensive public-private effort to push back. 

"This is only the latest in a long pattern of the Chinese government leveraging access to its marketplace to extract painful concessions from foreign businesses," he said. "Our actions, or lack thereof, can influence their behavior. To this end, we need to stand firm in defense of American interests, both security and economic."

For now, Marriott seems more concerned with how it is viewed in Beijing than in Washington. A Marriott spokeswoman said the company had no response to the concerns of lawmakers or human rights groups about its behavior. 

Marriott International Asia Pacific President Craig Smith turned down an interview request from me but gave an interview to China Daily, in which he called the incident probably one of the biggest mistakes of his career. In fact, the biggest mistake that American corporations can make is allowing themselves to be used as tools by the Chinese Communist Party to advance illiberal norms.

Washington is awake to the threat of Chinese economic coercion of American companies for political objectives. Now policymakers must persuade corporations to ask themselves if there is a larger interest at stake than their bottom line.

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