A Marriott sign is seen in Shanghai. The city's market regulator has launched an investigation after the company's blunder in which Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet were categorized as 'countries.' Photo: Marriott

What does a customer loyalty program have to do with China’s sovereignty and Beijing’s adamant insistence that Taiwan is a breakaway province?

Very much if you, as the US hospitality company Marriott International has just confessed to doing, categorize Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as “countries” along with China itself in a customer survey for Chinese members of its loyalty and rewards program.

In a survey e-mailed to its members, Marriott categorized Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as ‘countries.’ Photos: Handout

Marriott’s blunder instantly ignited a huge commotion among Chinese customers and news media, after its attempt to “split China” was first exposed by patriotic netizens this week.

Market regulators in Shanghai soon stepped in, summoning top executives of Marriott International China to stern talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the city’s Market Supervision Bureau has officially opened an investigation into any wrongdoings and illegalities, promising most severe sanction, according to a Xinhua report.

Meanwhile, Marriott China has issued three sincere apologies in a row in two days, promising a thorough review of all of its websites, social-media accounts and publications to weed out inappropriate and incorrect content, insisting that the company has the utmost respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Marriott, currently the world’s largest hotel group, operates more than 100 hotels and resorts ranging from the top-of-the-line Ritz Carlton and St Regis to the mass-market brand Courtyard in mainland China’s first-and second-tier cities.

Yet in an even more dramatic twist, Chinese netizens soon discovered that the US hotel group “liked” and shared on one of its Twitter accounts, Marriott Rewards, a post by Friends of Tibet, a Tibet independence advocacy group, not too long after its apologetic China branch rushed to do damage control in the wake of the earlier public relations disaster.

The Twitter post read “Friends of Tibet congratulate hotel chain Marriott International for listing Tibet as a country along with Hong Kong and Taiwan.”

Now Marriott’s Chinese patrons have been further irritated by the US brand, with many starting a boycott.

“Totally disgusting Marriott behavior in the whole process. Yesterday u apologized to Chinese people, today u liked Friends of Tibet which listed Tibet as a country. R u blind?” a disgruntled Chinese wrote in the comment section. However, it’s unclear whether the Twitter user, Jim, used a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent China’s Internet blockade of Twitter to voice his discontent or if he actually lives overseas.

Marriott later said on Twitter that it did not support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, and it sincerely apologized for “any actions that may have suggested otherwise.”

Marriott Rewards has removed the shared post from its account, but it still appears in the “like” list of the Friends of Tibet post.

Coca-Cola, Chanel, Prada, Burberry, Bulgari, Cartier, Apple and others have been accused in the past of “splitting China” by listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as “countries” on their websites or in brochures.

Hong Kong and Taiwan are still listed separately from China but those brands have been cautious after the outcry and renamed their country lists as “country and region lists.”

But before long their clients in Hong Kong and Taiwan started protesting against the elimination of their own identities, taking potshots at these brands’ kowtowing to Beijing.

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