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Tibetan flags during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Czech Republic. Photo: TDT

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Beijing says foreign groups’ use of country names in online menus is disrespectful.

Chinese regulators have publicly reprimanded a string of foreign corporations, including Qantas, Zara and Marriott, for labelling Tibet and Taiwan as independent countries, in online drop-down menus.

Beijing’s action and the ire it stirred among Chinese towards multinationals illustrates the pressures such groups face as they look to appease an increasingly nationalistic and powerful Chinese consumer market.

“We welcome foreign corporations’ investment and operation in China,” said Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs, at a regular press briefing last week. “Meanwhile, they should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by China’s laws and respect Chinese people’s national feelings.”

On Monday, Australian airline Qantas publicly resolved to correct a drop-down menu that identified Taiwan as a country after it was named and shamed in an investigation by Shanghai-based state media outlet The Paper which found 24 foreign airlines that purportedly listed Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan as sovereign entities.

The action comes after Beijing shut the Chinese website of US hotel chain Marriott International for one week after it described Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries in an email to customers.

Outrage over the Marriott incident has prompted internet users in China to expose other foreign businesses for mis-attributing sovereignty, putting the likes of Zara, Qantas and Delta under scrutiny.

"Anything that you do can be deemed as being breaking some norm or actual law or generally hurting the feelings of the Chinese people," Andrew Polk, co-founder of business consultancy Trivium China

“Compliance has been rising in the list of priorities for MNCs, and that is all related to the new political climate under [president] Xi,” said Andrew Polk, the co-founder of business consultancy Trivium China. “However, complete compliance is impossible because of the political climate. Anything that you do can be deemed as breaking some norm or actual law or generally hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Spanish fashion chain Zara and Medtronic, the American medical equipment maker, were singled out for labelling Taiwan as a separate country over the weekend, according to statements from the cyber space regulators. And executives from Delta Air Lines were summoned for a meeting with China’s civil aviation authorities on Friday for labelling Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries.

China says all three regions are its territory and has intensified diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since the Democratic Progressive party took power in 2016, replacing the more China-friendly Nationalist party, or Kuomintang.

Beijing, which bars Taiwan’s representatives from most global organisations and opposes engagement with its senior politicians and diplomats, is highly sensitive about the international use of any symbols or nomenclature that appear to support Taiwanese sovereignty, despite frequent such mistakes.

China’s cyber space regulators put the hotel chain’s China operations under investigation and got a public apology from the chief executive, Arne Sorenson.

“Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite,” he wrote in a statement.

Marriott has also fired the employee who liked a post supporting Tibetan independence from the company’s official Twitter account, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

“We got a sense of how regulators are competing with one another to show how vigorously they are implementing the cyber security law or supervision law to say, ‘we are protecting the core interests of the nation’,” said Mr Polk.

Officials in Taipei said that China’s actions did not help Beijing earn the trust of Taiwanese people.

“Taiwan is undoubtedly a country,” a spokesperson for President Tsai Ing-wen told the Financial Times. “Wiping out the name of Taiwan off the internet will not wipe out our existence in the world.”

Follow Emily Feng and Edward White on Twitter @emilyzfeng and @edwardwhitenz

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