3.2 Social media serve China as channels for campaigning
It is easy to pinpoint where alleged misconduct by foreign companies in China is first discussed – on social media. But it is not so easy to identify who flags such issues first – government officials or outraged citizens. In Daimler’s case, the Instagram post had to be deleted – and all the readers’ comments disappeared with it. But even if it were still possible to see the names and profiles behind the posts, it wouldn‘t be clear who these people were.
“I don‘t think we‘ll ever be able to trace it back. That‘s the thing with the lack of transparency. If they want to, the [party and government] can stop any topic from being discussed on the internet or in the Global Times. But they can also set off a debate about any issue if they want to. And right now, they usually want to.“20
China can also indirectly orchestrate campaigns on social media by simply letting the censorship authorities ignore statements they would usually react to:
“They simply agree to let people discuss something. Relatively unbridled nationalism is simply allowed to run its course – and it‘s now very, very strong.“21
3.3 Chinese officials appear to have roadmap to deal with foreign companies "slips"
The Chinese government chose to expose Daimler both in the domestic public space of state-controlled Chinese (social) media, and in the global arena forged by Twitter and other social media blocked in China. Interestingly, the Chinese government itself never commented on Daimler. It was the state-controlled (social) media that turned the instagram post into a crisis – and ended it. The party’s People‘s Daily and English-language Global Times attacked the company particularly harshly on behalf of the Chinese government.
China appears to have a script for such public diplomacy cases. Usually, criticism of a foreign company starts on Chinese social media. The state’s daily newspapers and overseas TV channels report the accusations and fuel the social media discussion by repeating or escalating the charges. The media campaign abates only when the company’s top executives in China and abroad apologize and offer to make further concessions.
As the author learned from Daimler that the company and Chinese authorities were in contact on several occasions during the crisis – although timing, atmosphere and frequency remain unclear. A public affairs officer at another company that has been active in China for many years described the procedure in such instances as follows:22 First, officials call a Chinese employee in the company’s government-relations department; then officials call the country manager in for a conversation and dressing down; lastly, the CEO in Germany receives a message from a middleman that the Chinese ambassador in Berlin is very angry.
But Daimler’s example also illustrates a problem the company shares with other international corporations. If they bow to Chinese demands so as not to jeopardize their market access and the good will of the Chinese leadership and public, the international media and public will criticize these companies. Global publications lament the kowtowing to the Chinese leadership and the companies’ “betrayal of their own values”. Indeed, Daimler‘s apology angered Western media more than anything and as a result further fanned the crisis.
The Daimler case study is exemplary for showing that China is not interested in preventing allegations that the feelings of the Chinese people have been insulted or injured, or in having them forgotten as quickly as possible. On the contrary, the accusation of “insulting the Chinese people“ is instrumentalized to keep foreign companies on their toes and to extract the greatest possible benefit from the situation. Firstly, the Chinese side is interested in international publicity for the initial misstep and the subsequent apology – almost an act of submission – to China. Secondly, Chinese officials use the situation to force companies into making concessions, say by investing more, swapping personnel, or by strengthening Chinese operations (if usually only symbolically). The enormous dynamism and speed of Chinese state media and other players in the Daimler crisis suggests that China has some kind of roadmap. It is possible that it specifies how Chinese authorities and media can act in concert to turn the slips of a foreign company into a full-blown crisis. A slip is judged a reprehensible misstep and made public as a prelude to obtaining concessions.
Daimler’s PR crisis that started China does not appear to have caused any economic damage up until now. In the second half of 2018, the company was able to increase year-on-year sales in China – a trend that bucked the country’s weak market environment.