Some would forgive a clothier for a lack of diplomacy in geopolitical affairs.
China, however, has an ax to grind generally—and now specifically because of an image on a T-shirt.
China has long held disputes with the West over territories, such as Taiwan, that it claims to own but which Western governments do not recognize as Chinese possessions or protectorates. The depiction of China on the shirt in question omits those disputed areas.
Retailers looking to tap the expanding Chinese market have some research to do and some hard choices to make.
Gap is not the first international brand to bruise China’s long fingers and tender toes, but it has apologized just the same.
The apology was triggered by complaints from consumers reacting to pictures of a Gap-branded T-shirt posted on Chinese social media network Weibo. Users pointed out that a map printed on the shirt omitted territories claimed by China, including parts of southern Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Gap issued an apology late Monday on its Weibo account, saying it “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” The company said the product has been pulled from the Chinese market and destroyed.
Keeping track of China’s territorial claims can be tricky, especially for brands in the U.S., where the federal government disagrees with China over its purported reach.
While Taiwan is self-governed, only a minority of countries recognize its sovereignty as a nation independent of China. The area China calls Southern Tibet is a disputed region on the country’s border with India, where China claims about 90,000 square kilometres in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. In the South China Sea, China is engaged in a number of disputes over islands, coral reefs, and lagoons in what is a major commercial thoroughfare that is potentially rich in resources.
The incident also demonstrates the rising power of Chinese social media. China doesn’t use Western platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, but Chinese facsimiles, including Weibo, can generate a backlash, especially if that response aligns with an official government position.
The company took action after photos began circulating on Chinese social media of a T-shirt showing a map that didn’t include Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing regards as Chinese territory. The map also appeared to leave out southern Tibet and the disputed South China Sea, the state-owned Global Times said, adding that it drew hundreds of complaints on China’s Weibo microblogging platform Weibo.
The photos were taken at a Gap shop in Canada’s Niagara region, Global Times said. The shirt could not be found on Gap websites and it wasn’t clear whether it was still being sold in shops in some countries.
Other companies have felt compelled to apologize to the massive nation.
A series of other big Western brands have apologized over missteps on Chinese territorial issues.
Chinese authorities in January blocked Marriott’s (MAR) websites and apps for a week after the company listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as separate countries in emails and apps. Marriott issued an apology, saying it respects and supports China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
US airline Delta (DAL) and European clothing retailer Zara also came under fire over similar issues on their websites in China. Both companies subsequently apologized.
Some see China’s complaints as petty and manipulative:
— Jessica Drun (@jessicadrun) May 15, 2018
Others say Gap’s apology is a mistake:
— James Wilson (@James_Q_Wilson) May 15, 2018
Clothing brand @Gap has now been forced to apologise over a map of #China shown on one of its t-shirts that did not include #Tibet. They said it was an “unintentional error”. It may have been unintentional, but it wasn’t an error. #AccidentallyCorrect https://t.co/nNRNOs0Vrt
— Free Tibet (@freetibetorg) May 15, 2018
#gap you had the map right in the first place. China does not control Taiwan.
— I’m What’s Right (@ImWhatsRight) May 15, 2018
Still others note China’s long arm of influence:
China is making Gap apologize for shirts it was selling in Canada. https://t.co/IVSHhBTXut
— Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) May 15, 2018
What do you think of the Gap’s apology, PR Daily readers?