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German car maker Mercedez-Benz offered its apology to Chinese consumers after it drew flak over an Instagram post showing a luxury car with a quote from Dalai Lama, an exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

In a statement on its official Weibo account, Mercedez-Benz stated that it had deleted the controversial post immediately as it offered its sincerest apology to the Chinese people. The gesture is considered by many as a sign that foreign brands are becoming more and more conscious of reputational damages caused by careless steps on touchy political issues.

“We are fully aware that the post deeply hurt the feelings of Chinese people, including our Chinese colleagues, and we would like to extend the sincerest apology,” the company reportedly said.

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On the company’s Instagram account, Dalai Lama was quoted saying, “Look at situations from all angles, you will become more open.” Beijing considers the spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist, who fled to India in 1959 following a failed attempt to overthrow the Chinese rule, although he claimed to simply seek genuine autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.

The Beijing Mercedez-Benz Sales Service Company pledged that it would deepen the staff’s understanding of Chinese culture and values.

“We will promptly take steps to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, our international staff included, to help standardize our actions to ensure this sort of issue doesn’t happen again,” the company said.

On the other hand, the apology did not quell the disappointment of some. One Weibo user demanded that Mercedez-Benz give its fans free cars. Others questioned why the car maker did not apologize on its social media channels outside of Weibo.

Courting China

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International brands outside China have been exerting effort to penetrate the Chinese market, aiming  to court Chinese shoppers whose purchasing power have  been enhanced. However, consumers and regulators have been increasingly scrutinizing brand actions, which sometimes contradict Chinese culture and values.  

Earlier this year, companies including Delta Airlines and Spanish firm Zara gained China’s ire after they listed Taiwan and Tibet as "countries" on their websites. China claims sovereignty over both Taiwan and Tibet. Additionally, Chinese regulators suspended Marriott International’s Chinese website for a week due to the same reasons.

“These foreign companies should be aware that Chinese people are particularly sensitive to the status of Tibet, Hong  Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, which are all parts of China,” a local news agency stated last month. It called the ruckus over the regions as a “terrible mistake.”

Meanwhile, some China experts have expressed worries over China’s actions that “curtail free speech.”

“As China’s power and influence grow, corporations will have to ask themselves the same question governments have had to: To what degree do the economic benefits of working with China run counter to the values and principles these companies uphold?” said Ely Ratner, who is a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The question becomes whether or not these companies want to be complicit in Chinese authoritarianism.”

Netizens have also been divided about the issue.

One netizen said that foreign companies may not understand China’s conditions, but “this is not an excuse not to deal with them.” On the other hand, another user said, “They might have restored their reputation in front of the Chinese, but lost it in front of the wider world.”

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