German automaker Mercedes-Benz has apologised for “hurting the feelings” of people in China after its Instagram account quoted Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, seen as a separatist by Beijing.
The apology marks the latest backpedalling by a foreign company for offending Chinese consumers with advertising or information that clashes with Beijing’s official position.
Mercedes’s seemingly benign post to its official Instagram account showed a Benz on a beach before rolling white capped waves.
“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open,” the ad copy ran, citing the Dalai Lama.
“Start your week with a fresh perspective on life from the Dalai Lama,” the carmaker wrote in the tagline.
The post immediately drew criticism from Chinese internet users for quoting the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom Beijing accuses of being a “wolf in monk’s robes” seeking Tibetan independence through “spiritual terrorism”.
The Dalai Lama has called for granting Tibetans greater autonomy within China, but not independence.
While Instagram is blocked in China and inaccessible to most Chinese, and the Instagram post was penned in English, Mercedes-Benz quickly deleted the photo after the outcry and issued an apology on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform.
“Even though we deleted the related information as soon as possible, we know this has hurt the feelings of people of this country,” Mercedes said on its verified Weibo statement.
The post “published extremely incorrect information, for this we are sincerely sorry”, Mercedes wrote.
“We have immediately taken real action to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, including among our colleagues abroad, and in this way regulate our behaviour.”
The online edition of the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily did not let up, running an editorial attacking Mercedes on Tuesday.
“Mercedes-Benz, you’ve made yourself an enemy of the Chinese people!” the headline of the editorial read.
“Some foreign companies are dredging up gold in China’s market at the same time as they are harming the Chinese people, what do they want to do?” it added.
Offending the sensitivities of Beijing has proven a problem for a number of foreign companies tapping the lucrative Chinese market.
Earlier this year, a spate of brands came under government criticism for online material that listed Chinese regions such as Tibet and Hong Kong as separate countries.
Marriott hotels even had its Chinese website and app blocked for a week by mainland authorities, while Spanish clothing giant Zara and Delta Air Lines were also called out.
Nor is this the first Dalai Lama Instagram post to provoke a backlash in China.
Last summer, British band Placebo was scheduled to perform at the Summer Sonic Festival in Shanghai — until they posted a photo of the Nobel winner on Instagram.
The picture resulted “in a lifetime ban by the Ministry of Culture in China,” the band said in another post acknowledging they would be unable to perform.
“We apologise to all the fans who were hoping to see Placebo perform,” the band wrote.