HONG KONG -- Shanghai authorities have ordered U.S. hotel group Marriott International to shut down its Chinese websites and apps for a week after the group conducted an email survey in which it categorized Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet as separate countries.
From 6 p.m. on Thursday, users would not be able to access the websites of brands under the Marriott umbrella including JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Sheraton and Renaissance through the main Marriott portal.
Nikkei Asian Review found, however, that the Sheraton and Renaissance websites could still be accessed directly. Both traditional and simplified Chinese sites are affected.
Internet regulator Shanghai Cyberspace Administration said on its official WeChat page on Thursday that the Marriott survey had "violated Chinese law" and "hurt the feelings of Chinese people."
It said it had ordered Marriott to suspend its Chinese language sites for a week after meetings with the company's senior managers in Shanghai, dealing a blow to the group which counts China as one of its most important markets.
The statement also said a government market supervision unit in Shanghai had already launched an official investigation into the case on Wednesday.
The survey was sent to Marriott members on Tuesday, in which it asked them to indicate their nationality. China's two special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Taiwan and the autonomous region of Tibet were singled out and put on a par with mainland China. The survey immediately drew criticism on social media, with mainland internet users accusing the hotel group of deliberately dividing the nation.
After issuing an apology on Wednesday on its official Weibo account, China's equivalent to Twitter, Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, said in a statement on Thursday that the U.S.-based hotel chain "respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China." However, he admitted that "twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite."
He said that Marriott has made necessary corrections and reviewed other parts of its websites and apps to avoid similar issues. He added that its Chinese websites and apps had been taken down to conduct a full review and audit "at the request of the government."
China National Tourism Administration also responded by urging all hotels to check the content of their websites and apps to ensure that such mistakes did not happen again. It also urged Shanghai Tourism Administration to get to the bottom of the matter as soon as possible and relevant departments to take action against the slight.
China claims sovereignty over the four territories. Hong Kong, a former colony of Britain, and Macau, a former colony of Portugal, were returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and 1999 under different political systems. Taiwan is self-ruled and has democratic presidential elections. Tibet is home to a large Buddhist population that has resisted Chinese rule but forcibly brought under the purview of Beijing.