Gap, Wary of Offending China, Apologizes for T-Shirt’s ‘Erroneous’ Map

Posted May 15, 2018 2:22 p.m. EDT

A Gap T-shirt showing a map of China that omitted territory the country claims as its own has prompted a strong apology from the retailer, the latest in a string of mea culpas from businesses wary of offending the Chinese government.

Chinese social media users on Monday posted photos of the shirt, which did not include Taiwan, parts of Tibet and islands in the South China Sea that, in Beijing’s view, belong to China. Within hours, Gap posted a statement on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo in which it said it was “extremely sorry” for the shirt’s “erroneous” design.

Gap, which is based in San Francisco, called the shirt an “unintentional mistake” that had been marketed in select overseas markets and said that it “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” The retailer, which opened its first store in China in 2010 and now has more than 300 stores in Asia, said that the garment was pulled from shelves and that related products in the Chinese market were destroyed.

Photos of the shirt that circulated on Weibo had been taken at an outlet store in Canada, according to the accompanying post.

China has long challenged depictions of the country that do not include territories like Taiwan, but social media has helped to amplify the outrage. Foreign companies, eager to endear themselves to a growing population of affluent Chinese consumers, have rushed to smooth over tensions with the government.

“These companies are finding themselves in a position where they’re being asked to weigh in on political conversations that they really haven’t had to in the past,” said Greg Portell, the lead partner in the retail practice at the consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

“You’re involving the regulatory and political activism arm of these companies in what is essentially a consumer merchandising decision,” he said.

In January, the Marriott International hotel chain, which had more than 600 properties in Asia last year, apologized for listing Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries on a customer survey. Beijing has been quick to quash any suggestion that Tibet, a region of China, and Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island, are independent from the country.

In February, the German automaker Daimler apologized after its Mercedes-Benz brand used a quote from the Dalai Lama in a social media post. Many people in China view the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan Buddhist exiles as dangerous separatists. The Daimler post was deleted.

This month, the Trump administration accused the Chinese government of engaging in “Orwellian nonsense” for ordering 36 airline companies to remove from their websites references to Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong as separate countries. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by suggesting that for foreign companies, deferring to Chinese preferences for geopolitical categorization was a price of doing business in the country.

Several clothing retailers have apologized for designs criticized as racist, sexist, crude or otherwise inappropriate, but have rarely offered insight into how the blunders occurred. Gap, in its apology, said it was investigating what went wrong with the shirt and thanked customers and the government for their “attention and support.”

Economic relations between the United States and China have shown signs of strain amid disputes over trade, technology and tariffs on steel, aluminum, agricultural products and more, although President Donald Trump appeared this week to adopt a softer stance.