The German carmaker Daimler publicly apologized on Tuesday after its Mercedes-Benz brand caused an outcry in China by quoting the Dalai Lama in a social media post.
The move by the automaker is the latest example of a foreign company being cowed by the growing power of a critical, but increasingly nationalistic, consumer market. Many in China view the Dalai Lama as a dangerous voice for separatism in a region, Tibet, that they consider an integral part of their country.
The post on the Mercedes-Benz Instagram account, which was widely viewed before being deleted, carried the hashtag “#MondayMotivation” and showed a white Mercedes car on a beach. It featured a quote popularly attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”
The Instagram post provoked an outcry from Chinese internet users, many of whom pledged to boycott the Mercedes brand. Though China blocks Instagram, a photo-sharing social network owned by Facebook, many users circumvent those controls by using virtual private networks.
China typically responds furiously when a foreign leader, celebrity or company meets with the Dalai Lama or mentions him. Beijing accuses him of seeking independence for Tibet, but the spiritual leader insists that he is only seeking the autonomy promised by the Chinese government.
The post carried an “erroneous message” and was removed, Mercedes said in a statement posted on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. It said it sincerely accepted all criticism and would take every action to increase its “understanding of China’s culture and values.”
“Although we deleted the post as soon as possible, it has hurt the feelings of people in this country,” the company said. “In this regard, we extend our sincerest apologies.”
Daimler’s response highlights the vulnerabilities of foreign companies operating in a market like China, which is highly sensitive to any slight. Many companies, including Apple and Yum Brands, which owns the restaurant franchises Pizza Hut and KFC, have had to apologize because of an internet-savvy population that is quick to stoke a backlash against foreign businesses.
Last month, the American hotel chain Marriott International publicly pledged that it did not support separatist elements in China after it listed Tibet and Taiwan, a democratic island that Beijing considers to be a breakaway province, as separate countries. Its Chinese website and app were shut down for a week by the Chinese authorities.
After that episode, Chinese consumers scoured the internet for other offenders. Delta Air Lines and the Spanish clothing retailer Zara were similarly rebuked by Chinese authorities for listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on their websites.