Did The Gap cave in to China’s demands?

Tuesday’s coverage of The Gap’s apology to China continued a pattern of distorted media coverage of relations between U.S. corporations and the Asian nation. China has demanded that U.S. businesses label disputed territories as Chinese, and often companies comply. The media could simply report the facts, helping readers form their own opinions about the appropriateness of the demands and companies’ responses. Instead, news outlets depicted China as a bully and the companies as subservient. Here’s a look at that distortion.

Because nothing quite says subservient like “kowtowing”

The media’s subjective, dramatic language portrays the companies as meekly cowering to China’s demands. Consider the following examples.

Retailer Gap Inc. GPS 2.57% is the latest foreign company to offend China’s geopolitical sensibilities—and the latest to apologize swiftly for the slight. (The Wall Street Journal)

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. (The New York Times)

Gap Inc. apologized Tuesday for selling T-shirts with what it says is an incorrect map of China that didn't include self-ruled Taiwan, in the latest example of corporate kowtowing to Beijing. (NBC News)

The spin not only sensationalizes the interchange, it also slants it in a way that blames China, and implies The Gap was weak and caved in. These are subjective interpretations, and the outlets didn’t provide contextual information to better understand why each party may have acted as it did.

What was missing?

First, common sense. Describing The Gap’s response as “kowtowing” assumes the company obeyed China without question. But that doesn’t follow.

In a business relationship, it’s customary for both parties to establish conditions under which they’re willing to do business with each other. If those conditions aren’t met, there’s a problem, and if that problem isn’t resolved, usually the deal is off. Using emotional terms to describe relations between The Gap and China — such as the Journal writing that it “offend[ed] China’s geopolitical sensibilities” — misrepresents each party’s choice and responsibility.

Most of the articles analyzed omitted data that would shed light on the complexity of the territorial disputes. For instance, none of them mentioned that, in addition to China, at least six other countries claim the islands in the South China Sea as theirs. And the Journal, the Times and NBC didn’t mention that only 19 of the U.N.’s 193 member states recognize Taiwan as a “sovereign entity” (Fortune did include this information). Without data such as this, it’s easy to blame China. And it’s not to say there aren’t problems with China’s attempts to enforce its restrictions on what it deems as separatism, but giving only part of the picture doesn’t help people arrive at that conclusion in a reasoned way.

None of the articles mentioned that, at least in the past, other nations or states have made similar requests to companies like The Gap once China made the first move. For instance, China demanded that Air Canada list Taipei as part of China, and the airline did. Afterward, Taiwan’s foreign ministry asked Air Canada for a “speedy correction.”

None of the articles gave background on China’s policies, which may help elucidate the consistency with which it follows similar guidelines, domestically and with other countries. A Foreign Policy paper on the airlines case explains the following:

Within China, producing material deemed “separatist,” even accidentally — such as by using a map that shows Taiwan in a different color than China — can result in serious legal and political consequences, including fines, public castigation, and even potential jail time. China’s demands to U.S. airlines are part of [a] campaign by Beijing to bring foreign companies, including their operations outside of China, in line with the Communist Party’s official stance.

Finally, it’s typical for companies to comply with what governments want. Maybe it’s not about bending to China’s will, as much as it is companies meeting governments’ conditions to protect their own interests. Companies have a right to do that. And choosing to comply doesn’t necessarily mean they’re weak — it might actually make them more profitable.

Déjà vu?

The articles mentioned similar cases involving China and companies within the auto, hospitality and travel industries. Interestingly, that coverage was spun the same way. Consider these headlines.

Four major airlines quietly changed their references to Taiwan — and it shows just how much power China has over foreign companies (Business Insider)

Emboldened China – and its webizens – telling foreign firms to fall in line (The Christian Science Monitor)

Air Canada bows to China, upsets Taiwan over Taipei relisting (The Globe and Mail)

By omitting contextual information, as well as spinning and slanting the coverage (and repeating this pattern when new stories break), the media can limit readers’ understanding of events. Trading data for sensationalism could also encourage jumping to conclusions about what’s right and what’s wrong in a given situation, instead of evaluating it critically.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media