Foreigners working in China must navigate a minefield of sensitive topics – here’s a list of the big ones, and how to avoid a public relations catastrophe

By Lisa Sun

In mainland China, something as simple as a Free Tibet logo or a Japanese imperial flag might irreparably poison your personal and professional brand, and cause real problems with Chinese Communist Party authorities. And like the U.S., Weibo and other social networks accelerate the process, giving embarrassing mistakes the potential to quickly go viral. I’ve made a short list of the most controversial topics to avoid, and explained why these taboo subjects are such hot-button issues for the Chinese government and society at large.

Taiwan and Cross-Strait Relations

The majority of mainland Chinese people think Taiwan is a province of China, and strongly believe that the wayward region will ultimately reunite with the People’s Republic.

History across the strait is long, tragic, and complicated. The Chinese Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), the current ruling party in Taiwan, and the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China (CPC or CCP) have had more breakups and makeups than Ross and Rachel. And while the two groups have their differences, they agree on “One China,” as this Washington Post article points out.

If you have commercial interests in mainland China, it’s worth understanding the historical and political nuances of “One China” and being sensitive to the Communist Party’s official line on the subject. Steer clear of hard-line individuals or organizations who declare openly that Taiwan is an independent country – and if you also want to avoid offending your Taiwanese customers or associates, it’s probably best to avoid speaking on the subject at all. “Greater China region” is a useful term that you can use to denote mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Also, be extra cautious on promotional materials with maps. Google does this perfectly by being ambiguous about the nature of the territory.

A map giving the area the wrong color, untidy borders or Taiwanese (R.O.C.) flags could offend your consumers/business partners. Communist Party censors will also not be pleased, as Beijing does not recognize R.O.C. sovereignty, and Chinese micro-bloggers, whether “Fifty Cent Party” users or patriotic netizens acting of their own accord, will flame you and give you bad press, forcing you to retreat and limit yourself to the Taiwan market.

China’s Tibet Policy

Like Taiwan, the average Chinese person considers Tibet an inseparable part of the country. But because the region is different culturally and historically from the Han ethnic majority, the issue is less important for average Chinese consumers. However, it is a very touchy subject for the Chinese Communist Party, which has unequivocally stated that it considers Tibet to be part of China. If you or your spokesperson openly supports the Free Tibet movement, there will be devastating consequences. Christian Dior, the French fashion company, understands this well. In 2008, Sharon Stone, who was part of a mainland ad campaign, made offensive remarks about the Sichuan earthquake and Tibet. Her comments outraged the Chinese public and she was soon dropped from Dior’s Chinese advertisements. Her future movies will also likely be rejected for screening in China by Party officials, who have zero tolerance for what they view as “splitting the motherland.”

Sino-Japanese Tensions and Nationalism

My grandma told me a story once about the Sino-Japanese conflict in World War II that I can never forget. When she was young, she lived in a village in Jiangsu province, on the outskirts of Suzhou. During the war, Japanese soldiers rampaged through her town, brutally and sadistically killing any Chinese civilians in sight, even a pregnant woman and her unborn child. My grandmother hid quietly behind a stack of straw and narrowly survived the ordeal.

For most Chinese, the Sino-Japanese Wars are an emotional issue much like the Holocaust. The fire of nationalism is always burning quietly waiting for a chance to release. Recently when the Japanese government claimed sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, Chinese protests sprang up in cities across the country: cars overturned, stores smashed, products boycotted. The resulting chaos damaged not only existing Japanese investments in China but also meant billions in lost revenue for Japanese companies.

For Japanese brands and business owners, this is very sticky situation. Some sushi restaurants have put up Chinese flags on their windows. Some Hondas and Toyotas display little stickers that say things like “I am a Japanese car, but I have a Chinese heart.” But with every new territorial dispute, there are bound to be companies that become casualties to the angry mobs.

Censorship and the Great Firewall of China

You don’t need to read the Facebook IPO files to know you cannot access the service in Syria, Iran, China and North Korea (which in a sign of discontent, some Chinese microbloggers have termed S.I.C.K.). There are a lot of websites that don’t work here. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Blogspot, MySpace and occasionally Google are blocked. This is known as the Great Firewall of China, or more officially the Golden Shield Project, and it is always in flux. Most recently during the leadership transition, government censors blocked Bloomberg and the New York Times after both media organizations published articles linking Chinese leaders to vast fortunes of personal and family wealth.

For businesses with social media channels or outlets, make sure none of your links promote censored materials. Anything criticizing the Communist Party, or promoting taboo topics will surely be blocked. More importantly, you need to substitute local social networks and tools such as Renren, Youku, Tudou, Weibo, and WeChat for product promotion to get your message across.  The takeaway here is that regardless of your own cultural values and views on freedom of expression, as a business decision-maker you need to understand Chinese reality and the consequences of speech for your own bottom line.

In China, there are quite a lot of sensitive topics. But just like in the U.S., there are a spectrum of people who believe certain things but not others. To quote the former Premier Wen Jiabao, “Any trivial matter multiplied by 1.3 billion will become a big problem.” And an even a bigger problem if you throw in the mix of nationalism, Communist Party authoritarianism, herd mentality and ethnic tensions. So keep politics aside if you want a piece of the China market. After all, even a trivial profit multiplied by 1.3 billion will become a significant chunk of change.

Lisa is a TV director with the China Business Network and a recipient of the China News Award. She has lived in Shanghai for 13 years.