In early January, Roy Jones was making $14 an hour, $5 above Nebraska’s minimum wage as a representative dealing with customers on social media for Marriott International Group, the international hotelier.
For Jones, a 49-year-old Omaha resident, it was a dream job despite the bot-generated tweets that flowed unceasingly onto what he described as the company’s Tweetdeck-like interface January 9. Sometimes there were “more than 3,000 tweets in front of me, I’m just processing them,” Jones told VOA Mandarin earlier this week.
On what Jones called a hectic shift, there was a tweet from Friends of Tibet, a pro-Tibetan independence organization, congratulating Marriott for recognizing Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.
The company, which has more than 300 hotels in China, had named the three in a survey sent to customers that asked in which country they lived and gave options including Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
A Marriott social media account “liked” the Friends’ tweet, setting off an international incident that exemplifies the challenges Western companies such as Apple, Mercedes, Delta and Zara face as they do business with China.
Now, more than two months later, Jones told VOA Mandarin he is still not sure how or what he did or even if he was the employee who actually responded to that tweet.
WATCH: Florida Senator Marco Rubio on China, Tibet and American Companies
He was, however, the employee the hotel company fired almost immediately, and since January, his case has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who, as chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, spoke out in February on companies bowing to Beijing.
“Every week, it seems another major international company is publicly, and in some cases, shamelessly apologizing to the P.R.C. for some sort of ‘misstep’ related to Tibet … and otherwise sensitive issues,” Rubio said.
On March 25, although not mentioning Jones by name but calling out Marriott, Rubio tweeted: “This is the long arm of China. They can get an “American” company to fire an American worker in America.”
Last week at a Washington event, former U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who retired from Congress in 2015, took aim at the hotelier, saying, “There is cultural genocide taking place in Tibet. … I personally will never stay at a Marriott hotel unless Mr. Jones gets his job back.”
WATCH: Former Republican Congressman Frank Wolf Calls Out Marriott
On Friday, Marriott International Group did not respond to emails and phone calls from VOA asking for comment on the Jones case.
In January, soon after the “like” was registered on Twitter, Craig Smith, president of Marriott Asia Pacific Region, said in a statement quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “We made some mistakes in China earlier this year, which shows that some employees have poor understanding or insufficient attention to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity issues. These incidents are wrong and in no way represent the position of our company.”
What happened to Jones floored him.
“My job is to help customers,” Jones told VOA earlier in this week. “Now that something went wrong, they want to push the blame on me.”
He’s not sure why.
“My job isn’t to decide whether Tibet is a country,” he told his hometown newspaper.
Within 24 hours of the January 9 “like” going out, Chinese social media exploded even though Twitter is officially banned in China.
China’s netizens objected because, according to Beijing, Tibet is part of China. Supporters of Tibetan independence contend China occupies the area illegally.
Hong Kong, a British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997, retains its own government even though it is a special administrative region of China.
And Beijing considers Taiwan, a self-governing island, a wayward province and seeks the island’s reunification with China.
In that one survey, Marriott had touched on two of the so-called “Three Ts” — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, the site of June 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended with the deaths of hundreds of people — that are particularly sensitive topics in China.
On January 11, Marriott apologized to China’s government for referring to Tibet and Taiwan as countries.
That was when Jones learned that Marriott was suspending him. As he walked to his car after his meeting with the human resources department, Jones said his cellphone alerted him to a new story about Marriott.
That’s how he learned he was fired — a report he recalls as being in the China Daily, the state-run media — said that “termination proceedings are in process.”
His official termination letter stated January 14 as his last day with Marriott. It did not give a reason for his dismissal, Jones said.
The letter included a number to call about benefits and said any of his personal belongings at the office would be sent to his home. The box arrived the day before the letter, Jones said.
“It’s an absolute surreal experience. I feel like I’m in some kind of spy novel,” he told VOA.
Jones continues to be puzzled by the incident. He recalls that in school he learned “that people fought wars to keep the communist narrative at bay.”
Now, he admits he’s much more educated about China than he was before he was fired and feels that Beijing is “making a big push” to take its “narrative global.”
“There’s a bunch of stuff that China’s doing to the United States, and I don’t think that everybody’s putting the pieces together,” he told VOA.
“Somebody has to stand up and say something because obviously [what happened to me] this isn’t a right thing,” Jones said. “This is a wrong thing.”
“It’s just my idea,” he said with a sigh. “I’m just a guy who got fired. I used to make $14 an hour. What do I know?”