Chinese Civil Aviation Administration has recently sent out a strongly-worded letter to United Airlines and American Airlines with a demand that both airlines obey Chinese law when making any reference to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Any indication that any of these are independent countries must be removed from the companies’ public content.
Sources say that China has given a set timeline for these changes to be put into effect, threatening that if the demands are not met, “the relevant cyber-security authorities” will take over and deal with the matter accordingly. Considering the Chinese reputation when it comes to cyber-attacks, this can mean many things, various forms of hacking included.
Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues for Beijing. A strict set of rules on how it may be addressed in public has been enforced for decades, and any hint of Taipei’s independence is met with serious consequences, including heavy fines and jail time.
This isn’t the first time China has used coercion to force foreign companies to obey the official Communist Party stance on issues, especially those concerning Taiwan, but in recent years that number has increased significantly. Only last year, the Chinese embassy in London pressured the Man Booker International Prize to change the nationality of Wu Ming-Yi, one of the nominees for the award, from Taiwan to Taiwan, China. Public outcry has forced them to change it back to Taiwan again, but this time designating it as a province/territory.
A Marriott’s employee was fired for liking a post on Facebook by a Tibetan separatist group using the company’s account. Furthermore, Marriott made a mistake of listing Tibet and Taiwan as independent countries in their online survey, which earned them a week shutdown of their website in China.
U.S. State Department has been informed of the letter and, according to their spokesperson, “We object to Beijing dictating how U.S. firms, including airlines, organize their websites for ease of consumer use. Chinese companies’ websites operate freely and without political interference in the United States.” They have issued a complaint to the Chinese authorities. “While we seek a mutually beneficial commercial aviation relationship with China, we will consider taking appropriate action if necessary in response to unfair Chinese actions,” their spokesperson said.
The air traffic between China and the United States is heavily regulated, with American airlines allowed 140 direct flights per week, while Chinese get 180. With China set to replace the US as the world’s biggest air travel market by 2022, any threat of sanctions against foreign airliners is taken very seriously. Neither of the American companies has made a decision on how to handle the situation yet, American Airlines saying that the letter is under review and United Airlines has refused to comment. Both their sites list Taiwan as an independent country.
This is another step towards worsening relationships between Beijing and Taipei. Ever since Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016, the tensions have been rising and China has increased the number of its troops across the straits from Taiwan.