Foreign airlines risk restrictions on their permission to operate in mainland China if they fail to back the government’s stance on “one-China” as tensions between Beijing and Washington magnify national sentiment.
Over the weekend The Washington Post reported that the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) had sent a letter to 36 carriers last month ordering them to stop listing Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau separately on their websites and mark them as part of China.
The CAAC’s letter to United Airlines dated April 25 gave it 30 days to respond and warned that non-compliance would be deemed “serious discreditable conduct” under the Measures for the Credit of the Civil Aviation Industry issued last November.
Other authorities such as the Cyberspace Administration of China will also enforce their respective laws, the letter added.
The regulations list “various punishments” that could be applied, including closer administrative scrutiny and demerits on their credit records.
Those deemed to have engaged in “serious discreditable conduct” might have their resources or administrative permits restricted or downgraded; or face problems when applying for new resources or administrative permits.
They could also be passed on to their own industry association for disciplinary action.
United Airlines, which still lists Taiwan separately on its websites, has passed the letter on to the White House for advice.
Many other international companies have also failed to comply with the order. For instance, Japan Airlines still offers area options under the heading “China/ Hong Kong/ Taiwan”.
On the other hand, Korean company Asiana Airlines has changed its website by offering destinations in Taiwan under the heading “mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan”.
Over the weekend, the White House condemned the demands as “Orwellian nonsense” and called on China to “stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded on Sunday that foreign enterprises operating in China must “respect the national sentiment of the Chinese people”.
The CAAC began to police how the foreign carriers refer to the Chinese-claimed territories – especially Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province – in January, when another American carrier Delta Air Lines was criticised by Chinese customers for listing Tibet and Taiwan as separate “countries”.
Delta apologised for “an inadvertent error” and said there was no political intention behind the listing. It has since removed Tibet from its website, but Taiwan is still listed separately from the mainland.
The nationalist furore unleashed followed a similar campaign that month against the Marriot hotel chain, which had also listed Tibet and Taiwan separately.
Since then Chinese internet users have started to watch multinational firms’ activities in China closely and pressured the authorities to act against those branded transgressors.
Analysts have suggested that the current spat follows the recent trend of Donald Trump’s administration playing up the Taiwan issue.
Yuan Zheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the government in Beijing needed to respond to nationalistic public opinion and give a robust response as cross-strait relations deteriorate.
The White House’s intervention in the current row was highly unusual because such matters are usually left to the State Department, said Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University.
“It is very likely that this was advocated by John Bolton,” said Wu.
Bolton was recently named as Trump’s new National Security Adviser and his appointment, coupled with his long-standing support for Taiwan, brings fresh challenges to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance towards the self-ruled island.
“While Trump doesn’t have a clear understanding of the Taiwan issue and only uses Taiwan as leverage, people like Bolton sympathise with Taiwan,” he added. “The Chinese side is very alarmed by it and is likely to react strongly.”