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U.S. Airlines Still Resist China’s Speech Controls as Deadline Looms

The incident comes less than three weeks after United Airlines drew global outrage for forcefully dragging a passenger off an overbooked flight
GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File JUSTIN SULLIVAN

Most U.S. airlines are still defying China’s order to change their websites so that Taiwan is expressly identified as part of China, according to an Associated Press report published three days before China’s deadline on compliance.

The Chinese government has threatened punitive regulatory action against airlines that do not comply. The White House memorably denounced Beijing’s demand as “Orwellian nonsense” and promised there would be resistance to “China’s efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world.”

AP notes that most of the world’s major carriers have done so, and wonders how much longer the American companies can hold out:

Associated Press found that Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways, Finnair, Garuda Indonesia, Asiana Airlines and Philippine Airlines have changed the way they refer to Taiwan.

SAS airlines, Swissair, Malaysia Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air, Aeroflot, Italy’s Alitalia, Austrian Airlines, Air Mauritius, Etihad Airways, Spain’s Iberia, Israel’s EL AL, MIAT Mongolian Airlines and Russia’s S7 Airlines also refer to Taiwan as part of China, but it was not clear how long they had done so.

Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and Finnair said they abide by laws and regulations internationally and in the jurisdictions in which they work.

“This includes taking customs of the international clientele into consideration,” Lufthansa said in a statement, adding that we “seek your understanding for the situation”.

Finnair said a decision was taken to amend the website earlier this year and “in line with the general view taken in Europe, Taiwan is not shown as an independent country in our list of destinations”.

Major U.S. carriers have not yet changed their wording. United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta and Hawaiian Airlines – all of which received letters in April from the regulator – did not refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites as of Tuesday. The same was true of Australia’s Qantas Airways.

Amusingly, the AP notes that Beijing’s speech police apparently forgot to send a letter to the Taiwan division of Air China, because the Taiwanese website for Air China still describes the island’s capital as “Taipei, Taiwan” instead of “Taipei, Taiwan, China.”

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States Director Robert Daly predicted the holdout airlines are “likely to accede to Chinese demands.”

Daly recommended Washington respond by launching a “global discussion of the implications of Beijing’s insistence on the worldwide jurisdiction of Chinese law,” but damned the Trump administration for lacking the “commitment to global leadership and strong alliances” that would make such a discussion sustainable beyond the occasional press conference denouncing Orwellian nonsense.

“We strongly object to China’s efforts to bully, coerce and threaten their way to achieving their political objectives,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Associated Press. “We call on all countries around the world to stand together to uphold the freedom of speech and freedom to do business. We also call on private firms to collectively reject China’s unreasonable demands to change their designation of ‘Taiwan’ to ‘Taiwan, China.’”

Last Friday, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) sent a letter from a bipartisan group of senators to American Airlines and United Air supporting the Trump White House and urging the airlines to stand against the “long arm” of the Chinese government.

“The U.S. Congress stands ready to defend the integrity of your airline and other American companies against attempts by foreign governments to exert sovereignty over your internal business practices and the content of your website,” the senators promised.

“While we recognize that your company is weighing many complex factors, including the interests of your shareholders, we believe this is a critical moment. As you weigh your response options, you should know that your government stands with you, and will strongly oppose attempts by China or any other foreign government to unilaterally dictate terms to an American company and exert sovereignty over your internal business practices and the content of your website,” they said.

The question is precisely what a “global discussion” would entail, or could amount to, when China responds by impassively ignoring criticism and informing companies they had best comply with Beijing’s orders if they wish to preserve access to the vast Chinese marketplace. What support might the U.S. Congress offer to American and United that would offset the loss of revenue from the Chinese market? United is running almost a hundred flights a week to China, which could become a larger market for air travel than the United States within six years.

China’s “sharp power” is blunt and unsubtle: play ball or lose billions of dollars in trade. It has been so successful to date that Western corporations have been reduced to apologizing for the “emotional damage” they supposedly inflicted on Chinese citizens by implying Taiwan was a separate country in a drop-down menu on a company website or pulling T-shirts out of Western stores because China thought its national outline was missing a few disputed islands.

Another disturbing question is what else China might begin demanding from foreign corporations after sharp power has been successfully tested on relatively trivial matters. Both the senators who wrote to the airlines and the analysts quoted by the Associated Press warned that Beijing will push further as it notes the absence of “red lines” against its demands.

The National Endowment for Democracy’s December 2017 report on the sharp power wielded by China, and to a lesser extent authoritarian Russia, anticipated that it would be employed to reshape the strategic map of regions like Latin America and Central Europe. In the case of the airlines, China is doing more than complaining about verbiage it finds unacceptable; it is waging a massive campaign to isolate Taiwan, delegitimize its government, and make the Taiwanese people feel helpless and doomed in their quest to maintain independence.

Others have noted China’s penchant for interfering in the political affairs of developed nations, including key American allies like Australia, and wondered if future directives from Beijing to Western corporations might include instructions about corporate donations, political activity, support for academia, and partnerships with foreign governments China dislikes. China’s efforts to impose its rules beyond its borders over the past year were the test of a system that will be most likely put to more important uses in the future.  

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