Back in January, CNN reported that China’s government had scolded Delta Air Lines Inc. for listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website.
In a notice posted online by its civil aviation administration, China, which regards self-ruled Taiwan as a wayward province rather than an independent nation, demanded a public apology for this perceived slight.
When notified of its “error,” Delta was quick to oblige:
“It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers,” Delta said in a statement to Reuters.
Delta’s website now lists both China and Taiwan on a Regions page under Asia with a Countries/Regions header:
But now, the dispute that put Atlanta’s hometown airline in an awkward position as it prepared to launch a nonstop flight to Shanghai in July is rearing its head again.
The Chinese aviation regulator sent another letter May 3 to 36 foreign carriers — including United Airlines and American Airlines — demanding they adhere to China’s classification of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as parts of China.
But this time, it wasn’t just airlines that responded: The move brought about a strongly worded statement from the Trump White House.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders decried China’s “world-famous Internet repression” and called the Communist Party of China’s demands “Orwellian nonsense” aiming to trample on the free speech of Americans.
“The United States strongly objects to China’s attempts to compel private firms to use specific language of a political nature in their publicly available content,” reads the statement. “We call on China to stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens.”
Concerns over China using its growing economic influence to further its political aims are becoming more widespread in a variety of fields. Universities — and even Congress — have begun to worry about the subtle effect of Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes on academic freedom. Recent news reports suggest that the Chinese Communist Party is applying concerted political pressure on Chinese students on American college campuses. Tech giants like Apple Inc., meanwhile, have agreed to some level of censorship to retain their mainland market share.
Airlines are just the latest firms being asked to affirm support for Chinese territorial integrity to avoid negative business impacts. Hotelier Marriott and clothing retailer Zara faced similar pressure last year from the Chinese government, which shut down their websites for a time.
From the Taiwanese perspective, the airline flap is just an overt manifestation of a broader Chinese initiative to use its economic heft to diminish Taiwan’s voice in the international community. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had this to say on Twitter:
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) May 6, 2018
Taiwan has long asserted that the mainland has used a mix of economic incentives and threats to pressure its fewer than 20 remaining diplomatic allies to switch their nations’ recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Just last week, the Dominican Republic became the latest country to do so.
Locally, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Atlanta, which represents the island’s foreign ministry here, has been vocal in speaking out for Taiwan’s positions.
Immediately after the news broke in January, Director General Vincent Jing-Yen Liu sent a letter of protest to Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressing concern over the airline’s acquiescence to China’s demands.
Delta later sent a group of officials to Mr. Liu’s office in Atlanta to notify him that it had registered his concerns and that the changes to its website wouldn’t mean any hassles for Taiwanese passengers.
Reached Tuesday, Mr. Liu told Global Atlanta that the fact that this issue has come back into the headlines shows that China has gone too far on this particular issue.
“The recent White House statement proves that China keeps pushing the envelope and trying to enlarge that influence to all other major airlines. China’s action was too big to be ignored, and it finally backfired.”