US-China Tensions Climb Over ‘Orwellian Nonsense’ on Airlines

As the United States considers ramping up trade tariffs and other actions in response to China’s economic policies, tensions in another area heated up in recent days: How airlines should refer to Taiwan.

The White House released a statement over the weekend criticizing China for demanding international air carriers not refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as countries. Airlines recently reported they had been asked to remove references on their websites that suggest the three are countries independent from China.

China classifies Macau and Hong Kong as “special administrative regions,” and calls Taiwan a renegade province. 

The White House called China’s demand “Orwellian nonsense” and said it is “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.” 

China rejected the White House criticism.

“Foreign enterprises operating in China should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by China’s law and respect the national sentiment of the Chinese people,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Sunday.

The White House statement came as the U.S. trade delegation headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin returned from China following a two-day meeting with Chinese counterparts aimed at avoiding a possible trade war.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that members of the delegation briefed the president Monday morning and the talks will continue in Washington next week.

“The president has a great relationship with President Xi, and we’re working on something that we think will be great for everybody,” Sanders said, adding, “China’s top economic adviser, the Vice Premier [Liu He] will be coming here next week to continue the discussions with the president’s economic team.”

Trump has threatened to levy new tariffs on up to $150 billion of Chinese imports while Beijing shot back with a list of $50 billion in targeted U.S. goods.

New pressure on Taiwan

Last month, Chinese Civil Aviation Administration sent letters to 36 foreign airlines, including a number of American carriers, and demanded they remove references on their websites or in other material that suggests Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are independent territories from China.

Hong Kong and Macau, former British and Portuguese colonies respectively, are now “special administrative regions” of China that maintain separate administrative and judicial systems from the rest of the country.

Taiwan, however, has been self-ruled since the 1949 civil war and has been deemed by Beijing a renegade province.

“We call on all businesses to resist #China’s efforts to mischaracterize #Taiwan,” tweeted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Sunday.

Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines issued a formal apology to China for referring to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet as countries on its website.

Richard Bush, co-director for Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and former chairman of American Institute in Taiwan, says Taiwan’s legal and political status is an issue for countries, but not companies.

“It should not be an issue between the Chinese government and American companies or any companies for that matter,” he contended.

Bush pointed out China has been taking a number of steps to intimidate and pressure Taiwan, and it is appropriate for the United States government to push back.

“This is an effort to, in effect, change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, so it is something the United State government should oppose,” he said, adding, “I’m not sure bringing George Orwell or talking about political correctness are the precise terms I would use.”

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the 1979 U.S.-P.R.C. Joint Communique, in which the United States recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. As part of that agreement, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.

However, U.S. lawmakers have continued to lobby to support Taiwan, and the United States still sells hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to Taiwan, despite China’s objections. In March, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that encourages high-level exchanges of officials with Taiwan.

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