WHEN it comes to asserting sovereignty over Taiwan, no fight is too small for Chinese officials. In January censors shut down the website of Marriott, a hotel chain, after it referred to Taiwan as well as Tibet and Macau as countries in a customer survey. The site was unblocked only after the company’s chief executive issued a grovelling public apology. In April China complained about an online allusion to Taiwan as a country by organisers of the Man Booker prize for fiction (they eventually chose a fudge, listing the island instead as a “country/territory”). Gap, a fashion retailer, came under fire in May for selling a T-shirt with a map of China on it that did not include Taiwan. The firm responded by withdrawing the product and promising “rigorous reviews”. Taiwan it seems, is becoming china’s second Ukraine (with Tibet being the first), and an exersize of it’s soft power.
China is still doing battle with international airlines. In April its civil aviation administration, CAAC, sent a letter to 44 of them, demanding that they specify Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as being parts of China when including them in drop-down menus of countries on booking websites. Fair enough for Hong Kong and Macau, which are universally recognised as being Chinese territories. But CAAC wants Taiwan to be called “Taiwan, China”, and maps to use the same colour for both the island and the People’s Republic. That is a problem. The island calls itself an independent, sovereign state.
Originally CAAC ordered the companies to comply by May 25th. However, by that date only 18 airlines had done so, despite the authority’s hint that violators would face punishment, including fines or action against their websites. Officials extended the deadline to July 25th, saying that some airlines were experiencing “technical difficulties” updating their lists. Among those that have fallen in line are Air Canada, Air France, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. Among the latest companies to do so is Air India, which this week began calling Taiwan “Chinese Taipei”, a term acceptable to China but viewed with disdain in Taiwan, which uses it only when access to international events requires it. Holdouts include the American carriers Delta, United and American Airlines, as well as a handful of Asian ones.
China’s spat with the airlines coincides with its stepped-up efforts to put pressure on the island itself. In the past year the Chinese armed forces have staged a growing number of exercises near Taiwan, including the flying of bombers and other aircraft around it. In May it deprived Taiwan of two members of its tiny band of diplomatic partners by establishing relations with Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic (China does not allow countries to have formal ties with Taiwan and China at the same time). Apart from wanting to signal displeasure with Taiwan, which has been led since 2016 by a party whose members scorn the idea of eventual reunification, China wants to warn America’s president, Donald Trump, that he should not get too friendly with the island.
Both America and Taiwan have bristled at China’s attempt to strong-arm the airlines. The White House called it “Orwellian nonsense”. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, says it represents “a new level of hysteria” in China’s approach to how others describe Taiwan. In theory, the island should have no objection to being called “Taiwan, China”. Its official name is the Republic of China and Taiwan is technically a province of that. But it worries that the word China is usually understood to mean the Communist-ruled entity that lays claim to Taiwan. “In essence, Taiwan is a country itself,” says Mr Wu. Informally, that is the name its officials give it.
China is digging in its heels. According to Reuters, it has refused an American government request for talks about the problem. Chinese leaders may be mindful of their image at home. In the cases involving Marriott, Gap and several of the airlines, it was Chinese netizens who sounded the alarm about the firms’ categorisations of Taiwan. Chinese social media blazed with rage as nationalists excoriated the companies. Under such pressure, the government had to take action, says Xin Qiang of Fudan University in Shanghai. Mr Xin says that, as Chinese officials see it, the risk of a domestic backlash for not acting toughly outweighs that of economic or diplomatic damage resulting from feuds with other countries. Most international airlines are likely to take the route of least resistance.
This article orignally appeared on The Economist