Chinese authorities are expanding their policing of the content on the websites of international companies. The latest development is a letter sent by Chinese authorities to Australian airline Qantas to demanding the company remove any text on its website that implies that Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are countries. The authorities in question, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), have recently sent similar letters to United Airlines and American Airlines, in which they threatened to turn these airlines over to the “the relevant cyber-security authorities” for punishment. The exact timeline or threats against Qantas have not been publicly outlined.
CAAC has now sent letter demanding alterations of websites to three international airlines: United, American, and Qantas
China claims Taiwan as one of its provinces, ruled by an illegitimate government. Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions under the umbrella of the government in Beijing. This creates a challenging situation for international companies to navigate because all three destinations have their visa policies, currencies, governments, etc. They are in many ways de facto countries, at least as far as selling tickets is concerned.
However, the Chinese government strictly censors any media or content that promotes what they deem “separatism.” In recent months the Chinese government has been expanding policing of content it deems politically incorrect to foreign companies.
So far, it does not seem United Airlines or American Airlines have relented and altered the wording on their websites. However, other companies facing similar complaints from Chinese authorities have altered wording and issued apologies.
An incident involving listing Taiwan, Tibet, Macau, and Hong Kong in a drop-down menu for survey sent to Chinese consumers, and a tweet from a Tibetan independence group accidentally liked by one Marriott’s Twitter accounts led to the shutting down of Marriott’s China website for a week. Delta Airlines and Zara have also faced scrutiny for similar slights this year. Delta issued an apology and altered its website accordingly.
What Qantas, and by extension United Airlines and American Airlines, will do is unclear. Australia has been stepping up its economic and diplomatic engagement with China for some time. However, there has been growing opposition to Chinese involvement in Australia in the wake of accusations censorship of sensitive topics at Australian universities, Chinese students are arguably Australia’s most valuable source of educational tourism dollars. Australia has also seen China-related corruption scandals involving Australian politicians.
These requests from CAAC put the airlines in a difficult position, straddling the foreign policy goals of both China and their own nations’ governments
Tensions between the Australian government and the Chinese government appear to be ratcheting up again. Qantas changing the wording on its website to appease Chinese authorities may put the company at odds with an Australian government looking to be tough with China.
United Airlines and American Airlines face a similar dilemma, given U.S. President Donald Trump’s increasingly harsh stance on China and threats of a trade war coming out of both Beijing and Washington.