What arguably really took off with a China PR blunder by Marriott quickly turned into a Chinese campaign with implications extending far beyond Marriott. Marriott’s blunder, listing Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as independent countries—as well as liking a pro-Tibet tweet—was probably the most severe affront to Chinese nationalism by a travel company in recent years. For Chinese authorities, it called for aggressive and sudden policing of international airlines.

To China, Marriott’s seemingly innocent mistake put the spotlight on an inconvenient truth: people may mistake Hong Kong, Macau, and especially Taiwan, as independent countries—wholly in conflict with China’s so-called One-China policy. Something that quickly became obvious to regulators was that travel companies, and airlines, in particular, tend to list all three as “independent” countries in drop-down lists on their websites, i.e., the names of these places were not followed by “[comma] China.”

Beijing explains political alignment as the cost of doing business in China

Of course, the Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of Hong Kong and Macau are undeniably ruled from Beijing to a certain degree. However, they are similar to self-ruled Taiwan in that they are in charge of their own immigration departments. In other words, immigration policy is different from that of mainland China, and it does make sense for airlines to specify them as separate destinations.

For instance, if you’re from a country which requires a visa to visit Taiwan, China, you’ll get no help from a China visa application center. Your China visa will also make little difference when you’re trying to visit Hong Kong without a visa (unless you’re from a visa-exempt country, of course).

Thus, it may seem easy to explain why airlines, in particular, have often made it a practice to list places like Hong Kong next to actual 100 percent sovereign countries like, for example, Italy. For travelers’ intents and purposes, Italy and Hong Kong are as different as Hong Kong and China in terms of visa policy.

Needless to say, that nuance didn’t play a role in China’s decision to start policing airlines who, more important than anything else, list Taiwan as an independent country. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was quick to start sending letters to airlines around the world, demanding that they stop implying that Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are countries through various alterations. Other non-travel related companies also received similar warnings, notably Inditex SA’s Zara and Japanese retailer Muji—but from other Chinese authorities.

Do U.S. airlines listen to the White House or the wallet?

The spectacle reached the highest echelons of power, with the White House condemning China’s content policing as “Orwellian nonsense.”

Officially, the deadline for changing these references to Taiwan as a country was set for May 25, but China reportedly granted deadline extensions to those airlines that have yet to comply until “mid-2018.”

Notably, many U.S. airlines have yet to (or plan not to) change the wording on their websites, and Japanese airlines All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines are perhaps the largest carriers in Asia to, so far, ignore China’s demands. European airlines, meanwhile, were quick to bow to Chinese demands.

Airlines are, understandably, in a very precarious situation here. If they comply with China’s demands, then they risk alienating potential Taiwanese customers and—just maybe—confuse some customers about visa requirements. If they don’t comply with China’s orders, then they risk getting reprimanded by CAAC, which is in charge of pretty much everything in regards to Chinese air travel, and may end up losing access to the soon-to-be largest air travel market in the world.

Needless to say, most airlines have chosen option A: complying.

Those who haven’t picked an option at all—and been granted extensions until the looming “mid-2018”—may face some even trickier conundrums. U.S. carriers may fear domestic backlash over what may turn out to be backing the agenda of the United States’ adversary in an also looming Sino-American trade war. Moreover, a bipartisan group of senators has urged U.S. carriers to stand up to Chinese “bullying.” Japanese carriers face somewhat similar challenges: Japan is a major U.S. ally, and Japan has close ties with Taiwan and has erred on the side of not offending Taiwanese people in the past. Australia’s Qantas also took China up on its deadline extension offer but ended up announcing that it would comply with Beijing’s demands.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators urge airlines to stand up to China’s bullying

While non-complying airlines are busy “consulting with various parties” or otherwise, the question is perhaps how (or if) China will retaliate if these airlines do not bow down to Chinese demands. There’s currently no precedent for how China would do that.

If, let’s say, United Airlines refuses to comply with Chinese regulations—will they see all their takeoff and landing slots in China revoked by the CAAC? If so, it’s difficult to see how the United States wouldn’t be forced to retaliate against Chinese airlines flying to U.S. destinations—a typical tit-for-tat trade war move.

Or perhaps, the Cyber Administration Office (which went after Zara) would have United Airlines’ website blocked in China, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would “advise” tour agencies to avoid United Airlines—similar to how they were “advised” to stop selling tours to South Korea, which in practice meant imposing a full ban.

Arguably, either one of these options would risk igniting a Sino-American trade war (or adding fuel to the trade conflict fire), something Beijing most certainly would prefer to avoid. It is certainly a possibility that the CAAC has put Beijing in an impossible situation: either they don’t enforce their demands and prove themselves toothless, or they enforce their demands and risk escalating a conflict that Beijing has been eager to de-escalate. All this over some website drop-down lists.

Hong Kong, China, vs. Taiwan, Taiwan. Non-compliance is rampant in the tourism industry.

If, however, all airlines end up bowing to China’s pressure—then what’s next? Online travel agencies? Metasearch engines? Non-compliance with what ­China considers an appropriate listing of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan is rampant in the tourism industry for valid reasons. Even Ctrip’s Skyscanner lists Taiwan as its own country.

With China’s extended mid-2018 deadline fast approaching, we’ll soon find out how it’ll all turn out. All carriers bowing to Chinese pressure would only strengthen Chinese resolve of global enforcement of its One-China policy. If carriers end up ignoring Chinese orders, the trade conflict may take a turn for the worse—or China will see its bluff called.

Whatever happens, the now many different ways companies refer to destinations that China claim as its own will only end up confusing travelers. Whatever one thinks of Taiwan’s (or Hong Kong and Macau for that matter) political status, in terms of travel, they’re different destinations than China in legal terms.

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