Japan’s major airlines bowed to political pressure from China earlier this month, but how they did so could provide a roadmap for other foreign companies.
Earlier this year Beijing began demanding that airlines stop listing self-ruled Taiwan as a country, and instead describe it as a province of China, which frequently tries to assert its claim to the island on the global stage. The incident involved letters sent to 44 foreign airlines. Governments got involved, and the White House even released a statement slamming the demand as “Orwellian nonsense.”
Despite the pushback, Japan Airlines and ANA on June 12 joined the likes of Qantas, Air France, Air Canada, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines in describing Taiwan as a Chinese province.
But unlike other carriers, Japan’s airlines have only introduced the “Taiwan, China” descriptor on their Chinese-language sites. Sites in Japanese, English, and other languages refer to Taiwan as its own country.
“We chose a description that is easy to understand and acceptable for users of our websites,” a JAL spokesperson told Japan Times. An ANA spokesperson said they wanted to make their site “easy to understand and acceptable for customers when they use our websites.”
Although Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it was “very dissatisfied” with the decision, and made a complaint to the airlines, using different terminology for Chinese-language sites could be a working compromise allowing foreign companies to appease China and but not appear completely beholden.
It could also be a particularly useful approach as companies increasingly face the prospect of being punished or even locked out of the Chinese market for not obeying Beijing’s demands. Australian Financial Review reported Monday that companies that “offend” China by calling Taiwan a country may not be invited to an import expo in Shanghai in November.
Already this year, Gap, Zara, and Marriott have all adjusted how they refer to Taiwan, with the hotel chain even being forced to shut down their website for a week as punishment.
China’s Civil Aviation Administration gave US airlines a mid-year deadline to make changes to Taiwan’s description on their websites. The White House is reportedly urging US airlines to not give in to China’s demands.