Why China is making brands nervous to acknowledge Taiwan
The world’s largest companies are starting to feel China breathing down their necks, as the economic superpower has started extracting apologies from major brands that do not refer to Taiwan as Chinese territory.
The democratically elected government of Taiwan has remained distinct from the Communist-run People’s Republic of China since 1949. Nevertheless, China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and treats it simply as a rogue province that will one day be reunited with the mainland, under a policy known as One China.
The policy has been in place for decades, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has placed renewed emphasis on it since he was re-elected and granted sweeping new powers in March.
One China has been a thorny issue for other world powers, including the U.S. and Canada, to navigate. Most nations officially acknowledge Taiwan as part of China, even while maintaining unofficial ties with the government in Taipei.
But while China has succeeded in isolating Taiwan from maintaining official nation-to-nation relations with most of the world, it’s largely kept that campaign in the political sphere.
That is, until recently, when private companies have started facing backlash from the Chinese government or its citizens for not conforming to the One China policy.
“What’s at stake is we’re allowing a revisionist regime with a terrible track record on freedom of speech to dictate what we say and write in our own countries,” J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow with the China Policy Institute and the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan studies program, told The Associated Press.
“If Beijing does not encounter red lines, it can only keep asking for more.”
Major brands fearing backlash
Wholesale giant Costco landed in the middle of a One China controversy this week after a 2016 letter from a human resources executive surfaced on Chinese social media. The letter sought to clarify an issue with a website drop-down menu in which Taiwan was not included as an option.
“We have retail locations in Taiwan and very much consider it a country,” wrote Patrick Callans, senior vice-president of human resources and risk management at Costco.
Costco has not yet commented on the letter, which caused major outcry on Weibo, China’s social media network.
The Royal Bank of Canada was nearly drawn into a similar issue this week when a Vancouver newspaper suggested that the bank had reclassified Taiwan as a province of China on its website. A screenshot in the report showed “Taiwan (Province of China)” listed as an option for sending wire transfers.
RBC told Global News on Tuesday that nothing has changed in the way it refers China, and that its naming conventions adhere to international standards.
“For certain money transfer services, country descriptions are pulled directly from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO),” RBC told GlobalNews.ca in a statement on Tuesday. “RBC has followed the ISO naming convention since January 2016.”
Taiwan is listed on the ISO website as “Taiwan (Province of China).” However, it appears to be listed as simply “Taiwan” on all RBC pages accessed by GlobalNews.ca.
“Adoption of ISO standards is not a political statement,” an RBC spokesperson said in a statement to GlobalNews.ca.
“RBC respects the people, cultures, sovereignty and supervisory organizations of every country where we operate.”
Mercedes-Benz, Zara, The Gap, Medtronic, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Lufthansa and Delta Air Lines have all backtracked or apologized in recent months for public incidents that ran afoul of the One China policy with wording or images in their products.
In the case of Mercedes-Benz, the carmaker faced backlash for using a quote from Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in a social media post.
The Gap ran into trouble when it released a T-shirt with a map of China on it that did not include Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called on corporations to push back against China’s aggressive One China demands.
“We strongly object to China’s efforts to bully, coerce, and threaten their way to achieving their political objectives,” the ministry said in a statement to The Associated Press.
“We call on all countries around the world to stand together to uphold the freedom of speech and freedom to do business. We also call on private firms to reject China’s unreasonable demands to change their designation of ‘Taiwan’ to ‘Taiwan, China.'”
Air Canada acquiesced earlier this month to a letter from China’s Civil Aviation Administration, which called for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau to be re-labelled as parts of China on its website.
Air Canada was among 36 foreign airlines to receive the letter threatening severe sanctions for airlines that refused its request.
The letter was also sent to some of the most prominent airlines in the United States, prompting a sharp response from the White House.
“This is Orwellian nonsense,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement on May 5.
“The United States strongly objects to China’s attempts to compel private firms to use specific language of a political nature in their publicly available content.”
Most of the airlines that received the letter have since altered how they refer to Taiwan online.
The wrath of China
The United States and Canada do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, under their own versions of the One China policy.
The U.S. has not declared its official support for Taiwan as a country, but it has continued to maintain a strong connection to the island through various military and travel agreements. A new, unofficial U.S. embassy, dubbed the American Institute in Taiwan, is slated to open in Taipei next month.
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Private businesses are not bound by their respective countries’ One China policies, although many have kowtowed to Beijing in the face of its economic might.
But the battle over brands is just a small part of China’s efforts to pressure Taiwan into returning to the fold.
Taiwan has long resisted China’s overtures for reunification, even as the number of countries that officially recognize it has dwindled.
Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic became the latest countries to abandon Taiwan this month when they opted instead to strengthen ties with Beijing. Most of Taiwan’s remaining allies are tiny countries in Central America, South America and the Pacific Islands.
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China’s president vowed in March to push for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan.
“The Chinese people share a common belief that it is never allowed and it is absolutely impossible to separate any inch of our great country’s territory from China,” Xi said at a session of parliament in Beijing.
“Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure and will be met with the people’s condemnation and the punishment of history.”
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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