In recent months, many multinational companies, from airlines to clothing brands, have been getting on the wrong side of Beijing.
They have done so by listing Taiwan under the title “country” in their website’s drop down menus, or by suggesting the island is a country on their product packaging, or designs.
China’s government and the Chinese people consider Taiwan – which has been ruled separately since 1895 when Japan occupied it as a colony and then by the Nationalists after the end of China’s civil war in 1949 – as an errant province, to be reunified one day.
Our Taipei correspondent Cindy Sui, who spent her early childhood in mainland China but grew up in the US, and has been living in Taiwan in recent years, sheds some light on why multinational companies and others now find themselves caught in the divisive issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Growing up, I don’t remember ever having heated arguments with my father – except about Taiwan.
I was expected to share his wish for it to be reunited with mainland China, but my US education taught me that people should have the right to decide their own futures.
To avoid further arguments, I soon learnt to not take sides, and would simply express hope that it would all be peacefully resolved over time.
So far it hasn’t. And it’s causing diplomatic as well as domestic arguments.
Following enticements from Beijing, three countries have severed their official links with the self-governing island since its new president Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016.
And companies that seem to question China’s territorial integrity are now more stringently rebuked.
In January, it was the hotel chain Marriott International. Its Chinese-website was blocked for seven days after Taiwan (along with Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau) were listed as separate countries on a customer questionnaire.
Next, airlines that placed Taiwan in drop down lists of countries on their websites received demanding letters. Taiwanese cities should be listed under the heading “China”, Beijing said, or at the very least the word “China” should be included after the word “Taiwan”.
Some apologised, most complied.
The government in Taipei then sent letters of its own urging companies to be “courageous”, to defy the “bullying” and reverse their “wrong” decision. The US State Department then criticized China’s demand as “Orwellian nonsense”, arguing that American firms do not have to toe Beijing’s political line.
But China insists it has every right to request companies that do business there to follow its laws, and not to hurt the feelings of its people.
In Shanghai, the retailer Muji was fined 200,000 yuan ($31,000; £24,000) for suggesting Taiwan was a country on its packaging. And a Chinese regulator demanded apologies from the fashion brand Zara and medical device maker Medtronic, after their websites appeared to do the same.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just avoid taking sides, I wondered?
As a journalist, it’s very important to stay neutral, especially on divisive issues that matter to a lot of people – in this case the 1.3 billion people in mainland China and the 23 million in Taiwan. So why can’t companies also be neutral, I thought?
A consultant at a global PR firm told me he believes many companies were simply ignorant of the sensitivities and probably outsourced the design work anyway. But it can be confusing.
Even in airports in mainland China, flights to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are grouped in the “international” departure area. And Chinese travellers have to pay roaming charges when they use their phones in Taiwan.
When my Wechat malfunctioned recently, I had to contact the Chinese social media company on its app to reset my password. Surprisingly I found Taiwan listed among the countries in its dropdown menu – they’ve since fixed the oversight.
“We generally recommend clients align their messages with government policy, and do that as long as it’s ethical,” said the PR consultant.
It’s no surprise that many foreign firms have succumbed to Beijing’s demands given its huge market – but some Taiwanese are trying to fight back.
After Air Canada updated its website to list Taiwan as a part of China, one Taiwanese-Canadian man called for a boycott. So far it hasn’t gained momentum, but staff at the airline’s Taipei office quietly tells me they have received numerous complaints, and have forwarded them on to the company headquarters so they will better understand Taiwan.
China’s new assertiveness is perhaps a sign that its citizens are increasingly global consumers. Yet it’s also because China is becoming increasingly distrustful of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party is pro-independence.
It is clear that China will seek out more “violators” and Chinese citizens will help the government to do so. In May the clothing chain Gap apologised after social media users noticed it was selling a T-shirt which included a map of China that omitted Taiwan and Tibet.
Some companies, however, are managing to avoid being seen to take sides.
The British luxury sports car maker Aston Martin and ceramics and porcelain maker Wedgwood simply ask customers to input their location or allow their website to figure out it for them. No need for drop down menus at all.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese EVA Airways lists possible “starting points” and “destinations”, not countries or regions, and groups them under the headings: Taiwan, Hong Kong-Macau, and mainland China.
A friend from the mainland who is married to a Taiwanese man once observed: “Fifty years ago, no one would’ve thought there would be direct flights between the two former enemies, tourists going back and forth and student exchanges.
“So who’s to say that 50 years from now the two sides won’t be able to find a solution that we cannot think of today?”
Perhaps the best approach is still to avoid taking sides and hope that, over time, mainland China and Taiwan can find a peaceful solution that works out well for everyone.
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