US airlines had until July 25 to delete any mention of Taiwan as a country from their websites, or face a raft of unclear but potentially damaging consequences from Chinese authorities.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have made the change – dropping any country descriptor for the airport in Taipei – and United Airlines is expected to shortly follow suit.
Beijing claims a number of contested territories, but is particularly sensitive about Taiwan, a self-ruled island that it considers to be a province of China. It has used fines, public shaming, and the introduction of social credit scores for corporations to force foreign companies to adopt its political rhetoric.
These are all the companies that have been pressured by China to make political changes within the last 18 months.
Audi AG was one of the first countries to be targeted in a new wave of political crackdowns on foreign companies.
At a press conference in March last year, Audi used a map of China that left off Taiwan, South Tibet, and part of the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Audi then apologised for using an “incorrect geographical map.”
“The map offended Chinese people. It was a serious mistake for which Audi wants to sincerely apologise,” the company said in a statement.
In August 2017, Muji imported to China 119 clothes hangers that listed Taiwan as the “country of origin”. It emerged this year that the Shanghai Administration for Industry and Commerce fined the Japanese retailer 200,000 yuan ($US31,280) as punishment.
Muji was accused of breaking advertising law which protects China’s “dignity or interests,” and is still one of the most serious breaches.
But in October 2017, Muji again drew the ire of China’s National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation for publishing what the agency deemed to be an incorrect map of China in a store catalogue. The map left off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands which both Beijing and Taipei make claims to.
At the time Muji took “appropriate measures” and destroyed the catalogue.
When Marriott International listed Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as countries in a questionnaire email to customers in January, the Shanghai arm of the Cyberspace Administration took action.
Authorities interviewed Marriott managers in China about a potential breach of cybersecurity and advertising laws and Marriott was ordered to take down its website and app for a week.
The CEO of Marriott International issued a public apology saying the company “respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China… We recognise the severity of the situation and sincerely apologise.”
Shortly after the Marriott incident, Shanghai’s Cyberspace Administration called out global fast fashion retailer Zara for listing Taiwan as a country on its website.
The retailer was ordered to publish an apology by 6 p.m. on the following Friday.
Zara, which operates 170 stores in China, was also ordered to carry out a “self-inspection” and turn in a rectification report.
Chinese authorities targeted the US medical devices company Medtronic at the same time as Zara for publishing “illegal content.”
Medtronic had, until then, listed “Republic of China (Taiwan)” as a country on its website.
The company similarly changed its website and issued an apology on social media. It was also required to undergo a “comprehensive self-inspection.”
Delta Air Lines
China’s Civil Aviation Administration began its campaign against foreign companies with Delta Air Lines, also in January.
Delta had listed Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website and was ordered to make an “immediate and public” apology. The US carrier responded by altering its destination list title to “Country/Region” and said it had made a “grave mistake” that had no “political intention.”
After the incident, the aviation authority said all foreign airlines operating in China would be required to review their materials and reportedly called in representatives from 25 air carriers to demand references to Taiwan as a country be removed.
In February, Ray-Ban sunglasses quietly changed its website description of “Taiwan” and “Hongkong” to “China Taiwan” and “China Hongkong.”
It is not known whether Chinese authorities contacted parent company Luxottica about making the changes.
Despite the political pushback, dozens of airlines have altered their websites for fear of receiving marks against their company social-credit score if they did not comply, and potentially losing access to what will soon be the largest air-travel market on the planet.
Eventually, Japan Airlines and ANA did so too, but only introduced the “Taiwan, China” descriptor on their Chinese-language sites. This could potentially prove a viable model for other companies, but Chinese state media has criticised the idea.
In May, Gap issued an apology to Chinese state media for selling a T-shirt that was described as having an incorrect map of China.
The shirt featured a map of China but omitted South Tibet, Taiwan, and islands China makes claims to in the South China Sea.
Though authorities did not get involved, hundreds of Weibo users commented about the controversial shirt forcing Gap to pull the product off shelves and have it destroyed.
“Gap Inc. respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We’ve learned a Gap brand T-shirt sold in some overseas markets mistakenly failed to reflect the correct map of China. We sincerely apologise for this unintentional error,” the company said in a statement.
It looked as though Costco could have been the next casualty when a 2016 letter from a company executive resurfaced online.
In the letter Patrick Callans, Costco’s senior vice president of human resources and risk management, reassured an association that, “we have retail locations in Taiwan and very much consider it a country.”
Despite an uproar on Chinese social media, Costco’s warehouse locations map still lists Taiwan as a country.
US airlines were granted an extension until July 25 to make changes to descriptions of Taiwan on their website.
American Airlines was the first major US carrier to change its description of Taiwan when the carrier deleted any city or country name from appearing alongside the names of airports in Taiwan.
Delta Air Lines followed suit several hours later, and United Airlines is expected to make similar changes by the end of the day in Beijing.
Anything that says “Made in Taiwan.”
At the beginning of the year, there were reports that even food shipments from Taiwan were being held up at customs or even destroyed for having “Made in Taiwan” labels.
Instead, officials were only allowing products that said “Produced in Taiwan Area” or “Produced in Taiwan Area, China.”
But some companies haven’t faced any problems.
Based on research by Business Insider, numerous companies appear to have difficulty navigating the political boundaries in Asia but have yet to get in trouble from Chinese authorities.