A strong White House retort, but does China really care??

Hefei airport arrivals hall
Hefei airport arrivals hall

China wants US-based travel providers to change the way Hong Kong, Macau/Macao and Taiwan are referred to online. In a letter sent to US airlines (among other companies) last week Chinese aviation authorities (CAAC, the equivalent of the FAA in the USA or the CAA in Great Britain) used strong language in demanding compliance with Chinese law on all content published globally. Failure to remove “separatism” supportive references (e.g. mentioning Taiwan as separate from mainland China) would be referred to “relevant cyber-security authorities” in China for punishment.

The demands came as a US trade delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, wrapped a visit to China. The “hot take” from that visit appears to be mostly negative for the US side. The most senior Chinese officials apparently were not involved at all in the meetings.


The US State Department is not amused and on Saturday the White House issued a strongly worded statement condemning the demands.

This is Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.

From a posturing perspective standing up to the Chinese appears a strong position in backing the US companies. But it is unclear that it really matters when the companies have to make money in China.

Earlier this year Chinese authorities cut off Marriott‘s website from access inside China in response to a snafu with respect to Tibet. The hotelier eventually apologized, halted work with an outside contractor and fired a guy from its customer service team as a result. China eventually accepted the apology, restoring access to the site.

It is hard to see how this time around the situation will play out differently.

Sure, the US carriers can resist the demands. And the US government can, too. But the Chinese control access to these companies’ ability to sell product in the country. No matter how strong the protest and defense from the White House, the Chinese still gets to decide who sees what web content in its country. Just ask Google how strong its business position is in China for an example.

Perhaps this is payback for the export ban imposed on tech giant ZTE. Despite no formal appeals process the company submitted a request for the ban to be suspended. Billions of dollars are at stake with that deal, far more than the cost to a handful of airlines running a few flights to China every day. But China has shown a willingness to fight back on trade issues somewhat asymmetrically, attacking markets where it sees US vulnerabilities.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. China has “controlled” this designation for decades and, well, controls a massive amount of our debt and trade. The Administration can bluster all they may, but China will do as it pleases. Heck, remember when airlines had “Asia” fleets so they could service both Taiwan and the mainland?

    1. Indeed, the “Asia” carriers from BA and KLM (and others, I’m sure) are another great example.

      I know that this affects far more than just the US carriers but I really wonder how much is tied to the festering trade war we’re facing.

  2. That’s not true in terms of Aviation, if China decides to block US carrier website, the US can simply ban Chinese Airline flying to USA and subsequently US carrier will also lost their ability to fly to China. But with the Chinese having more frequency to USA and most US carrier can’t seem to make money on routes to China. It is almost a good thing, and will only hurt the Chinese airline more.

  3. Peter, are you insane? There’s a huge difference between blocking web content, which most countries do (including the US, under the TWEA), and banning flights, which would be a massive escalation of the trade war.

    Countries get to choose what their citizens get to see, so I doubt there would be any US response to blocking of US airlines’ websites. We certainly didn’t do anything about the blocking of Google or Facebook, which has a much larger financial impact. US Airlines just have to choose between selling to people in China, or listing Taiwan as a separate country.

    In the end, how is this really any different from the US and UN positions, which don’t recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Even Taiwan has not made a Declaration of Independence.

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