The harassment of foreign companies continues to pay dividends for the Chinese Communist party.
On Monday, Qantas, an Australian airline, announced that it would comply with the Chinese government’s demands that it recognize Taiwan as part of China on its website. Qantas and other international airlines operating in China have been on the receiving end of a state-sponsored bullying campaign intended to force their recognition of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China — and the pressure is working. Following an April 25 letter from the country’s Civil Aviation Administration threatening 36 airlines with undefined legal sanctions for not explicitly referring to Taiwan as part of China, some 20 of them have fallen in line. Qantas is the latest to cave to what the White House has called “Orwellian nonsense.”
The kicker? Flights to these destinations depart from international terminals at Chinese airports.
This seemingly absurd case highlights China’s troubling campaign to export its historical revisionism to the West. Indeed, no perceived slight is too small for the Chinese government and its attack dogs in the state-owned media. After the South Korean supermarket chain Lotte let Seoul install U.S. THAAD missile systems on a golf course it owned in response to North Korean threats, Beijing increased safety and sanitary inspections to drive it out of China in 2017, and Chinese netizens organized a boycott.
The Chinese authorities are no strangers to channeling public outrage to further their foreign-policy goals. A prime example is the anti-Japan protests of 2012, sparked by renewed tensions over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Reports at the time indicated the involvement of Chinese officials in the demonstrations, which took place in over 50 cities across the country.
The growing size of the country’s consumer market gives Chinese customers an effective cudgel that officials are not shy about wielding.
In a more recent case, Gap issued an apology on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, after users reacted with anger to pictures of a shirt from a store in Canada that portrayed a map of China that omitted Taiwan and Tibet. The clothing retailer removed the shirt from sale in Canada and destroyed similar products in China. Marriott (which listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries on a questionnaire) and Mercedes-Benz (which had the audacity to quote the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post) have also run afoul of the Chinese public and authorities.
All of this evokes a new challenge for foreign companies operating in China. The growing size of the country’s consumer market gives Chinese customers an effective cudgel that officials are not shy about wielding. With China on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest air-travel market by 2022 it’s no wonder that international airlines have raced to comply with Beijing’s demands. The exception remains American carriers, and despite attempts White House attempts to convince them otherwise, even they might eventually be forced to cave to the dual Chinese pressures of militantly nationalistic consumer preferences and government interference.
That Qantas’s surrender came June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is a telling coincidence. With the age of connectivity has come a new element to the annual commemoration of the atrocity in the West: an examination of how the Chinese government censors political discussions on social media. The list of words banned from social media is extensive, including not just every possible permutation of expected terms relating to protest and dissent but also far-fetched combinations of numbers vaguely evoking the date June 4, 1989.
Now, Chinese censorship also threatens Western institutions. Last summer the Chinese government turned its attention to Cambridge University Press’s China Quarterly journal, demanding that it block several articles about Tiananmen Square and the Cultural Revolution, among other topics, from readers in China. The academic publishing house dutifully complied, before reversing its decision following an international outcry.
The airlines and retailers are just the tip of the iceberg; the real threat to the West is that China will succeed in attacking the freedom of inquiry at the core of free academic discourse. Any discussion of the party’s misdeeds must be blocked from the public, lest it permeate the deliberately cultivated membrane that protects the Chinese consciousness from awareness of inconvenient historical facts, and the “Confucius Institutes” sponsored by the Chinese government and hosted by American universities further this mission.
The purported aim of these centers is to fund Chinese-language instruction and cultural education in American institutions of higher learning. Generous financial support from Hanban, an organization affiliated with the Chinese government, ingratiates the initiative with cash-strapped university administrations, and there is reason to suspect that Confucius Institutes put a damper on the discussion of historical events like Tiananmen Square. In 2014 the American Association of University Professors recommended that universities end participation in the Confucius Institute program unless they could be guaranteed exclusive authority “over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum and choice of texts.” That same year, the University of Chicago closed its Confucius Institute, citing free-speech concerns, and a 2017 report by the National Association of Scholars revealed some of the subtle tactics that these centers use to influence the conversation about China in the American academic setting.
This year, Senator Marco Rubio introduced an amendment to the Higher Education Act that would tie some federal funding for higher education with closing Confucius Institutes. His proposal is a good start, but fighting Chinese attempts at influencing how we talk about Beijing’s imperialist tendencies and human-rights troubles requires a comprehensive, proactive approach that starts at the top.
The White House’s efforts to support the American airlines in Beijing’s crosshairs are the latest in a succession of bold measures taken to push back against China on behalf of Taiwan, including new legislation authorizing visits to Taiwan by high-level U.S. officials and naval vessels. According to new reports, the administration is also considering sending a warship through the strait of Taiwan for the first time since 2007, which would be a welcome complement to ongoing freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Above all else, however, China’s bullying must be defanged with the truth. Compartmentalization gives it a free pass on a panoply of interconnected issues. The pursuit of secrecy and a false historical narrative grant the Chinese Communist party the audacity to advance its worldview through subversion, coercion, and force. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent remarks calling for a “full public accounting” of the Tiananmen square killings are an example of the kind of moral leadership that should play a central role in the U.S.–China relationship going forward. Others would do well to follow his lead.