The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion White House calls China’s threats to airlines ‘Orwellian nonsense’

Chinese President Xi Jinping at an event to mark the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. Xi praised Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times,” calling his theories a tool for China to “win the future.” (Ng Han Guan/AP)

In the long strategic struggle between the United States and China, one key issue is whether the Chinese Communist Party will be able to force Americans to do what it says, especially American companies. Now, the Chinese government is threatening to impose a version of its “social credit score” system on international airlines, with steep punishments unless they acquiesce to Beijing’s political demands. The Trump administration has decided to tell China that that is not going to fly.

On April 25, the Chinese government sent dozens of international airlines a written threat of severe punishments if they don’t change their websites to declare that Taiwan is part of China, among other things. I have obtained a copy of the letter. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is set to release a press statement calling the Chinese government’s threats “political correctness” run amok.

“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,” the statement reads. “China’s internal Internet repression is world-famous. China’s efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world will be resisted.”

The White House statement is the strongest U.S. government rebuke to date of China’s increased pressure on foreign companies to toe the Chinese Communist Party line. In recent months, Marriott Hotels and Mercedes-Benz both folded to Chinese government pressure and removed online content related to Tibet. Marriott even fired an American worker for “liking” a tweet by a pro-Tibet group.

The letter from China’s Civil Aviation Administration says that on Feb. 27, the Chinese government asked each airline to investigate its websites and remove any references to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau that “mistakenly describe them as countries or anything otherwise inconsistent with Chinese law.”

The version of the letter I obtained was addressed to United Airlines and said the Chinese government found “there still exists violations of Chinese laws and contradictions to the one China policy of your government.” The Chinese government demanded United change its website so that “Taiwan shall be called ‘Chinese Taiwan’ or ‘Taiwan: province/region of China.’”

Taiwan must be included in any map of China on its website and United must use the same color on the website for mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, the letter stated. Taiwan cannot be listed as a country alongside China. Taiwan destinations must not be classified as being in Southeast Asia but must be put in the same category as China on the website.

If United doesn’t comply by May 25, the Chinese government will invoke “Civil Aviation Industry Credit Management Trial Measures” and “make a record of your company’s serious dishonesty and take disciplinary actions against your company,” the letter states. The Civil Aviation Administration will also “transfer your company’s violation of Chinese laws to the National Cyber Information Office and other law enforcement agencies to take administrative penalties according to law.”

That reference to “Civil Industry Credit Management” is citing a trial regulation on credit scoring in the aviation industry, and the letter claims United’s labeling of Taiwan is equal to “serious dishonesty” under that regulation, said Samantha Hoffman, visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“China’s domestic law, in this case on civil aviation credit and cybersecurity, allow China to extend something like ‘social credit’ beyond its own borders,” she said. “It demonstrates why any interpretation of the social credit system must be placed in the context of China’s definitions of state security. And state security is about protecting the Chinese Communist Party above all else.”

Moreover, the Chinese letter mischaracterizes U.S. government policy by saying “the one-China policy of your government.” The United States does not have a one-China policy. Washington acknowledges Beijing’s position that there is one China that includes Taiwan and the United States takes no stance on that question. The U.S. government is not going to agree that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, and neither should American companies.

The White House statement defends the principle that American private companies must have freedom in their interactions with their customers and not be pressured into taking the political positions of an authoritarian foreign power.

“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,” the White House statement says. “We call on China to stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens.”

This is one more example of the Trump’s administration’s continuing shift toward a more assertive stance, said Peter Mattis, a former U.S. intelligence analyst on China. But American businesses have yet to stand up to Chinese pressure and interference. United declined to comment. Delta Air Lines and British Airways have already partially succumbed to the Chinese demands.

“The danger is less the squeeze on Taiwan and more the clear proof that China’s social management system will be used to condition companies and people outside China to align behind the party’s positions,” said Mattis. “The cost of doing business has been raised.”

The Chinese Communist Party can be forgiven for believing it can use a version of its social credit system on American companies. Nobody has pushed back on this so far. The White House is pledging to start doing that now. It’s a recognition that, as a White House official told me, “China is out of control.”