US condemns China for ‘Orwellian nonsense’ over airline websites

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The White House on Saturday sharply criticized China’s efforts to force foreign airlines to change how they refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, labeling China’s latest effort to police language describing the politically sensitive territories as “Orwellian nonsense.”

Amid a growing fight over US-China trade, the White House said in a statement that the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration sent a letter to 36 foreign air carriers, including a number of US carriers, demanding changes.

The carriers were told to remove references on their websites or in other material that suggests Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are part of countries independent from China, US and airline officials said.

The White House said President Donald Trump “will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens.”

“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.”

Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue. Beijing considers the self-ruled, democratic island a wayward province. Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that are now part of China but run largely autonomously

“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 said in its statement. “We call on China to stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens.”

The sharp criticism comes on the heels of contentious trade talks with China earlier this week.

The Trump administration demanded a $200 billion cut in China’s trade surplus with the United States by 2020, sharply lower tariffs and a halt to subsidies for advanced technology, people familiar with the talks said on Friday.

Trump tweeted on Friday that he would meet with US trade officials once they returned from their meetings in China. “It is hard for China in that they have become very spoiled with US trade wins! Trump wrote.

The US demands were presented to Beijing before the start of talks on Thursday and Friday between top-level Trump administration officials and their Chinese counterparts to try and avert a damaging trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Saturday, a spokesman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing United Airlines, American Airlines and other major carriers, said the group was “continuing to work with US government officials as we determine next steps” over China’s demands on how airlines refer to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

In January, Delta Air Lines, following a demand from China over listing Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website, apologized for making “an inadvertent error with no business or political intention,” and said it had taken steps to resolve the issue.

Also in January, China suspended Marriott International Inc’s Chinese website for a week to punish the world’s biggest hotel chain for listing Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries in a customer questionnaire.

The apparent intensification of efforts to police how foreign businesses refer to Chinese-claimed territories - even if only in pull-down web menus - underscores how sensitive the issue of sovereignty has become in China.

China’s aviation authority said in January it would require all foreign airlines operating routes to China to conduct comprehensive investigations of their websites, apps and customer-related information and “strictly comply with China’s laws and regulations to prevent a similar thing from happening.”

Australia’s Qantas Airways said in January it had amended its website to no longer refer to Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries, rather than Chinese territories after China issued a similar warning.

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