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Opinion

China's airline censorship over Taiwan must not fly

The ball is now in the West's court

In May, Beijing sent letters to 44 international airlines, demanding that they update their websites to reflect Beijing's view that Taiwan is a part of China. Many buckled. For their part, the three major American fliers -- American, Delta, and United -- in late July performed a half-kowtow, removing references to Taiwan from their websites, but refusing to indicate that cities on the island are actually in China (which, of course, a quick look at a map shows that they are not). The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not amused, saying in a statement that the airlines' "rectification is still incomplete."

This is, apparently, a preferred Chinese response when others fail to concede to Beijing's demands regarding Taiwan. In her inaugural address in 2016, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen offered a significant olive branch to the Chinese Communist Party, promising to abide by past cross-strait agreements and committing to manage cross-strait relations in accordance with the Republic of China (Taiwan) constitution (which defines the Republic of China's borders as in accord with the "one China" approach). China's Taiwan Affairs Office, however, described Tsai's speech as an "incomplete test answer" -- that word again -- because she failed to explicitly embrace "one China."

In the two years since, Beijing has subjected Taipei to what Tsai has described as "immense pressure." The Chinese Communist Party has sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically on the international stage, punish it with economic coercion, and intimidate it with an increased pace and greater scope of military operations around the island. Since the beginning of 2018, that pressure campaign has set its sights on foreign companies. Marriott, Mercedes-Benz, Gap, Zara, and the airlines have all been targeted. In particular, Beijing seeks to use these companies' dependence on the Chinese market to force them to publicly hew to the "one China" principle. All have bent their knees -- some more obsequiously than others.

It is easy to criticize these Western companies for not standing on principle. But it is difficult to blame them when they have shareholders to answer to, and when their home governments have shown little interest in fighting hard on their behalf.

To be sure, the White House's response to Beijing's initial demand on the airlines was welcome. Presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders derided it as "Orwellian nonsense" and "part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies." She objected to what she called "China's attempts to compel private firms to use specific language of a political nature in their publicly available content" and demanded that China "stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens." Even so, the airlines could not be confident that Washington was prepared to impose heavy enough costs on China to make Beijing change course, nor that they would come out unscathed even if the administration did do so.

Put simply, Beijing is threatening the bottom lines of Western companies in order to advance Chinese political ends. That is perhaps unsurprising. The longer term challenge, however, is not an economic one. Rather, China is challenging freedom of speech outside its own borders. Individuals and corporations are censoring themselves in order to stay on the good side of Chinese leaders and regulators and thus ensure continued access to the Chinese market. Worse still, in the U.S., Japan, Australia, and throughout the democratic world, Beijing is striving to compel speech. Hence, the American airlines' removal of Taiwan from their websites is an "incomplete" response to China's demand, for Beijing seeks to dictate not only what we cannot say, but also what we must say.

Western democracies should consider this an intolerable state of affairs. Indeed, Beijing's efforts amount to an attack on the fundamental underpinnings of free societies. And while justifiably angry statements from American senators and congressmen are welcome and necessary, there is as yet no inkling of an official policy response to Beijing's assault on free speech within the borders of the U.S. and other democratic states.

The potential consequences should not be taken lightly. Narrowly speaking, Beijing seeks to create a world in which Taiwan's de facto independence is no longer appreciated and in which Beijing's "one China" principle goes unquestioned, thus decreasing international concern for Taiwan's plight and decreasing the likelihood of foreign intervention to forestall coerced unification. Such an eventuality would lead to greater instability in the Asia-Pacific, thus negatively affecting the security of the U.S., Japan, and their like-minded partners.

More broadly, Beijing seeks to shape a world that is safe for the Chinese Communist Party. Weakening foreign democracies is, perhaps, the best way to do so. Beijing has now proven it can censor speech within the U.S., and do so without incurring any real cost. If Washington, Tokyo and others do not find ways to stridently counter these efforts, the ongoing battle between authoritarianism and democracy will not be fought on China's doorstep, but on our own.

Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

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