China’s messages worse than 'Orwellian nonsense'?

May 17, 2018 08:31
A building is covered with posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai. China is "going to extraordinary lengths to impose its views on the rest of the world". Photo: Reuters

China has reacted strongly to the White House for characterizing its insistence that US air carriers remove references on their websites or in other materials suggesting that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are “countries” as “Orwellian nonsense”.

The White House may have gone a bit far with this characterization, which included the promise that President Donald Trump “will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness”.

But China, too, is going to extraordinary lengths to impose its views on the rest of the world. Several months ago, the Spanish apparel maker Zara and Marriot International had to apologize for having listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

Mercedes Benz was condemned as an “enemy of the Chinese people” by a People’s Daily online commentary after it had used a quote from the Dalai Lama on an advertisement. “Holding the smelly feet of the Dalai Lama makes you the enemy of the Chinese people,” the editorial writer said.

Such words are, if anything, worse than Orwellian nonsense. It is reminiscent of the mindless drivel spouted by Red Guards at the height of the Cultural Revolution. It is shameful for anyone in a position of authority to utter such nonsense, especially when the government prides itself as heir to 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.

There is no getting around the fact that China, especially its politics, is confusing. It is easy to stumble when trying to determine the exact status of a territory, or know that the Republic of China, the formal name for Taiwan, isn’t the same thing as the People’s Republic of China, also known as Mainland China, and that China Airlines and Air China belong to different governments.

Even governments don’t always get it right. Thus, in 2006 when Chinese leader Hu Jintao visited the United States, he was welcomed by President George W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House. At one point, an announcement was made: “Ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of the Republic of China.” The mistake was only made in English, so perhaps President Hu wasn’t even aware of it, since the correct anthem was played.

Last year, after a 90-minute meeting between Trump and President Xi Jinping, the White House released an official transcript that referred to Xi as president of “the Republic of China”.

The US isn’t the only country with this problem. In February 2007, when Grenada inaugurated a stadium financed by China, the band struck up the national anthem of Taiwan in the presence of visiting Chinese officials.

These incidents, of course, were unintentional. Beijing hasn’t broken diplomatic relations with Grenada or the US over them. Why, then, go to such lengths to penalize corporations for similar unintended errors? Surely, no airline or other company is out to promote Tibetan independence, or for that matter, the independence of Hong Kong or Macau.

Taiwan is in a separate category. It actually does enjoy de facto independence. The defection this month of the Dominican Republic to mainland China means that Taiwan retains diplomatic relations with 18 UN member states.

While the White House may be annoyed by “Orwellian nonsense”, China’s attempt to change the situation on the ground provides even greater grounds for concern.

Just last Friday, China announced a “new breakthrough in island patrol patterns”, with its air force conducting “training” over Taiwan, with planes, including jet fighters and bombers, flying clockwise and counterclockwise around the island, sending a warning to pro-independence forces on the island.

Responding to Taiwan media, the State Department asserted: “The United States opposes unilateral actions by any party aimed at altering the status quo, including any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”

While the US has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the Trump administration has been tightening ties with the island, with the president recently signing a law passed by Congress that encourages exchanges of visits by officials on both sides.

Washington is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. The law, adopted in 1979 when Washington and Beijing established diplomatic relations, also says that “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means”.

This would appear to mean that, if Beijing should use force against Taiwan, it could vitiate the validity of the US-China diplomatic relationship. Of course, much depends on how the occupant of the White House chooses to interpret those words.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.