China's 'red warning' to foreign airlines has angered the Trump administration. Photo: iStock
China's 'red warning' to foreign airlines has angered the Trump administration. Photo: iStock

George Orwell would probably have seen the absurdity in the latest row between the United States and China. As tensions increase between the world’s two largest economies, the dispute hinges on Beijing’s edict to foreign airlines last month.

In a short statement, the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration told 36 foreign carriers, including a number of American airlines, to refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as part of the “one China policy.”

While former colony territories Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions under the “one country, two systems” framework, Taiwan has been a self-ruled island since splitting from the mainland after the 1949 civil war and is now a thriving democracy.

On Saturday, the White House waded into the controversy with a sternly worded rebuke, calling it “Orwellian nonsense,” just 24 hours after US-China trade talks ended without any noticeable progress.

“This is part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies,’’ the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

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

Dystopian classic

If Orwell was still alive, he would certainly have been bemused after listening to Beijing’s response.

The 20th-century novelist and journalist despised totalitarianism, which was aptly illustrated in his metaphor novella Animal Farm and the dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Both literary masterpieces were highlighted in the opinion section of the state-owned English-language Global Times, which is run by the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

“It is the US that has been imposing incorrect views regarding Taiwan to its people and companies by trumping up Taiwan as a politically independent entity which is at odds with the internationally recognized fact,” Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations in Beijing, told Global Times on Sunday.

“George Orwell in his Animal Farm and 1984 [Nineteen Eighty-Four],  published in the 1940s, leveled satires at the Soviet Union’s system. Using such terms to attack China shows that US elites still stubbornly take China as a Soviet Union-like authoritarian nation, and are trapped in their Cold War mentality, neglecting the fact that China’s socialist market economy is full of diversity,” Li added.

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Before last weekend’s spat, the turbulence from the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration’s directive had buffeted two major global carriers.

In January, Qantas made changes to its website when the issue first flared up and British Airways publicly apologized for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries in a drop-down menu on its website.

As for US airlines, they announced they would be working with the US government to decide what steps to take over the CCAA letter.

“No matter what the United States says, it cannot change the objective fact that there is only one China in the world and that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan regions are an integral part of the Chinese territory,” Geng Shuang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said.

Still, he might like to pass on those views to Ctrip, one of the largest online travel agents in China. The Chinese-language site lists Taipei as a destination city under multiple categories, including “domestic” and  “international” along with Hong Kong and Macau.

Domestic carriers list Taiwan airports separately to those on the mainland but call the destination “Taiwan, China.”

Supports independence

Naturally, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party supports independence, is vehemently against such ‘classifications’ after thanking the US for its support.

“We call on all businesses to resist #China’s efforts to mischaracterize #Taiwan,” Tsai said on Twitter.

Disputes such as these are commonplace, but President Donald Trump’s tough approach to China appears to be bucking the international trend as relations become distinctively chilly.

“China’s mercantilist economic policies bear a significant brunt of the blame, along with China’s growing military assertiveness, internal suppression of dissent, non-responsiveness to legitimate US concerns on trade, efforts to influence American political discourse, and injection of ideological tension into bilateral relations,” David M. Rubenstein, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, said.

“Rather than pursuing a serious strategy to tackle specific problems, though, the Trump administration has embraced an undisciplined instinct for confrontation. Such an approach will not generate greater Chinese responsiveness to US concerns,” he pointed out.

Maybe not, but it will add to this realpolitik “Orwellian” drama, which is being played out on real-time news streams. The next installment is probably just a mouse click away.

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