Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen takes part in an interview with AFP at the Presidential Office in Taipei on June 25, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen takes part in an interview with AFP at the Presidential Office in Taipei on June 25, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

Beijing continues to pressure business interests worldwide over its “one China” principle, with its latest victim a chain of Taiwanese bakery shops that operates in Australia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US. The quarrel started when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited the Los Angeles branch of the 85°C Bakery Cafe on August 12 as part of a brief layover in the US en route to Paraguay.

Since assuming office in 2016, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has steadfastly refused to endorse the disputed “1992 Consensus,” drawing the ire of Beijing – which considers Taiwan lost territory that must be returned peacefully, but without ruling out the use of force.

The 1992 Consensus is thought to be a tacit understanding between Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Beijing that there is “one China,” yet with each party consenting that the other party has its own interpretation of what “China” means. In response to Tsai’s refusal, Beijing has conducted a campaign of “namefare” by pressuring companies worldwide (such as Marriott, Gap and 44 international airlines) to change their references to “Taiwan.”

Last Wednesday, 85°C became the latest target after Tsai’s visit to the bakery, after the Chinese state mouthpiece Global Times alleged she had received a customized gift package. Many Chinese netizens immediately expressed their displeasure, some with boycott threats such as “Get out of mainland China!” and “85C is a ‘Taiwan independence’ two-faced company. We mainland Chinese should boycott this kind of garbage company.”

Disputing the report, 85°C company officials said Tsai was presented with a pillow in the shape of a pineapple bun – a mascot of the company – to sign as a “personal souvenir” for one of its employees. Tsai’s office was quick to condemn “improper tactics that disrupt market order and the freedom of speech.”

Given the uproar among Chinese netizens, representatives of the 85°C Bakery Cafe were compelled to declare, “Our company’s firm support for the 1992 consensus has never changed,” while adding, “We oppose any conduct or rhetoric that could drive people on either side of the Taiwan Strait apart. We will continue to provide high-quality products and service to customers on both sides based on the belief that the two sides of the Strait are one family.”

Faced with a potential boycott of their 600 outlets in mainland China (representing 64% of all sales), 85°C’s representatives have in effect been held hostage to unwavering support for the 1992 Consensus. By confirming the 1992 Consensus, the company may have believed it could avoid the same boycotts and wrath dealt by Chinese citizens on such non-conforming companies as Carrefour, KFC, Honda and Toyota, when some Chinese were afraid to drive their Japanese cars to work, fearing attack.

Yet despite its kowtowing to Beijing, the market capitalization of Gourmet Master Co, which owns the 85℃ Bakery Café chain, dropped by $325 million (some 20%) in the past three trading sessions on the Taiwan stock market. It is a striking example of just much power nationalistic Chinese netizens possess in employing economic blackmail to ensure adherence by foreign companies to Beijing’s political views.

A looming question, during this period of economic nationalism and budding trade wars, is how far citizens of other countries will use their political views as justification for tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye nationalism, and what that will mean for the global economy.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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