While the United States and China have been holding high-level talks to avert a destructive trade war, the two countries took time out for a donnybrook over political correctness, Chinese style.
At issue is a Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CCAA) letter sent to 36 foreign airlines, including several American carriers, which demanded they cease and desist from referring to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao as independent countries on their websites. China regards them all as belonging to China and insists that official references should reflect that.
The response from the White House was classic Trump, skewering the Chinese on their own obsession with sovereignty and their attempts to impose international respect for Beijing by decree. Instead of Western kowtowing to imperial demands, they got a rhetorical drubbing.
“President Donald J. Trump ran against political correctness in the United States. He will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens,” read a White House statement released on May 5.
“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.
“China’s efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world will be resisted. 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. We call on China to stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens.”
The Chinese, presumably, were seething over the language of the White House statement, undiplomatic to say the least. But on Sunday they answered back, not with bombast or threats, but in a tone suggesting either injured dignity or bland contempt for the barbarians in Washington.
China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that overseas companies operating in China should respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and “respect the national feelings of the Chinese people,” according to Reuters.
“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 are indivisible parts of Chinese territory,” spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.
The airline companies are pondering how far to kowtow; there are degrees in the old Chinese custom of kneeling and bowing to the ground to show deference.
A spokesman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing United Airlines, American Airlines and other major carriers, said it was consulting with the U.S. government to determine “next steps” in the dispute.
Given the engaged stance of the White House, the American carriers will be hard put to follow in the footsteps of Australia’s Qantas Airways, which simply bowed to Chinese pressure in January and expunged references to Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries. They had been threatened with shutdown of their websites, which is what happened to the Marriott hotel chain for the same offense.
There seems to be no mystery about the Chinese attitude here. After generations of disrespect in the form of colonial exploitation and American refusal to recognize the communist regime after World War II (until Nixon and Kissinger), China is adamant about righting the historical wrong and reasserting its place in the sun.
The Trump administration is, however, not willing to accept that Chinese sensitivities justify grossly unfair and illegal trade practices (not to mention military bullying in the South China Sea).
As President Trump commented over the weekend, “My group just got back from China. We’re going to have to rework China, because that’s been a one-way street for decades.
“We can’t go on that way,” he said, although he reportedly also expressed a lot respect for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
To be sure, Chinese political correctness does not begin or end with the abovementioned territorial claims. On the very same day that the CCAA was warning the airlines, the ruling communist party was celebrating the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. In a pronouncement worthy of Orwell, President Xi Jinping said that “Writing Marxism onto the flag of the Chinese Communist Party was totally correct. … Unceasingly promoting the Sinification and modernization of Marxism is totally correct.”
History has shown that the “science” of Marxism was totally incorrect on a number of major points, starting with the prediction that the workers’ revolution would begin first in an industrialized country like Germany or France, not as it did in the backward societies of Russia and China.
Nor did it faze Xi that no matter the homage it pays to Marx, present-day China looks more and more like a capitalist society than a communist one, and its emergence as an economic giant has been in spite of, not because of, its Marxian roots, which nearly destroyed the whole country under Mao.
So one should not be surprised by the rigidities and absurdities of Chinese diplomacy. It comes with the territory.
Respect is certainly due China. It is the most populous country in the world, with the second-biggest economy. Its growing power and influence cannot safely be ignored.
But giving it whatever it wants — including politically correct control over every corner of the universe — isn’t safe either.