Who knew drop-down menus could be so complicated – and so offensive to a rising potential superpower?
An airline called Hong Kong and Macau countries. China’s pretty pissed
This billion-dollar company didn’t, but it sure does now.
British Airways, which operates the largest fleet in the United Kingdom, was hit by a wave of outrage in China after state media reported that it listed Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries on its flight booking page.
The airline joined a long list of foreign brands to have come under fire in China for referring to Beijing-claimed territories as countries on their websites.
In a statement posted on the Twitter-like Weibo on Tuesday, the company pledged support of China’s territorial claims, adding it would conduct a thorough inspection of all its platforms.
Foreign businesses in China are increasingly being targeted in a recent crackdown against what the Chinese government calls “an infringement of China's territorial integrity” that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
In January, Chinese authorities shut down Marriott International's mainland China website and app for one week after it listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as countries in a customer survey.
Clothing giant Zara, Delta Air Lines and Irish medical-equipment maker Medtronic also faced a backlash for labeling these regions as countries in drop-down menus online.
So what has caused the confusion and why is Beijing so angry? Here’s what you need to know.
Why do some websites list Hong Kong and Macau as countries?
Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that became part of the People’s Republic of China in the late 1990s under the “one country, two systems” framework.
The two cities each have their own passports, visas, currencies and immigration rules. So when entering Hong Kong or Macau, visitors from mainland China go through the same immigration checks as those arriving from overseas.
The official name of Hong Kong is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, People's Republic of China.
But many websites omit the China part and refer to the region simply as “Hong Kong.” Likewise "Macau."
It's a common error, but something Beijing has become more sensitive about in recent years following pro-democracy protests, and calls for independence, in Hong Kong.
Here are many of the areas which spark sensitive reactions:
Why is Taiwan listed as an independent state?
The government of the self-ruled island refers to itself as the “Republic of China” and does not recognize the Communist leadership in Beijing.
In addition to having its own immigration rules, currency and laws, Taiwan has its own diplomats and military.
Beijing sees the island as a renegade province and usually calls it “Taiwan, China.”
How to address Taiwan is a heated issue whenever Beijing and Taipei sit at the same table.
Taiwanese athletes compete in the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei” because China objects to the name “Republic of China.”
So what about Tibet – how is it different from the others?
Singling out Tibet as a country tends to anger Beijing more because it is a Chinese province that enjoys little autonomy — despite being officially known as the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Himalayan region has seen a number of separatist uprisings, including unrest in 2008 in which at least 19 people died amid a series of self-immolation protests.
Ethnic Tibetans speak their own language and largely practice Tibetan Buddhism.
Independence supporters blame the Communist Party for suppressing religious freedom and local cultural identity, but Beijing denies any accusation of rights abuses.
Chinese citizens can travel to Tibet without applying for visas or going through immigration, but foreigners need special permits and face extra restrictions.
How have China’s concerns affected foreign businesses in the past?
The independence movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet are denounced by the Chinese government.
State media and some internet users claim Western media is biased towards pro-independence groups in these regions.
Meanwhile, businesses have come under fire for associating with those considered independence supporters.
In 2008, Chinese internet users called for a boycott of French supermarket chain Carrefour following rumors it was supporting the Dalai Lama.
Beijing regards the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist.
In another incident, cosmetic maker Lancome canceled an event featuring Hong Kong pro-democracy singer Denise Ho after the company was criticized by Chinese state media.
What are the potential implications of the recent “country” crackdown?
The growing spending power of Chinese consumers means foreign companies can hardly afford to anger the Chinese government.
Almost all the firms targeted in the latest crackdown have apologized publicly for failing to adhere to Beijing’s territorial boundaries.
Marriott said it had suspended its dealings with the outsourcing company that sent out the problematic customer survey.
The hotel chain also fired a social media manager who liked a tweet posted by a Tibetan independence group.
Last month, Mercedes-Benz deleted an Instagram post that quoted the Dalai Lama following criticism from China, even though the photo-sharing app is blocked in the country.
The controversy comes as China expands its influence abroad and takes a more proactive role in world affairs.