When I received Air Canada’s promotional email about a worldwide seat sale this week, I immediately checked their website to book my August trip to Taipei. To my surprise, the list of destinations had been changed to read “Taipei, China” rather than “Taipei, Taiwan.”
This change is Air Canada’s reaction to directives sent in April from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to all foreign airlines flying to China. The CAAC required all foreign airlines to “initiate a self-examination” of their official websites and other publicity channels for references to Taiwan. They require all airlines, in accordance with Chinese law, to classify Taiwan as belonging to China, with no parallel listing of “China” and “Taiwan.” The letter stipulated that all airlines who failed to comply within 30 days would be subject to disciplinary action according to regulations of the “Civil Aviation Industry Credit Management Measures” and the “National Cyber Information Office.”
Air Canada’s acquiescence to China’s censorship over websites hosted in Canada is discouraging. This, after all, is the airline that boldly resisted the American embargo against Cuba for years.
The identification of Taipei as “China” rather than as “Taiwan” may seem like playing with words, but it is a serious disservice to air travellers. Some customers may mistakenly believe that they need to apply to the Chinese embassy for a visa to travel to Taiwan. Rather, Canada and Taiwan have a reciprocal visa-waiver through which Canadians can enter Taiwan visa-free for up to 90 days. Air Canada knows well that Taiwan has never been governed by the People’s Republic of China. Air Canada’s flights to Taipei are regulated by an entirely different government and aviation administration. It is sheer dishonesty to pretend otherwise.
The United States has already reacted and taken a strong stand against this overreach by Chinese censors. On May 5, the White House issued an official press release, saying, “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 … 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.”
China’s censorship of the websites of Canadian companies is an attempt to use Chinese law to regulate the behaviour and even thought of Canadians. This is an unacceptable violation of Canadian sovereignty. Only Canadian legislatures have the right to enact and enforce laws about the behaviour of Canadian citizens and companies within our borders. The Canadian government needs to take leadership in assuring Air Canada and other Canadian companies that it supports their right to communicate with their customers as they wish without interference from foreign states.
China frequently evokes a “One China” policy to justify censorship about Taiwan. This seriously misrepresents longstanding Canadian policy. Just after establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1970, Canada’s then-secretary of state of External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, explained to Parliament, “the Canadian government does not consider it appropriate either to endorse or to challenge the Chinese government’s position on the status of Taiwan.” If China insists on policing language used by Canadians in Canada, our government may have to remind them that we do not endorse their position on the status of Taiwan.
The most important issue, however, is not about Taiwan. It is about Canadian sovereignty and Canadian values. Air Canada may be concerned about losing the Chinese market. But it is a greater threat to incrementally give away our democratic rights, including freedom of expression, to a foreign country. This cannot stand.
This article was originally published in the National Post on 16 May 2018.