SINGAPORE/BEIJING – China is stepping up its policing of international companies such as Inditex SA-owned Zara and Delta Air Lines Inc. and demanding they respect the government’s position on long-standing territorial disputes from Taiwan to Tibet.
The Cyber Administration Office in Shanghai on Friday said Zara listed Taiwan, an island that China claims as its own, as a separate country on its website. On the same day, China’s Civil Aviation Administration summoned executives of Delta as the carrier on its website listed Taiwan and Tibet, located in western China, as nations. The companies were asked to change the “illegal” contents.
China, emboldened by its growing economic and geopolitical influence, is showing less tolerance of what it sees as violations of its political bottom line by foreign companies. The warnings signal that the country may deploy more sticks against foreign companies that can’t risk losing business in the world’s second-biggest economy.
“The general political atmosphere these days is that you don’t stand on the wrong side of sovereignty issues in the Xi Jinping era,” said Ether Yin, partner at research firm Trivium China in Beijing. “The government responded very quickly.”
International companies operating in China should respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, state broadcaster CCTV said, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang’s comments at a regular briefing.
“Delta recognizes the seriousness of this issue and we took immediate steps to resolve it,” according to a statement from the airline’s corporate office. “It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”
Inditex didn’t have an immediate comment.
Earlier this week, Shanghai government agencies summoned Marriott International’s executives in China, after the company’s Chinese-language website listed Tibet and Taiwan under “nation” and spurred intense online criticism. The company apologized on Chinese social media platforms. Regulators have started an investigation into Marriott for violating local laws on Internet security and advertising.
“The new cybersecurity law also said that you can’t do anything on the Internet to harm the sovereignty of the country,” said Yin. “This case represents a good opportunity to show they can use this law.”
Beijing has been trying to squeeze Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who refused to accept that both sides belong to “One China,” its precondition for ties. Since her inauguration, Chinese visits to Taiwan have fallen significantly and more nations have severed diplomatic ties with the government in Taipei, in favor of Beijing.
China issued curbs on South Korea retail and tourism companies, with some of the country’s consumers boycotting Korean goods. Ctrip.com International Ltd., China’s largest travel website, said in October the number of tourists using the weeklong national holiday to visit South Korea plunged 70 percent this year.
Relations between China and South Korea soured after the government in Seoul agreed in 2016 to let its ally, the U.S., install a missile-defense system to guard against rockets fired by North Korea. China views the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system as a threat that will upset the “strategic equilibrium in the region.”
In recent months there have been signs of improving ties. Last month President Xi Jinping held a summit with his Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. South Korea announced Friday that two countries in February will hold the first high-level economic talks since May 2016.