On April 25, China sent a letter to 36 foreign airlines pressuring them to remove references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries on their websites and marketing materials. American Airlines, Qantas and United all received the letter, which the White House described as "Orwellian nonsense" and "part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views" on private companies.
But of 15 major airlines tracked by Business Insider, two changed their positions recently, and two more changed their websites at an earlier time.
Malaysia Airlines no longer refers to Taiwan as a country on its booking form, a change first noticed by Business Insider on Tuesday night. Where the country used to list "Taiwan," on Tuesday evening that had changed to "Taiwan-China."
But a page that promotes Taiwan as a holiday destination under its official country name "Republic of China" has not yet changed.
A Globe and Mail journalist also recently spotted Air Canada's shift in its naming of Taiwan.
Previously Air Canada's booking page listed Taipei’s airport as being in "TW," the abbreviation for Taiwan also used by US and Australian airlines that confirmed receiving the letter from China's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). On Tuesday all mention of Taiwan as the country had been replaced by "CN," the abbreviation of China, with no mention of Taiwan.
Neither Malaysia Airlines or Air Canada responded to earlier requests for comment.
Despite attempts by the State Department and White House to push back against pressure on airlines, Beijing frequently seeks to assert its claim that self-ruled Taiwan is a province of China.
In January, Delta Air Lines was censured by China’s CAA for listing both Taiwan and Tibet as countries on its website. The agency demanded an “immediate and public apology,” and the airline responded by saying it had made a “grave mistake” and altered its listings from "Country" to "Country/Region."
Lufthansa since changed its website to list "Taiwan, China" telling Business Insider it takes "customs of the international clientele into consideration." British Airways also made a switch, settling on "Taiwan - China," though the airline did not rule out further changes in comments made to Business Insider.
Multiple major airlines changing their positions on Taiwan indicates how much power the Chinese Communist Party can exert via government bodies, which regularly ban or block local apps and websites.
Not only are foreign companies worried about losing access to one of the biggest markets in the world, but they can also face arbitrary penalties including forced shutdowns, fees, and needing to submit "self-rectification" reports.
Earlier this year, hotel chain Marriott was not only ordered to rectify listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries in an email, but managers in China were interviewed by authorities about a potential breach of cybersecurity and advertising laws.
Despite an apology, the chain was forced to shut down the Chinese version of its website for an entire week.
When fast-fashion retailer Zara committed a similar offense, government action was reliant on the company apologizing and turning in a rectification report.
On Monday clothing brand Gap issued an apology for leaving Taiwan and a number of other contested regions off a map of China. Its fast apology may be seen as an attempt to avoid penalties doled out to other foreign companies.