What is a country?

A number of recent stories have pointed to growing assertiveness by the Chinese government on various fronts. One particularly interesting one this week concerned China’s sensitivity about the status of such places as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet.

According to the ABC report, “Qantas has admitted an ‘oversight’ in listing some Chinese territories, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, as countries on parts of its website, adding it would be correcting the error.” Qantas did not call Tibet a country, but Marriott allegedly did.

But while the reports point out that China claims sovereignty over all three, they don’t enlighten the reader much about their very different status.

Tibet, to start with, is occupied territory: it is controlled by the Chinese government against the will of the population, in much the same way as, say, Western Sahara or Kashmir or Chechnya. Administratively, it is treated as an integral part of China; although it’s described as an “autonomous region” rather than a “province”, the difference is negligible. It does not enjoy any real autonomy.

To describe Tibet as anything other than part of China is a political statement, hostile to Beijing’s position. It’s perfectly appropriate for an opinion site (like this one) to make such a statement; not so for a commercial travel site. (Whether or not that’s actually what Marriott did is unclear.)

Taiwan is quite different: it really is an independent country. Beijing does not recognise that fact, and most governments (including Australia’s) pay lip service to its claims, but there is no doubt about the situation on the ground. For Qantas or any other provider to describe it in a way that denies that reality would be to mislead its customers.

Even China, for a host of practical reasons, has to acknowledge the fact. I’m looking at Air China’s route map (sorry I can’t find it online; I got a copy in 2016 in the inflight magazine), and the flights to Taiwan are marked separately as “Taiwan routes”: not international, but not “domestic routes” either.*

Hong Kong is different again. It is internationally recognised as part of China, and unlike Tibet and Taiwan it has no plausible claim to independence under international law. But under China’s own legislation it enjoys a high degree of internal self-government, reflecting the agreement with Britain under which it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. It and Macau (formerly Portuguese) are classed as “special administrative regions”.

So to list Hong Kong as a “country” would seem to be misleading. But for a travel site to treat it as unambiguously part of China would also be misleading, since one aspect of its autonomy is that it has quite different immigration rules from the rest of China. Australians, for example, need visas in most cases to visit China, but can travel visa-free to Hong Kong for up to 90 days.

And there’s nothing unique about China in this regard; if you’re running a travel site, this is the sort of thing you have to contend with a lot. Picking one at random – the flight aggregator skyscanner – I find that its drop-down menu for “country” includes (just reading as far as “c”) American Samoa, Anguilla, Aruba, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Cook Islands: none of them independent nations. (It also includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but not Tibet.)

Even the screenshot accompanying the ABC story shows that Qantas also lists St Pierre and Miquelon as a country, but there’s no mention of a protest from the French government at this implied denial of its sovereignty.

Perhaps “country” is the wrong term, although it’s hard to think of a better one. But such a business needs to somehow differentiate among these destinations if it’s not to send travellers to the wrong place or with the wrong documents.

So when a marketing expert tells us that “You really need to respect what the Chinese government believes if you want to do business in China,” what she’s saying is that businesses should put the sensitivities of a foreign government ahead of the interests of their customers.

Of course this is only a small part of the picture. Australian institutions need to learn to stand up to Beijing across a host of fields. But it does provide a vivid illustration of the problem.

* Speaking of political statements, the same map has an inset showing China’s exaggerated territorial claim in the South China Sea: quite gratuitously, since there are no air routes there.

2 thoughts on “What is a country?

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