An Air New Zealand flight has been denied permission to land in Shanghai after the Chinese authorities discovered a reference to Taiwan in its documentation, supposedly an indication of the country's support for independence for the democratic island.
"Multiple sources say paperwork for the Air NZ flight 289, which returned to Auckland after several hours in the air included reference to Taiwan which China took to be an acknowledgement that the island was independent," New Zealand's Stuff.co.nz news website reported.
While the People's Republic of China's ruling Communist Party has refused diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes Taiwan, this is the first time that another country's flag carrying airline has been sent home in mid-air over the issue.
According to passenger Eric Hundman, Air NZ hadn't disclosed a detailed explanation for the flight's Monday turnaround.
"The aircraft operating your flight did not have regulatory approval to land in China and was required to return to Auckland," the airline said in a screenshot of a text message sent to passengers posted to Hundman's Twitter account.
Chen Weijian, the New Zealand-based editor-in-chief of the political magazine Beijing Spring, said the emerging reports appeared to contradict an earlier statement from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who said the plane's forced U-turn had nothing to do with politics.
Chen said the incident is likely an escalation from earlier objections from Beijing to international airlines that listed Taiwan as a separate destination, rather than as a city within China.
China last year issued a number of complaints about companies' use of the word "Taiwan," especially where its usage implied a territory that is distinct and separate from its own.
In April 2018, Beijing's Civil Aviation Administration requested that foreign airlines take "Taiwan," "Hong Kong" and "Macau" out of their lists of countries, or standalone destinations.
However, Hong Kong and Macau are former colonies that have returned to Chinese rule, while Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. The requests were rejected at the time by the U.S. government as "Orwellian nonsense."
"I think the main problem here is that Taiwan was given an independent listing," Chen said. "I think that [Ardern] was, quite frankly, just trying to play down the incident ... They wanted to deal with the matter privately, by accepting China's demand that Taiwan not be given separate status as an independent country or region."
Long-term influence campaign
He said the New Zealand government had been the target of a long-term influence campaign by the Chinese Communist Party.
"Communist Party infiltration in New Zealand is actually very serious," Chen said. "New Zealand has typically followed Australia's lead in the past, but now they are distancing themselves from Australia and cozying up to China."
Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said Beijing has no right to make such claims about the island, which it has never governed.
"Taiwan has never been a part of [the People's Republic of] China," Yang told RFA. "This insistence that people list Taiwan as part of Chinese territory is a lie."
"They try it on and then when it doesn't work, they fly into a rage," he said. "That's not how an major country should behave. I think that if they carry on like this, it's going to cause more and more of a backlash among other countries."
He said Taiwan needs to stick to its point of view. "We need to keep on hitting back strongly whenever the Chinese Communist Party does such things," Yang said.
Last month, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen rejected calls from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the democratic island to "unify" with the People's Republic, saying its people have no wish to give up their sovereignty.
In a Jan. 2 "Letter to our Taiwan compatriots," Xi swapped the Chinese Communist Party's previous insistence on the idea that Taiwan is part of a divided "One China" for a new theme: "unification."
"It has been a historical and unavoidable duty of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese government and the Chinese people to resolve the matter of Taiwan and unify the motherland ever since 1949," Xi said in the statement.
But he made scant reference to public opinion among the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan, which his party has never ruled, and warned: "We make no promise to renounce the use of military force, and reserve the right to take all necessary measures to deal with hostile foreign forces and a tiny minority of separatists and their splittist activities."
Xi urged Taiwan to work towards "unification" under the "one country, two systems" model that was promised to Hong Kong after its 1997 handover to China, rather than the direct imposition of Communist Party rule. However, that city's autonomy has been eroded in recent years by a series of high-profile interventions from Beijing, according to U.S. and U.K. officials, Hong Kong's Bar Association, and international rights groups.
Taiwan rejects 'one country, two systems'
Tsai Ing-wen responded by asserting the right of Taiwan's 23 million inhabitants to decide their own fate.
"I want to reiterate that Taiwan absolutely will not accept 'one country, two systems,'" Tsai said. "The vast majority of public opinion in Taiwan is also resolutely opposed to 'one country, two systems.'"
Beijing has never accepted the status of Taiwan as a sovereign power, although the Republic of China government established by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists.
Officially, Taiwan is still known as the Republic of China, which controls the four islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. Beijing has refused diplomatic ties with any country that also recognizes the Republic of China, and actively encourages Taiwan's partners to switch recognition.
Instead, China insists that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the People's Republic of China, and refuses to engage in government-to-government talks, while Tsai has called on Beijing to handle negotiations on an equal basis.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the nationalist Kuomintang government as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal.
When the Kuomintang regime fled to Taiwan in 1947 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communist troops, the Republic of China government ceased to control most of China, though it continues to be the official name of the Taiwan government.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for continued self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
In September, the state-backed Global Times newspaper hit out at Apple over its listing of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China as separate entities, claiming that the democratic island of Taiwan is "an inalienable part" of China's territory.
Hong Kong and Taiwan were listed "on par" with China on a slide showing markets for the new iPhone XS, the Global Times newspaper, sister paper to ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said. China has also complained about a similar listing for the island on the website of furniture giant Ikea.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsia-hwa for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.