Swiss International Air Lines has changed the Hong Kong flag on its website to the flag of the People’s Republic of China, claiming that the move reflects international usage.

It is unclear when the change occurred, but an HKFP reader who complained to the airline was told the move was to comply with laws, regulations and customs of the markets it serves.

A screenshot of the SWISS airline website taken in August 2018. Photo: Swiss International Air Lines.

Meike Fuhlrott, a media spokesperson for the airline, told HKFP: “The denomination is in accordance with international usage.”

She added that SWISS follows international organisations such as the World Bank. But Huma Imtiaz, communications analyst at World Bank Group told HKFP: “[W]e don’t have official protocols on this matter.”

Hong Kong’s five-petal bauhinia flag has been in use since 1997 and its design is enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution. Rules state that it must be flown alongside China’s national flag at border crossings and official buildings.

Last month, major international airlines removed references to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau as independent regions following pressure from Chinese aviation authorities to comply with Beijing’s “One China” policy. Authorities demanded that airlines include explicit reference to the destinations as part of China. US airlines, however, have thus far opted to refer to Taiwan by its capital city – Taipei.

Swiss Air Lines website screenshot, June 2016. Photo: Web Archive screenshot.

‘Factual accuracy’

An HKFP reader spotted the change and lodged a complaint with Lufthansa, the parent company of SWISS, saying: “This amounts to an abhorrent diminution of the identity of the city, which is far more complex than a simple attribution to the People’s Republic of China… Whilst renaming ‘Hong Kong’ to ‘Hong Kong, China’ in the country drop-down menu is understandable, disregarding the existence of a standalone Hong Kong SAR flag is not…”

“Is the airline so desperate to suck up to the Chinese market and China that integrity and factual accuracy become secondary to political and other favours?”

SWISS responded by saying that it complies with international practices when designing online interfaces: “This includes taking the customs of international clientele into consideration,” representative Eileen Li said. She added that the airline has decided to refer to China as the “mainland” and Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau as regions of China.

Mainland commercial airlines including Air China and China Southern Airlines continue to use the Hong Kong flag on their websites.

August, 2018. Photo: Air China screenshot.

Hong Kong is an autonomous region that has been under Chinese rule since its transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Its conflation with the mainland has often been contentious. In 2016, Emirates airline crew members from Hong Kong were made to wear both China and Hong Kong flag pins, and were reportedly liable to punishment if they failed to comply. In the same year, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific opted to omit the Taiwanese flag from an internal calendar – the flag is considered politically sensitive in mainland China.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.