The Politics of Chinese Taipei

The Politics of Chinese Taipei

The Politics of Chinese Taipei

 When Hsu Shu-ching (許淑淨) won the gold medal in women’s weightlifting at the 2016 Summer Olympics, the people of Taiwan were justifiably proud, as they were for the bronze medals won by Taiwanese women in weightlifting and archery. Yet the feelings of national joy were understandably dampened by the absence of Taiwan’s name, flag, and anthem at the ceremony.

 In 1979, the Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) government, the People’s Republic of China, and the International Olympic Committee agreed to allow Taiwan’s participation in the Olympic Games—on one condition: It would not be allowed to compete under the name or flag of FormosaTaiwan or the Republic of China. In effect denying the Taiwanese people any sense of national identity separate from China, athletes from the island could enter only as representatives of an entity called Chinese Taipei.

 Subsequently, the politically expedient and fictitious name was also adopted for competitors from Taiwan in the ParalympicsAsian GamesAsian ParaGamesUniversiadeFIFA World Cup, and Miss Earth and Miss Universe contests. 

 It is also how Taiwan’s observer status is described in the World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO).  Yet, in the International Health Regulations component of the WHO, and in all United Nations documents and official speeches, the name used is Taiwan, Province of China.

 In the World Trade Organization, Taiwan became the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu. Fisheries management organizations refer to Taiwan only as a “fishing entity.”

 These formulations may have sufficed for the earlier period when Taiwan was seen only as an appendage of Dynastic China. Yet, despite the best efforts of Beijing and other capitals—as well as of some within Taiwan itself when leaders harbored dreams of “retaking” China—the Taiwanese people steadily developed their own distinct, democratic national identity.

 The Taiwanese people are no longer satisfied to be known officially by artificial names that do not reflect the reality of the de facto political entity they are or have become—whether it be a green (Democratic Progressive Party) or blue (KMT) party in power.  So it is time for the international community to scrap the obsolete formulations such as Chinese TaipeiTaiwan, Province of China;  Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu, and fishing entity, among others.

 Washington can do better and could use any of the following alternative characterizations to capture the essence of the Taiwanese identity—but, in deference to China, they continue to avoid calling Taiwan by Taiwan or the Republic of China.

  •  The qualification match for the 2014 FIFA World Cup was played at the municipal stadium in the capital city of the state whose name we dare not utter.
  • One of the more active members in the World Trade Organization has been the dynamic Asian Tiger whose free market economy qualified it for accession long before China but was delayed until its large neighbor’s rigid state-controlled system could catch up.
  • In the World Health Organization, observer status has finally been given to the political entity that has distinguished itself in medical and scientific research, advancement in information technology and telecommunications, public health, and transparency and cooperation in pandemic disease prevention (unlike China, whose secrecy and obstructionism hampered international efforts to combat the spread of SARS, HIV/AIDS, Bird flu, and H1N1).
  • Since the Little League World Series started in 1947, the record for most championship—17—is held by the island country adjoining the Taiwan Strait, which has shown itself to be a model international citizen in counter-proliferation, environmental protection, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, but is denied the respect it deserves from the global community.
  • In the 2016 summer Olympics, a gold medal in weightlifting and bronze medals in weightlifting and archery went to that thriving Asian democracy that strikes terror in the hearts of Chinese Communist leaders who fear it will infect their population with the subversive idea that Chinese people are capable of choosing their own rulers.

While those descriptive references do not necessarily come trippingly off the tongue, all scrupulously avoid mention of Taiwan or the Republic of China.

Even worse than the offense the name game gives to the people of Taiwan, is the fact that its participation in WHA and WHO is circumscribed and sporadic, at the PRC’s insistence.

Other international organizations that would benefit from Taiwan’s participation are the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) andUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  

Again, Beijing’s recalcitrance is the obstacle, and it has persuaded many in the United States that it is not worth taking up Taiwan’s cause more vigorously. 

As Sigrid Winkler stated in her 2012 quarterly analysis for the Brookings Institution:

If the organizations’ member states were to push hard for Taiwan’s participation . . .  they would only alienate China.  In both organizations this would imply a substantial loss for the effective establishment of international rules and undermine the organizations’ goals.  China is too important to be provoked. (author’s emphasis)

Why is it that on issues like China’s aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, or Beijing’s enabling of North Korea’s even more reckless actions, we do not hear Chinese (and American) experts warn that America is too important to be provoked?

A campaign is already underway in Japan and Taiwan to allow Taiwanese athletes to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo under their own name and flag. Americans should support that effort as part of a broader push to remove the remaining barriers to Taiwan’s full participation in international affairs.

The main point: The Taiwanese people are no longer satisfied to be known officially by artificial names, such as Chinese Taipei, which do not reflect the reality of the de facto political entity they are or have become.