OPINION: Time to Say Goodbye to 'Chinese Taipei'

OPINION: Time to Say Goodbye to 'Chinese Taipei'
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

A proposal to compete as 'Taiwan' rather than 'Chinese Taipei' in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics serves as a warning to Beijing.

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By Hsieh Shang-po

In a meeting on July 24, the East Asian Olympic Committee decided to revoke Taiwan’s right to host the first East Asian Youth Games in 2019 in Taichung City.

The decision is controversial because it was guided by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It sends a warning to Taiwanese activist groups who want to challenge the Olympic Model – an agreement established in 1981 that Taiwan’s participation in the Olympic Games would occur only under the name “Chinese Taipei,” instead of “Taiwan” or “Republic of China” (ROC).

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Credit: 總統府 / Flickr
President Tsai Ing-wen watches the 2017 Summer Universiade opening ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan.

While the Olympic Model has been the subject of criticism in Taiwan for years, long-held grievances are finally starting to inspire action. Following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, an alliance of civic groups has pushed to hold a referendum on whether the ROC should participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games under the name “Taiwan.”

For many critics, such initiatives reflect the rise of Taiwanese nationalism that challenges the so-called “One China” ideology.

A survey by the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Cheng-chi University shows a steady increase in the percentage of citizens who are inclined to self-identify as Taiwanese in the period 1992-2018. This rising nationalist trend changed little in the period 2008-2016, even as the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government endeavored to strengthen Chinese identity among Taiwanese people and to enhance its relationship with the PRC government.

In June 2018, 55.8 percent of the respondents identified themselves as “Taiwanese,” 37.2 percent as “Both Chinese and Taiwanese,” and only 3.2 percent as “Chinese.”

Youth is also a key factor, with most respondents who prefer Taiwanese identity between 18 and 39 years old, as another survey reveals.

In June 2018, 55.8 percent of the respondents identified themselves as ‘Taiwanese,’ 37.2 percent as ‘Both Chinese and Taiwanese,’ and only 3.2 percent as ‘Chinese.’

The groups demanding a change to the Olympic Model see the term “Chinese Taipei” as humiliating, and accordingly expect to witness the participation of the ROC delegation in the 2020 Olympic Games under the name Taiwan. Their strategy is to take advantage of the opportunity created by the 2017 Referendum Act, which overturned several unpopular provisions in previous referendum legislation of 2003.

One such provision was Article 30, which stipulated that a proposal would be vetoed if less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. This strict threshold was determined because Taiwan does not have compulsory voting and turnout rates are usually low.

Accordingly, many critics derided the original 2003 legislation as a “Bird-cage Referendum Act” for its strict threshold restraining citizens from proposing, holding and passing a referendum. Between 2004 and 2017, six proposals for national referendums were vetoed because the turnout rate did not reach the 50 percent threshold.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Former President Ma Ying-jeou (L), seen here in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, favored establishing closer ties with China.

Demands for a new Referendum Act were satisfied after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) assumed office in 2016.

After 18 months of deliberation, the new Referendum Act was passed, with Article 29 stipulating that a referendum shall pass if the yes votes both outnumber the no votes and reach 25 percent of eligible voters.

While it is easy to see why Taiwanese nationalists in favor of a change to the status quo would be pleased with the lower threshold under the new Referendum Act, there is still no guarantee of success.

The referendum drive had no strong backing – that is, not until the East Asian Olympic Committee made its controversial decision. In response, the number of joint signers increased remarkably.

For months, the referendum drive had no strong backing – that is, not until the East Asian Olympic Committee made its controversial decision. In response, the number of joint signers increased remarkably.

Spurred by an August drive by the Team Taiwan campaign, the referendum proposal for the ROC to enter the Olympics under the name Taiwan was submitted to Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) on Sept. 3 after it collected 526,688 signatures – easily passing the required threshold of 281,000, or 1.5 percent of Taiwan’s electorate.

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Credit: Team Taiwan Facebook
Boxes of petition books submitted to the CEC by the Team Taiwan campaign.

Direct presidential elections and referendums both signify Taiwan’s milestones of democratization and are features in which many Taiwanese people take pride.

If the PRC sincerely wants to improve cross-strait relations and avoid provoking further expressions of Taiwanese nationalism, it would do well not to overlook this pride. The East Asian Youth Games incident should serve as a cautionary tale.

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Credit: Wikicommons
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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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