Just how Chinese is "Chinese Taipei"?

by on Monday, 03 September 2012 Comments

In this Olympic year, submerged as we are in an economic crisis, much has been said about whether the Olympics are viable and responsible economically, whether they have merely been a distraction for the country, even whether the opening Ceremony was better than the Beijing one four years ago. Today I want to look a little deeper and analyse certain political issues creating tension and the way that the Olympics can unfortunately, often be used to exert political pressure.

The issue of whether Taiwan is an independent nation or not has been done to death. Most Chinese would tell you that it is a renegade province of China (which is a stretch but hey, it’s the party line!), whereas most Taiwanese would tell you that it is an independent country. It is probably fair to say that if you ask an informed, unbiased observer who is not bound by diplomatic obligations they would say that Taiwan is de facto a nation, with its own government, distinct culture and history, despite the UN, WTO, and most countries in the world not recognizing it as such. It is also fair to say that the reasons it is not recognized by these countries and organizations has more to do with a fear of backlash from China than with the actual reality of the situation.

The issue gets more complicated when it comes to the Olympics. Everybody likes some sport or another, and cheering for one’s country is one of the reasons the Olympics are so appealing. Now, imagine, that instead of being able to cheer for your country, where you have always lived and which obviously exists, you are instead made to fly a made-up flag, play an anthem different from the countries official one, and call the country by a made-up name; and any attempt to display the real flag or call the country by the name that virtuallyeverybody in the international community refers to it by is met with reprimand and censorship. How often do you hear people say: “Oh, you are leaving for Chinese Taipei? Have a nice trip!” or “My daughter studies in Chinese Taipei, renegade province of China”? Exactly.

Why then this obsession with nomenclature? What are the origins of this name and flag? The ROC has no small part of blame for the farce that is “Chinese Taipei”.  In the 1970s, the IOC amongst others suggested and even offered the nation to compete under the name Taiwan, to differentiate itself from China. However, the ROC party line at the time still insisted on the island’s “Chineseness” and found these suggestions offensive and unacceptable, believing that the name they would compete under needed to include some reference to China. After negotiating with the PRC, both entities found the name Chinese Taipei ambiguous enough that it left them both happy (or more likely, neither of them upset).


Chinese Taipei Flag. Would you cheer for a "neutral" flag if it were your country?

Taiwan is hardly a powerhouse in the Olympics, and perhaps because of this the issue doesn’t gain much attention. This year, however, London 2012 committed a rather careless blunder by suddenly removing a Taiwanese flag from a street in London where it had been hanging alongside those of other nations participating in the event. Once it’s already been hanging out there, it only draws more attention to remove it, so it really wasn’t a particularly smart move, but there must be no room left for thinking about being smart when all your attention is focused on keeping China happy. As for the Chinese government, does it really make sense to be this mindlessly aggressive? Would it really have hurt that much to allow a small Taiwanese flag in a street in London, more than 8000km. away from Beijing, to fly quietly and unremarkably, and not be noticed except by those specifically looking for it?

The “Chinese Taipei” issue is not, however, the only controversial issue surrounding China in these Olympics. There have been growing tensions throughout the year in Hong Kong as more and more Chinese visit and move there. Hong Kongers feel threatened by the influx of mainlanders, which have started to be dubbed “locusts”. Against this backdrop, in this Olympics, the Hong Kong Olympic ping pong team was made up entirely of mainland-born players who moved to Hong Kong after failing to make the China team.

China is of course an absolutely dominant force in professional ping pong, but when Hong Kong played South Korea in the semi-finals for a chance to play China in the final, it definitely felt a bit strange. In the end they lost to South Korea, which is probably a good thing, since otherwise the final would have basically been China vs. China, a bizarre scenario indeed.

Is it not, to say the least, a little bit unfair that athletes born in the mainland have twice the chances of making an Olympic team? Athletes in other countries work extremely hard in order to make, and often fail to make, their Olyimpic teams. What kind of message does it send to Chinese athletes when, failing to break into the China team, they can simply cross over the border to Hong Kong and have a second chance? How do the Hong Kong people, already fairly disgruntled by the constant influx of mainlanders to their city, feel about their Olympic team being “invaded”, as it were, by athletes from China?


Returning to the Chinese Taipei issue, what sense does it make from the IOC's point of view to allow Hong Kong to compete as a separate entity to China (albeit still having mainland athletes as part of the team) but to essentially deny Taiwan the opportunity to do the same, when Taiwan is infinitely more independent from the mainland than Hong Kong is?
We are constantly being told that cross-strait relations are getting better but the fact that such pettiness still exists in a relatively minor issue such as a sporting event is proof that maybe they aren’t progressing that much. The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of sport and the coming together of humankind, and China needs to realize that it is only hurting its own interests by engaging in childish behaviour such as pressuring for a flag to be taken down. If it is still not ready to accept “Chinese Taipei” competing under its real name, Taiwan, then, it should at least let minor issues such as the flag in London fly, since, in this case, no publicity is good publicity.



London street photograph by Danny Ku.

Chinese Taipei flag photograph by erjkprunczýk.

Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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