There is a push to drop Republic of China as Taiwan’s formal name. Pro-independence protesters in Taipei. (Ritchie B Tongo/EPA, via Shutterstock)
China is using its growing air and sea power to try to intimidate Taiwan, the self-ruled island that it hopes to annex. It has also weaponized its economic prowess to induce foreign companies and governments to erase Taiwan’s international presence.
But in Taiwan itself, there has been increasing resistance. A vocal segment of Taiwan’s population of 23 million is trying to push back against Beijing with a potent weapon that China lacks: democracy.
China’s campaign appears to have hardened Taiwanese resolve against the Chinese Communist Party, while fueling resentment toward the Cold War labels Taiwan operates under. A referendum this month asks whether Taiwan should compete at international sporting events under that name, rather than “Chinese Taipei.”
At an October rally in Taipei, protesters denounced both China’s goal of annexing Taiwan and the use of the island’s official name, the Republic of China. For older Taiwanese, the Republic of China name and flag conjure memories of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, which arrived in 1945, massacred tens of thousands of Taiwanese in 1947, and declared martial law in 1949 that lasted until 1987.
The name was kept to suggest that the Kuomintang was China’s true government. But it can create the impression that Taiwan is part of China. One protester, Liao Yao-song, said, “We need to reform the referendum law, then we can change the name of the country and change the national flag.”
Last December, Taiwan’s referendum law was overhauled to make it easier to propose referendums, but kept constitutional issues like the island’s name, flag and territory off limits. The rally’s organizer, the Formosa Alliance, seeks to change the law in order to have a referendum on national sovereignty. The group includes two former presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.
The Chinese defense minister, Wei Fenghe, recently warned Taiwan against formalizing its independence. He said, “If someone tries to separate out Taiwan, China’s army will take the necessary actions at any cost.”
Many Taiwanese oppose formal moves that might bring a military response from China. So some independence-minded groups have their eyes on lesser goals. In late November, Taiwan will hold local elections, which will include a referendum question on whether it should compete in international sporting events as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei.”
Should voters choose “Taiwan,” the result will almost certainly be ignored by the International Olympic Committee, which has selected Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Games.
Proponents say that the world will at least know where the Taiwanese people stand.
“It doesn’t say ‘Chinese Taipei’ on maps — it says ‘Taiwan,’ ” said Jongher Yang, former director of the Taipei municipal sports bureau. “We just want to let others know what place our athletes come from.”