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The Country That Doesn’t Exist: Chinese Taipei and the Future of Taiwanese Olympians

August 7, 2016. Weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching is on top of the world. After lifting 100 kg (220 pounds) in Rio, she waits for Olympic officials to give her the gold medal. Flanked by Filipino and South Korean athletes, she is peerless on the international stage. There’s only one catch: Hsu Shu-ching represents a country that doesn’t exist. 

Looking at a map, it is impossible to locate the country of Chinese Taipei. That’s because the name is a stand-in for the Republic of China (ROC), a government which operates on the island of Taiwan. For decades, athletes like Hsu Shu-ching have competed for a country that both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC agree is made up–Chinese Taipei. How did this happen?

After Mao Zedong’s communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in China’s Civil War (1927-1950), the mainland PRC sought to isolate the exiled ROC from international spaces. A major step towards this goal occurred in 1972 when the UN recognized the PRC as the only legitimate government of China. With this status, the PRC used its diplomatic clout to ban Taiwan from calling itself the “rightful” China and using ROC symbols in international games. Without the opportunity to compete under its flag, name, or anthem, the ROC boycotted the 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The tension eased in 1981, when China and Taiwan agreed to the Nagoya Resolution. The agreement stipulated that the island could compete in international competitions as long as it used the name “Chinese Taipei”. 

This linguistic compromise gave each side a political victory that is ambiguous in English. Chinese state media, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, translates “Chinese Taipei” as “Zhongguo Taibei,” suggesting that “Chinese” references a political connection. However, Taiwanese outlets use “Zhonghua Taibei”, which interprets “Chinese” as cultural. Under this agreement, the PRC can claim that Taiwan is not a sovereign country, while the ROC can assert its nominal independence from the mainland. Instead of using ROC symbols, Taiwanese athletes compete on behalf of the “Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee,” which has its own flag and anthem distinct from Taiwan’s.

For decades, Taiwan has participated in international athletic competitions under the “Chinese Taipei” name. However, the delicate balance is in peril due to an increase in Taiwanese nationalism. In 2018, the island experienced a contentious referendum, which asked voters to reclaim Taiwanese symbols “when participating in all international sport competitions, including the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.” The campaign in favor of the referendum was led by prominent athletes such as Chi Cheng, who medaled at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Critics of the Nagoya Resolution excoriate how Taiwan is the only member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that is barred from using its name. “It’s insulting to us because everyone knows we are Taiwan,” referendum organizer George Chang told the Associated Press. “Chinese Taipei is not an area or a country…so let Taiwan be Taiwan”. The push to reclaim national symbols especially resonated with younger voters, who on average were more nationalist and saw the issue as a proxy vote for independence. A 1991 poll by National Chengchi University found that 14 percent of respondents self-identified as “Taiwanese,” while a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation poll saw the number rise to 80 percent in 2018. 

The coalition against the referendum was led by members of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee. The organization pointed to letters sent by the IOC claiming that a rebrand could risk Taiwanese participation in future games. China still held the right to block Taiwan from using ROC symbols and would likely pressure the IOC to implement a full-out ban on athletes. China could also leverage its economic power to render a favorable decision, as it was slated to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Opponents cited China’s successful attempt to rescind Taiwan’s right to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games in response to the proposed referendum. They asserted that China was willing to walk the walk and prevent Taiwanese athletes from competing. Jacqueline Yi-ting Shen, secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, expressed that if the referendum passed, the island would “lose the chance for [its] athletes” to have a “showcase” for the rest of the world. 

Athletes poised to compete in Tokyo also denounced the referendum. The day of the vote, Archer Lei Chien-ying joined a protest by Olympic athletes who feared that they would lose their chance to compete. “We oppose the referendum not because we don’t love our country, but because we need to follow the rules and the agreement,” she explained to Taiwanese media. In the end, a slim majority of voters agreed with Chein-ying. The referendum narrowly failed with 46 percent of the vote, putting the issue momentarily to rest. 

Taiwanese voters were right to uphold the Nagoya Resolution. While the desire to compete under one’s anthem, flag, and symbols is completely understandable, the sad truth is that national idealism has the potential to undermine Taiwan’s international visibility and unfairly harms its athletes. China has proven its willingness to politicize sports and exert both legal and economic pressure to restrict Taiwanese athletes from competitions if they don ROC symbols. The island cannot force the IOC to admit its athletes, meaning it either must accept the Resolution or hope for China’s mercy. The choice was not about athletes competing under the ROC flag, as the 2018 referendum supposed; in reality, it was about whether Taiwanese athletes should compete at all. 

Taiwanese voters must recognize that athletes competing under a different name is better than no presence on the global stage. A forced withdrawal from international competition would help erase the territory’s narrative from global consciousness. While it is possible that referendum organizers understood this dilemma and favored a contested cancellation anyway, their movement risks alienating exceptional ambassadors who have trained their entire lives for these competitions. Even though they may not show it on their uniforms, Taiwan’s Olympians represent the island at its best–strong and resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Their absence from podiums and TV screens around the world would make this narrative disappear. 

While the status quo seems safe, the thin margin of the 2018 referendum indicates that with enough time, a renewed push could turn the tables. Young nationalist voters will eventually outnumber older, more moderate ones. Taiwanese citizens should resist this push to reject the Resolution as long as possible. The island’s current situation might seem “aggravating, humiliating, and depressing,” but losing the “showcase” for its best is tangibly worse. Yes, compromise is bitter. But erasure is permanent.

Photo: Image via Wikimedia