Every four years, whenever the Summer Olympics comes along*, I inevitably get the question, “why is Taiwan called Chinese Taipei in the Olympics?”
CNN provides an explanation for this, but I want to give it more context.
Growing up in Taiwan in the 1990s and 2000s, Olympics was a big deal. Taiwan didn’t win a gold medal until 2004 (we won two golds in Taekwondo in Athens), but Olympics was (and still is) seen as an opportunity for Taiwan to shine on the international stage, especially when politically Taiwan isn’t particularly visible. This was also the period when Taiwan had just started going through democratic transition of political powers. I remember watching the TV and cheering for Taiwan, except we weren’t known as Taiwan. Whenever the TV announcers had to refer to the delegation, they always used 中華隊 Team Zhonghua instead of Team Taiwan. Zhonghua roughly translates as Chinese, but is not intended to mean “of the People’s Republic of China”. We like to tell ourselves that non-Chinese speakers would be able to tell the difference between “of the Republic of China” and “of the PRC”, even though in English there really isn’t a distinction.
You see, because of the compromise Taiwan’s government, which then still claimed itself to be the “legitimate China”, made in 1981, Taiwan has been known as Chinese Taipei since. Back then, to be known as Taiwan was unacceptable for the KMT government under Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek. With that mentality, Taiwan’s population was educated to consider the Republic of China as the only China that would one day retake and “liberate” the mainland from the Communists. While many people in that generation (born between 1940s-1980s) today has accepted that retaking the mainland is impossible, they still identify much more strongly with the Republic of China than with Taiwan.
But in my generation (born after 1990s), we grew up when the ROC mentality was slowly being replaced by a Taiwanese identity. We were still taught to consider ourselves “Chinese”, but at the same more and more emphasis was being put on identifying with the land we live in, Taiwan. We are better educated, and more and more information are becoming available. To us, to be called Chinese Taipei is just a constant reminder that Taiwan isn’t considered a country, and that [People’s Republic of] China is the biggest reason we can’t be called a name of our choosing. A poll done in June suggests that given the choice, very few people in Taiwan would accept Chinese Taipei as a name to call ourselves in international events and organizations.
The Beijing government often likes to attribute this affinity to “Taiwan” and rising of Taiwanese identity as a result of “Taiwanese-independence forces”, namely the DPP and its political allies. But what I think the Communist Party of China and people living in the mainland (and even some among KMT) fail to realize, or perhaps refuse to accept, is that while DPP has had an impact, Taiwanese identity does not entirely derive from one single political party. It goes deeper than that. It comes from living in a land that has been a democracy as long as we could remember and understanding what that means, and the contrast that provides with what we perceived as an authoritarian regime in China (for better or worse, through stereotypes and media reports). It comes from growing up without experiencing and associating ourselves with the land and people of mainland China (direct flights between Taiwan and China did not start until 2003). It comes from a fear that one day the way of life we are used to in Taiwan could disappear if Taiwan actually becomes a part of the PRC, like what we believe is slowly happening in Hong Kong.
Major powers around the world sometimes say, Taiwan needs to figure out this mess with China, which has been interpreted as for Taiwan to do anything, it needs the approval of 1.3 billion people who don’t live in Taiwan. When Scotland held the referendum for independence, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland did not get to vote. The world obviously doesn’t always work the way we want it to be, but I find it illogical that issues critical to Taiwan’s future cannot be decided by people of Taiwan alone.
I am a strong proponent of calling ourselves only “Taiwan” in any language that’s not Chinese. Having the word “China” or “Chinese” in anything related to Taiwan is only going to suggest we are a part of China, which the majority of the world interprets as the People’s Republic of China. But even a simple task like this has many obstacles, both inside and outside of Taiwan. I invite you to discuss potential future solutions at The Way Forward, and to sign the Taiwan 2020 Tokyo petition.
The CNN article suggests anger is growing over “Chinese Taipei”, so you might ask, are Taiwanese actually angry over this?
You bet we are.
You would be too if Team USA has to be known as Team British America, or even Team British Washington, D.C., or if Team Canada has to be known as Team British Ottawa, just to name a few examples.
*Taiwan does compete in the Winter Olympics, but because of Taiwan’s mild winters and we send significantly less athletes, it doesn’t usually receive a lot of attention.