As China Rattles Its Sword, Taiwanese Push a Separate Identity

By Chris Horton
Oct. 26, 2018

TAIPEI, Taiwan — With greater frequency, China is using its growing air and sea power to try to intimidate Taiwan, the self-ruled island that it hopes to annex. China has also weaponized its economic prowess to induce foreign companies and even governments to erase Taiwan’s international presence.

But in Taiwan itself, there has been increasing blowback.

A vocal segment of Taiwan’s population of 23 million is trying to push back against Beijing with a potent weapon that China’s arsenal of influence lacks: democracy and the power of popular referendums.

China’s pressure campaign appears to have hardened Taiwanese resolve against the Chinese Communist Party, while fueling resentment toward the awkward Cold War labels Taiwan operates under in the international sphere. As a result, many Taiwanese are hoping to take control of their identity, and their fate, through the ballot box, despite the threat of attack from China that hangs over such moves.

A referendum next month asks whether Taiwan should compete at international sporting events under that name, rather than “Chinese Taipei.” Activists are also seeking to change the law to allow for a referendum on national sovereignty.

Supporters of both were at a pro-independence march and rally in downtown Taipei last Saturday that drew thousands of people. Protesters denounced both China’s goal of annexing Taiwan as well as the continued use of the island’s official name, the Republic of China.

For many 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.

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The name was kept to suggest that the Kuomintang was China’s true government, despite the Communist victory in the country’s civil war. But today it can create the impression that Taiwan is officially part of China.

Threading their way through Taipei’s old city center en route to the rally on Saturday, hundreds of marchers chanted “Referendum for a new country! New clothes for Taiwan!” The chants were in Taiwanese, the most widely spoken language in Taiwan, which is mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. Signs and banners opposing China and Taiwan’s Republic of China identity were ubiquitous.
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The flag of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, at National Day celebrations in Taipei this month.CreditRitchie B Tongo/EPA, via Shutterstock
One demonstrator, Liao Yao-song, said he and the rally’s attendees wanted to establish an independent country under the name Taiwan.

“It must be done through referendum,” he 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 by the legislature, which made it easier to propose and pass referendums but kept constitutional issues like the island’s name, flag and territory off limits. (The Republic of China Constitution claims not only Taiwan, but also sovereignty over all of China and Mongolia.)

The rally’s organizer, the Formosa Alliance, seeks to change the referendum law in order to have a referendum on national sovereignty, which it has said it wants to hold next April. The group’s members include two former presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.

Several speakers praised Taiwan’s democracy while citing a litany of Chinese threats to freedom: forced detentions of rights lawyers and activists, a vast network of detention camps in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang and the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous part of China.

The rally was also held to protest China’s efforts to whittle down the list of countries that officially recognize the Taiwanese government and pressure companies not to refer to Taiwan as a separate country.

Most of the rally’s participants were old enough to remember martial law, but others were younger and drawn into politics by the Sunflower protests of 2014, which derailed a proposed trade agreement with China negotiated by the most recent Kuomintang administration.
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Listening to speeches near a collection of stalls set up by local churches, gay rights groups and pro-independence T-shirt vendors, Chen Hung-chia, 32, said the Taiwanese people needed to save themselves from China’s threat.

“If I don’t stand up, nobody will stand up for me,” Mr. Chen said. “I don’t want to be annexed by China.”

A banner in support of a referendum next month on whether Taiwan should participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei.”CreditTyrone Siu/Reuters
The Chinese Communist Party, which claims Taiwan but has never ruled it, sees things differently. On Thursday, the Chinese defense minister, Wei Fenghe, warned Taiwan against making any moves toward formalizing its independence.

“The Taiwan issue is related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and touches upon China’s core interests,” Mr. Wei said at a forum in Beijing. “If someone tries to separate out Taiwan, China’s army will take the necessary actions at any cost.”

In her recent National Day speech, Ms. Tsai used the term “Taiwan” 48 times, compared with four mentions of “Republic of China” and two references to the “Republic of China in Taiwan”.

Many Taiwanese do in fact oppose formal moves that might bring a military response from China. So some independence-minded groups have their eyes on lower-hanging fruit.

In late November, Taiwan will hold local elections, which will include a referendum question on whether Taiwan should compete in the 2020 Olympics and other international sporting events as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” a name that the Kuomintang chose for such events in 1981 to maintain its claim on China, which it effectively gave up a decade later.

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Central Election Commission said that it had verified more than 429,000 signatures on the petition for that referendum, far more than the minimum 281,745 required. The number of signatures is roughly 2 percent of Taiwan’s population.

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.

Taiwanese animosity over having to compete under the “Chinese Taipei” label was stirred last year when the organizers of the World University Games, or Universiade, changed Taiwan’s name in a media guidebook to “Chinese Taipei.” Public uproar in Taiwan forced the International University Sports Federation to rescind the change.

Proponents of the November referendum say that even if the International Olympic Committee does not allow Taiwan to compete under that name at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, the world will at least know where the Taiwanese people stand on the issue.

“It doesn’t say ‘Chinese Taipei’ on maps — it says ‘Taiwan,’” Jongher Yang, former director of the Taipei municipal sports bureau and a member of the group behind the Olympic referendum, said in a phone interview. “We just want to let others know what place our athletes come from.”

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