Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Beijing’s campaign of “namefare” – to discredit Taiwan’s status as a de facto independent state by confiscating the use of the name Taiwan – has accelerated as of late. Namefare has most notably been conducted on the websites of international airlines, but is also showing up at sporting and cultural events. The campaign to disabuse others from using the name “Taiwan” is just part of Beijing’s strategy to unite Taiwan with the mainland, a duty it considers “sacred.”

Media around the world have widely reported on Beijing’s demand for international airlines to change how their websites refer to Taiwan by July 25. Despite accusations of bullying, and widespread condemnation by Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries, Beijing’s efforts succeeded. All 44 international airlines contacted by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in April have amended their websites, although measures taken by US airlines were deemed incomplete.

Many of the airlines, including Air Canada and British Airways, changed their websites to “Taiwan, China,” while US airlines removed “Taiwan” and list only city names. Hawaiian Airlines changed its reference to “Taipei, Taipei.”

The namefare over the use of “Taiwan” on the websites of international airlines has also been waged on other industries and companies. The website of the Marriott hotel chain was temporarily suspended in January after labeling Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries. The Gap, a clothing retailer, issued an apology to China in May after a T-shirt it sold in Canada did not show Taiwan as part of China.

Most recently, Beijing’s use of namefare has extended to youth sports, such as the 2019 East Asian Youth Games to be held in Taichung, Taiwan. The East Asian Olympic Committee recently revoked its decision for the Games to be held in Taiwan, apparently yielding to pressure from Beijing. Beijing has even gone so far to force the withdrawal of a junior-high-school choir scheduled to perform at a United Nations building as part of the World Peace Choral Festival held in Vienna.

By engaging in namefare, Beijing appears to have abandoned its soft-power approach to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese and is willing to accept a decline in its popularity among Taiwanese. A poll conducted in May revealed that nearly 80% of Taiwanese thought China was unfriendly toward Taiwan.

Beyond Taiwan’s shores, the namefare controversy has only drawn increased attention to the issue of Taiwan, and may have even generated more international sympathy for the Taiwanese. As the Irish author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

While the increased sympathy may be insufficient to counter Beijing’s use of implied economic threats when conducting namefare, it has led to dialogue among governments and citizens surrounding just how far China will go to protect its own interests.

Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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