Bronze medallists Taiwan's men's volleyball team celebrate during medals award celebration at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on September 1, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sonny Tumbelaka
Bronze medallists Taiwan's men's volleyball team celebrate during medals award celebration at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on September 1, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sonny Tumbelaka

In a ceremony held at the Presidential Office in Taipei on September 5, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen welcomed home the island’s athletes and support staff from the Asian Games in Jakarta. Their flight was met the night before by two F-16 Fighting Falcons sent by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense to escort the “Taiwan heroes.”

“Thank you all for the glory you brought to Taiwan. The country is great because of you,” Tsai told the national team, which despite finishing in seventh place in the medals tally, improved its performance by bringing home the second-highest number of gold medals ever won by Taiwan at the Asian Games. Tsai said “Taiwan is one of the great sporting nations,” while pledging greater resources for its athletes.

The same day the Taiwanese athletes were being escorted back by F-16s, Taiwanese civic groups were busy delivering more than 520,000 signatures to the Central Election Commission for a referendum proposal to change the national sports team’s name from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan.” The referendum proposes to ask voters, “Do you agree Taiwan should use the name ‘Taiwan’ to participate in all international sporting events and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?”

The referendum is among eight others scheduled to be held along with local elections on November 24, and can pass with a majority casting a “yes” vote – with at least one-quarter of eligible voters casting an affirmative vote. Taiwan’s national teams have been forced to compete as “Chinese Taipei,” and cannot use their national anthem or flag, ever since pressure from China led to a controversial ruling in 1979 by the International Olympic Committee.

Beijing still considers Taiwan a province of China, although the People’s Republic of China has never set foot on Taiwan since the PRC was established in 1949. The Qing Dynasty did administer Taiwan as a province from 1887 to 1895, but was forced to cede the island to the Japanese under the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

Taiwan was ruled by Japan for the next 50 years, after which Tokyo renounced all right to the island and the Pescadores under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China (ROC), which has continued its rule over Taiwan to the present day.

While Taiwan’s ruling party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has been silent on the referendum, many Taiwanese feel it is an indignity for an entity that has its own government, currency, military and foreign policy not to have its own national team. New Power Party (NPP) executive chairman Huang Kuo-chang praised the groups’ efforts in gathering “possibly the most signatures any proposal launched by a civil group has ever collected.”

The NPP is the political successor of the anti-annexationist Sunflower Movement of 2014, when a proposed trade pact with China brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest. Others strongly oppose the referendum, saying that it could incite Beijing into taking more actions to reduce Taiwan’s already limited international space.

As we have seen with Beijing’s extraterritorial campaign of “namefare” – its attempt at an Orwellian extermination of the usage of the name “Taiwan” – Beijing views any moves to legitimize “Taiwan” as a step down the slippery slope of independence. Beijing has already threatened and punished international airlines, hotel chains, and clothing retailers over their use of “Taiwan” and many believe Beijing was behind the decision by the East Asian Olympic Committee to revoke Taiwan’s standing as host of the multi-sport event.

Should the plebiscite pass in November and allow for athletes from Taiwan to compete as “Taiwan,” Beijing will surely deem the referendum a separatist activity and retaliate with some sort of punitive measure. Yet any such measure will be viewed by many Taiwanese as more unwanted bullying and only energize a stronger sense of national identity, symbolically widening the strait that separates the two.

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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