Taiwan coach Chen Kuei-jen gestures during of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier asian group F match against Thailand at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand on November 12, 2015. Thailand won 4-2. Photo: AFP
Taiwan coach Chen Kuei-jen gestures during of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier asian group F match against Thailand at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand on November 12, 2015. Thailand won 4-2. Photo: AFP

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) suffered massive losses in Saturday’s “nine-in-one” local elections, as a record number of citizens took to trains, buses, cars, and motor scooters to vote on more than 11,000 candidacies in a vibrant display of democracy. At stake were governing positions for nine different levels of local government, from mayors and county magistrates of cities and counties down to village wardens and indigenous district councils.

As the November 24 elections also served as a referendum on the governance of Tsai and her ruling party, she was obliged to step down as DPP chairwoman following her party’s share of the 22 cities and counties dropping to six from 18 and the DPP’s share of the vote falling to 39% from 56% in the 2016 presidential election. In contrast, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party secured victory in 15 of the 22 cities and counties with their share of the vote rising to 49% from 31%.

Chinese Taipei or Taiwan?

Beyond voting for local officials, Taiwanese were also asked to vote on 10 referendums, ranging from gay marriage to green energy. One such referendum asked 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 was driven by a grassroots movement called the Team Taiwan Campaign, which started collecting signatures in Tokyo some two years ago. Now led by Chi Cheng, a famous Taiwanese track-and-field athlete and Olympic medallist, Team Taiwan hoped the passage of its referendum would legally oblige the government to take up its cause. Unfortunately for its supporters, the referendum was ultimately voted down by 5.77 million to 4.76 million, or by a 55-45% margin.    

History of Chinese participation in Olympics  

The history of Chinese athletes’ participation in the Olympic Games dates back to 1932 when Chinese athletes competed as the Republic of China (ROC). The ROC moved its capital from Nanjing to Taiwan following the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.  The IOC subsequently ruled the PRC could participate, along with the ROC, in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki – to which the PRC sent its men’s football team, men’s basketball team, and one swimmer.  Unfortunately, only the swimmer arrived in time to officially compete, though the teams did manage to play friendly matches. The ROC athletes fared worse, however, having been pulled from the competition after their leaders learned of the PRC’s participation.

The ROC returned to compete in the 1956 Olympics, although the PRC chose to boycott future Games over the name dispute.  The ROC continued to compete up until their boycott of the 1976 Montreal Olympics after the IOC received complaints from the PRC over the name “ROC.”  Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau intervened to suggest the team compete as “Taiwan,” but the compromise was rejected by Taipei.

After UN Resolution 2578 was passed in 1971 “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations,” the PRC was recognized as the only legitimate representative of China at the United Nations.  

In 1979, the IOC passed the Nagoya Resolution mandating that Taiwan use the name “Chinese Taipei” – but not allowing the use of its national flag or anthem – thus ending the PRC boycott of the Games.  Under the 1981 Lausanne Agreement, the ROC finally agreed its athletes would compete as “Chinese Taipei” and would fly the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee (CTOC) flag at international sports events.

Beijing steps up pressure on Taiwan

Since the election of independence-leaning Tsai in 2016, Chinese officials have ramped up military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan, including efforts at “namefare” to limit the use of “Taiwan” on the international stage.  In 2017, Taiwan hosted the 29th Summer Universiade, also known as the World University Games, but its 368 athletes were forced to compete as Chinese Taipei on their home soil.

Ahead of the November 24 referendum, the IOC sent a letter to the CTOC stating it should stick to the terms of the 1981 Lausanne Agreement and continue as “Chinese Taipei.”  In July, the East Asian Olympic Committee (EAOC), believed to be under pressure from Beijing, revoked the right of the Taiwanese city of Taichung to host the first East Asian Youth Games in 2019. The IOC sent another letter to the CTOC in October seeking more information on the name change referendum.

Most recently, in a letter dated November 16, the IOC warned the CTOC that any name change was “under its jurisdiction” and could result in the suspension of their national Olympic committee:

“The IOC does not interfere with local procedures and fully respects freedom of expression. However, to avoid any unnecessary expectations or speculations, the IOC wishes to reiterate that this matter is under its jurisdiction, in accordance with the Olympics Charter,” said the letter.

“The IOC is hoping that the interest of the Olympic Movement in Chinese Taipei will prevail over political considerations so as not to disrupt the CTOC delegation and the athletes.”

The letter also cites Olympic Charter Article 27.9, which threatens the CTOC with suspension or withdrawal of recognition should the referendum go forward:

“Apart from the measures and sanctions provided in the case of infringement of the Olympic Charter, the IOC Executive Board may take any appropriate decisions for the protection of the Olympic Movement in the country of a National Olympic Committee (NOC), including suspension of or withdrawal of recognition from such NOC if the constitution, law or other regulations in force in the country concerned, or any act by any governmental or other body causes the activity of the NOC or the making or expression of its will to be hampered. The IOC Executive Board shall offer such NOC an opportunity to be heard before any such decision is taken.”

Of course, in sending this warning to the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, which was circulated widely in Taiwan, the IOC did interfere with the local procedures of a self-governing people and did not fully respect freedom of expression as represented by the national referendum.  Further, the IOC, with likely prodding from Beijing, did allow political considerations to prevail – in sharp contrast to the recent dropping of political animosities which led North and South Korean athletes to compete as one “Korea” in three sports held during the Asian Games in August.  

The Taiwanese response

The referendum over the name change hoped to tap into the growing sense of national identity among the island’s residents, the majority (56%) of which now identify as exclusively Taiwanese, up from only 17.6% in 1992, according to a 2018 poll conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (NCCU).  Some of those who identify as exclusively Taiwanese are indignant that their state (which has its own permanent population, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other states) cannot field its own national team and must compete as “Chinese Taipei” under an ugly false flag.

Others remain apathetic, aware of the opposition to the referendum coming from the IOC Executive Board, which ruled in May to reconfirm its position to disallow any change to the name of the CTOC.  Many voters were also aware of comments made prior to the referendum from the president of the CTOC, Lin Hong-dow, who conceded his committee will abide by the 1981 Lausanne Agreement, “Ensuring our athletes’ right to compete in the Olympic Games will be our top priority,” as the CTOC, a private institution, is not legally obliged to follow government orders.  Others may have been reluctant to risk the suspension of their athletes’ participation in international events or the Olympics – even though Taiwanese athletes can always compete as individuals.  

Beijing rightly views the referendum over the use of “Taiwan” in international sporting events as a soft proxy and test for a future vote over independence, as they viewed a similar referendum in 2008 asking voters whether Taiwan should join the UN under the name “Taiwan,” which failed

But perhaps the most important factor in deciding the referendum was widespread contentment to maintain the status quo and accompanying reluctance to inflame passions across the strait by declaring independence. Beijing rightly views the referendum over the use of “Taiwan” in international sporting events as a soft proxy and test for a future vote over independence, as they viewed a similar referendum in 2008 asking voters whether Taiwan should join the UN under the name “Taiwan,” which failed.       

Despite the failure of the referendum to pass, there are some positive takeaways from Saturday’s referendum. The mere act of holding and voting on a referendum demonstrated Taiwan’s commitment to democratic values, and the holding of a soft proxy vote over independence is a strong assertion of Taiwan’s de facto independence.  Finally, beyond the existing chat rooms, opinion polls and political punditry, the vote also served as a unique opportunity for government leaders to gauge the public’s views on the issue of independence in the face of the hardening of Beijing’s “One China” principle.  

Given increasing military, diplomatic and economic pressure from Beijing, the disinformation campaigns saying Taiwanese athletes would lose their right to compete if the referendum passed, and both the IOC and the CTOC weighing in against the referendum, it is no surprise the status quo-minded Taiwanese chose to vote against the referendum. What is surprising is the narrowness of defeat (55%  to 45%) – perhaps reflecting a growing sense of Taiwanese identity and signaling dissatisfaction with Beijing’s counterproductive efforts to diminish their de facto independent status.

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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