Taiwan: Bringing Names in Line with Reality

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Sunday, April 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

How important are names? Well, that depends.

The old question of Taiwan’s name again resurfaced again when Chen Zhen, a Chinese adjunct (part time) professor at Polytechnic University of Milan recently bullied a Taiwanese student into changing the name of his country of origin on his thesis.

Chen pressured him to change it from “Taipei, Taiwan” to “Taipei, China.”

So, how important are names, especially the accuracy of one’s country of origin on an academic thesis?

Anyone who has visited a  baseball game, has probably heard the vendors advertise their products: “You cannot tell the players without a scorecard.”

In baseball games, the players’ uniforms only have numbers on them, so scorecards tell you the players’ names.

On the other hand, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet questions the relevance of names when speaking of Romeo, whom she loves. Romeo unfortunately happens to be from a family that is feuding with hers. Thus she simply states: “Tis but thy name that is my enemy.”

How important are names?

We get more clarity on the name-game in Lewis Carroll’s novel, Through the Looking Glass; when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty who tells her that he thinks that she has a “stupid name” and then asks: “What does it mean?”

When Alice says that words and names can have different meanings, Humpty Dumpty counters her by saying that the most important thing is “to be master—that’s all.”

That brings us back to the professor, the student, and Taiwan.

When it comes to countries and places of origin, names do matter, especially for Taiwan with its  complicated history and desired valuable location.

How is Taiwan to be named?

Who should name it? What does it mean? And who is to be master?

Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. It meets all the standards of the Montevideo Convention and more. It has a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to conduct international relations. It also issues and collects its own taxes and has a standing army.

The Montevideo Convention stipulates that a nation does not have to be recognized by other nations to be a nation.

At present, Taiwan is officially recognized by only 14 UN member states, and that is where the complications begin.

Ironically 146 of the UN countries do not officially recognize Taiwan, do recognize Taiwan’s passport and give its citizens visa free entry.

However, only 80 of those same countries give visa free entry to Chinese passport holders.

The professor might have reviewed that reality and how Taiwan far outranks China when he tried to argue that European nations do not recognize Taiwan.

The UN complications date back to 1971, when UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed specifically dismissing the followers of Chiang Kai-shek from the body.

In that dismissal no mention was made of the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan.

It only addressed Chiang’s followers and the matter of who represented China. It did not answer who represents Taiwan and whether Taiwan is a part of China. Thus while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would like to read it that way, others obviously do not.

Taiwan has had many names. Formosa is one of the oldest and most popular. Its origin dates back to the 16th century when a Portuguese ship sailing from Macau to Japan’s Nagasaki passed close enough to it for those on board to speak of it as “Ihla Formosa,” the beautiful island.

That name stayed with it for centuries and subsequently appeared on most western seafaring maps. It continued to be into the 20th century.

Then US senator John F. Kennedy spoke of the Formosan situation in the Nixon-Kennedy debates before the 1960 US presidential election.

Today, Formosa has become out of fashion and recalls a bygone era.

In the Olympics, Taiwan’s situation is more complicated and the nation has participated in the Games under a potpourri of names.

Before the end of World War II, if anyone from Taiwan would have gone, they would have been part of the Japanese team as Taiwan was a Japanese colony at that time.

In 1948, Taiwanese participated as athletes from the ROC, but in 1960 that surprisingly changed to Formosa. From 1964 to 1968, again surprisingly, athletes participated under the name Taiwan, and from 1972 to 76, representation reverted back to the ROC.

After that, because of protests from China, Taiwanese authorities would boycott the Olympics until 1984 when it participated under the innocuous compromise name of “Chinese Taipei,” a name it has used to the present.

However, if the Olympics are in Japan, Japan does not recognize or use that name.

So what is in a name?

If one examines the constitution, Taiwan’s official name has been the ROC since 1947 when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) brought the Constitution with it to its exile in Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War and imposed it on the former Japanese colony.

However, Taiwan’s new passport design bear the name “Taiwan” in big bold letters, while the name ROC is so minuscule that one almost needs a magnifying glass to read it.

The US also uses the name of Taiwan when referring to the nation. When the US switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the US formally acknowledged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had become the legitimate ruler of China, and it dropped any usage of the “ROC.”

However, the US did not include Taiwan as a part of the newly recognized China. Instead, it created the American Institute in Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Taiwan Travel Act and other pieces of legislation, all using “Taiwan” and avoiding any reference to the ROC.

In accordance with the TRA, Taiwan’s Coordination Council for North American Affairs became the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative office in the US continuing to handle cultural, commercial, and other relations with the US but as an unofficial embassy.

At that time, the US also began to develop and maintain its “one China” policy as opposed to Beijing’s “one China principle.” Under that policy, the US does not recognize Taiwan as a part of China.

All the complications of this name-game are a result of the can of worms left over from the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the war in the Pacific. There, Japan gave up sovereignty over Taiwan but did not state to whom it surrendered it. It did not mention the ROC or People’s Republic of China, so that one group, the Taiwan Civil Government claimed that Taiwan still belongs to the US.

This also leaves open the possibility that Taiwan could be given to its own inhabitants as stated in the UN’s rules for former colonies.

To add to this confusion, the official US position on Taiwan since the end of World War II has unfortunately remained “undetermined.”

Trade with Taiwan also presents nomenclature challenges.

Lithuania last year broke the ice and allowed the opening of the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania” instead of an office bearing the name of “Taipei” as is used by many other countries trading with Taiwan. This slight switch sparked Beijing’s protest.

The CCP is still trying to control the discourse on Taiwan and insists on referring to Taiwan as “Taiwan, Province of China.” It then uses dollar diplomacy and the promise of lucrative trade opportunities to cajole other nations to deny Taiwan its name.

Confusing? In many ways it is. As a result when reading about Taiwan, one almost needs a “supplementary score card” to determine what is the name reference and who is making it.

In today’s world, Humpty Dumpty would probably say that the name of “Chinese Taipei” is “stupid.” It represents an attempt to compromise with a China that was created after World War II and has no legitimate claim to Taiwan.

That brings us to Humpty Dumpty’s final question of who is to be master?

This is where the Taiwanese come in.

They cannot change how others perceive them, but they can help changing matters of their name as they did with the new passport design. It is a step-by-step process and the next step for Taiwan is to dump its Constitution and its formal name and all the baggage that goes with it.

Later this year, Taiwanese are to vote on a constitutional amendment that would lower the voting age to 18. Those 18-year-olds will have to live with Taiwan’s name so they should be given the right to vote.

Should the amendment pass, the next step would be to bring the Constitution in line with the reality of Taiwan’s situation. 

It is up to Taiwanese to determine their true name.