What’s in a name? Taiwan and China are fighting a war of words over identity and sovereignty

Foreign Affairs

The armed conflict between China and Taiwan has been dormant for decades, but a wider war over global influence has ensnared multinational corporations, regional celebrities, and cross-strait meme creators.

Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has staked her political career on expanding Taiwan’s international identity as a bastion of democracy and a wholly separate entity from China, which claims sovereignty over the island. Last month, she watched as her alma mater, the London School of Economics (LSE), became enveloped in controversy over a sculpture of a globe which portrayed Taiwan not as a province of China, but as a country.

The decision by British artist Mark Wallinger to show Taiwan in pink and China in yellow was far from an official escalation of conflict in the long-dormant Chinese Civil War, but it led the university’s director to call an emergency summit between Chinese and Taiwanese students. It quickly became contentious, according to a Taiwanese student at LSE who attended the meeting. “The Chinese students were very firm throughout, insisting that Taiwan has always been part of China,” Huang Li-an told The Telegraph. “In the meeting I kept telling the school that we are not the same country. I even got my passport out to show them.” LSE initially stated it would change Taiwan’s color to portray it as part of China, but later said it had not reached a final decision after protests by Taiwanese students and its foreign ministry.

The identity, sovereignty, and name of Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China (ROC), have been at the center of what its government calls a global offensive by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ideologically favors eventual independence and takes a skeptical approach toward ties with China, swept into power in 2016. Last year, Chinese internet users threatened boycotts and pressured international businesses such as Marriott, Muji, Zara, and Gap, which had omitted it in maps of China or listed it as a country on their websites. Chinese officials also demanded last year that 36 international airlines remove references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries rather than Chinese territories, a move which the U.S. White House called “Orwellian nonsense.”

Taiwanese companies doing business in China were themselves caught up in the fracas: 85C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese bakery chain, was inclined to announce its support for the “1992 Consensus” — a supposed agreement between the PRC and ROC that there is “one China” but both sides may disagree on its definition — after China’s state-owned Global Times lambasted one Los Angeles 85C outlet for giving Tsai a gift bag when she dropped in for coffee.

A report released in January, in which the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) proposed pressuring 66 global companies, including Apple and Amazon, to list Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” rather than “Taiwan,” suggested the Chinese offensive against Taiwan’s global identity will continue. Alex Huang, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s presidential office, said the report showcased China’s “evil intent” to interfere with Taiwan’s sovereignty, while its foreign ministry asked for support in “halting this bullying and protecting rules-based order.”

It’s all part of an effort to “squeeze Taiwan from the international sphere,” said Shihoko Goto, a Northeast Asia expert at the Wilson Center. “Taiwan is really feeling the constraints it faces because of its special status. That’s unlikely to change on the side of China. It is going to be difficult for Taiwan to be able to push back on it.”

“The war between China and Taiwan has already started,” Goto added. “It’s not outright military conflict. It’s also a battle for minds and winning over public support.”

Charting the casualties

Conventional wisdom suggests that Taiwan, the island of 23.5 million lying just off the coast of China’s Fujian Province, is bearing the brunt of the influence offensive waged by the government and internet users of its 1.4 billion-strong cross-strait neighbor.

The government of Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the PRC, has portrayed itself as a “victim” of Chinese bullying — and it’s hard not to make the case that Beijing’s strategy has been effective. Michal Thim, research fellow for the Prague-based Association of International Affairs, said countries have found that the previously agreed rules on how to interact with Taiwan and China simultaneously are being increasingly challenged. “Mostly, countries pay lip service to ‘one China’ and, at the same time, maintain relations with Taiwan,” Thim said. “Now, China is challenging that rather aggressively.”

But Goto said the global squeeze of Taiwan has created an opening for its government to advertise its commitment to democracy and call for international solidarity.

“This could actually be an opportunity for Taiwan to state its case very clearly and emphasize that its exceptional status in the international community is not sustainable and requires coordinated efforts to make sure Taiwan remains a vibrant democracy,” she said.

Taiwan has begun to do just that. In the past few months, its ministers have directly appealed to fellow democracies to condemn what Huang, the presidential spokesperson, called China’s “brutal behaviors.” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, traveled to Los Angeles in March to discuss U.S.-Taiwan ties as part of an effort by the ministry to share its experience in weathering China’s hostility with other governments. In April, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s first digital minister, visited the United States to discuss the island’s response to online infiltration and disinformation and said she met with more senior than expected U.S. officials.

Taiwan’s ties with the U.S., which Wu recently said are stronger than ever, seem to act as a particular trigger for Chinese leadership. China’s recent move to fly two fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace played out as a direct response to a planned sale of U.S. F-16V fighters to Taiwan. It’s led observers within and outside of Taiwan to wonder whether the island is a cog in the U.S.-China trade war — and, if so, how it would weather a resolution to the conflict, which has long been speculated to be in the works.

Goto described the trade war as being fought on two fronts – reducing the U.S. trade deficit with China and structurally reforming domestic and economic practices within the country. The second point, she said, presents “an opportunity for Taiwan to really showcase that it is the economic model China should be. The problem is whether the U.S. would push on this issue of structural reform in China or not — or whether it’s going to be content with reaching a deal and focusing on trade deficits.” Should the latter happen, Taiwan may find itself lacking a reliably powerful ally in maintaining its international identity and its stated right to sovereignty.

Tsai and her ruling DPP have also seen a bump in popular support after taking a strong stance against Beijing following Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s January 2 speech on Taiwan, in which he refused to rule out the use of military force to assert sovereignty over the island. This has been a rare policy victory for the DPP, which has otherwise floundered since suffering a crushing defeat in last year’s regional elections to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China and is heavily tipped to win back the presidency, up for grabs in January 2020. Although Tsai’s cross-strait stance has retained the hearts of Taiwanese, a faction of her own party now accuses her of not being strong enough in confronting Beijing — led by her former premier, who is now challenging her for the party’s presidential nomination.

Taiwanese citizens get caught in the crossfire

The effect of China’s efforts to dictate how the world refers to Taiwan extends beyond international corporations and university sculptures. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese living and working in China who have become accustomed to regulating their own identities when doing business across the Taiwan Strait.

In March, 18-year-old Taiwanese celebrity Nana Ou-Yang made a statement declaring her love for China and her opposition to Taiwanese independence — a rite of passage of sorts for Taiwanese nationals getting their feet wet on the mainland. Last year, Taiwanese baker Wu Pao-Chun managed to enrage Taiwanese, despite their longtime love for his baked goods, when he declared he was born in “Taiwan, China” in an attempt to promote a newly opened shop in Shanghai.

Thim said, in his view, celebrities are likely “not risking much by pledging allegiance to China.” After all, Taiwanese citizens generally understand the need for pragmatism in becoming a cross-strait star. Nana Ou-Yang’s public support of “one China” garnered a predictably hostile backlash from Taiwanese netizens, but the impact pales in comparison to what happens to those who fail to toe the Chinese party line — take Deserts Chang, the Taiwanese singer who was forced to cancel a concert in China after flying the ROC flag at a concert.

Ultimately, China’s campaign to smother Taiwan’s international voice has seemed to hurt those with the least ground to stand on. In February, Red Candle Games, a small Taiwanese video game developer, pulled the horror game Devotion from the online distribution platform Steam after Chinese gamers discovered that it included an ancient Taoist wall scribble bearing the Chinese characters “Xi Jinping, Little Bear Winnie” — a mockery of Xi’s likeness to Winnie the Pooh. The developer quickly apologized for the meme, saying the text was used as a placeholder and was not intended to be released. (When reached for comment, Red Candle Games declined to elaborate further on the incident.) The Devotion saga sparked a loud online conversation in Taiwan, which consistently drove back to the same truth: While Taiwan values its democracy and freedom of speech, those who direct their creative talents across the strait are increasingly forced to self-censor.

Peter Tou, general manager of the Taipei-based global communications firm Edelman, said that while his firm has not directly encouraged companies to take a certain cross-strait stance, they do recommend that corporations — including United, whom his firm advised during last year’s airline naming saga — take a more “international approach” when doing business in Taiwan and China. Ultimately, when in doubt, it is best to remain vague on cross-strait matters.

International airlines found their own ways to bridge the gap — United and Delta, for instance, removed the country designations from all Taiwanese and Chinese cities rather than, for instance, listing Taipei as part of either “Taiwan” or “China” — but in recent weeks, travelers have reported being asked for Chinese visas when flying to Taiwan. In a recent viral Facebook post (in Chinese), Taiwanese national Eunice Chu said she had been denied boarding by Air Canada due to being subject to an ETA regulation which applies to Chinese — but not Taiwanese — citizens.

Taiwan’s identity has also found itself under attack at global universities, such as Spain’s University of Salamanca, where a Taiwan cultural event was canceled after the school received a letter of objection from the Chinese embassy, and at international organizations, where Taiwanese citizens have been blocked from participating  at United Nations forums, the International Labor Conference, and the World Health Assembly — a move which Taiwanese officials recently called “barbaric” and “evil.” Global corporations have continued to find a way to navigate the now-fiery cross-strait waters, and Taiwanese politicians across the spectrum can use the lengthening list of controversies to their respective benefits, but for people holding Taiwanese passports, it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage with the world on their own terms.