Team Taiwan referendum brings both opportunities and risks

The referendum to scrap the term Chinese Taipei will present a real challenge to authorities if approved. 

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(By Wikimedia Commons)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – It has been confirmed that Taiwan will be holding a referendum on abandoning the use of the term Chinese Taipei at all international events and seeking to use the name Taiwan from the 2020 Olympic Games onwards. 

The question will now be put to the Taiwanese people on 24th November, at the same time as local elections are held across the country. If approved, the Taiwanese government will have a year to address the issue. 

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the referendum will result in a name change, and there are a number of reasons for this. 

Firstly, the idea needs to gain support from 25% of the total electorate to be passed. This is a much lower threshold than was previously the case, but there is still no guarantee it will be achieved. 

Just under 19 million are registered to vote in Taiwan, and more than 25% of them need to vote in a referendum to make the result valid. That means almost 5 million people need to cast their ballot in this referendum. Although the mark sounds achievable, only 12 million voted in the 2016 Presidential election, and it took the Team Taiwan campaign group weeks to gather just half a million signatures in favor of the referendum. 

Turnout for local elections will be lower, and there is also plenty of popular disillusionment with politics in Taiwan which could keep people away too. 

In addition, there is no requirement for people to vote in both the elections and on the referendums. Some may choose only to vote n the various referendums being held, while others may just vote for their local representative.

Even if the turnout number is reached, securing a majority of those votes will also not be easy. Plenty of people in Taiwan are aware of the practical challenges which will face Taiwan and its sports stars if the referendum is passed.

Throughout their campaign, Team Taiwan has rather implied that if the referendum does succeed then a switch from Chinese Taipei to Taiwan will inevitably follow. 

This is absolutely not the case. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not a democratic organization. It's anything but that. Like so many other international organizations, it is in the thrall of the Chinese Communist Party and is highly unlikely to accept Taiwan’s proposed name change in the face of inevitable protests from Beijing. 

If Taiwan does vote in favor of doing away with Chinese Taipei in November, and the Government persists with following through with the decision, as they have committed to, it is likely to be a long and difficult process. The chances of any change being agreed to before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 is almost non-existent. 

‘Chinese Taipei’ is a self-inflicted wound

Before looking at the practical challenges of any name change, it is worth taking a quick look at the history of the term Chinese Taipei and how it came about. While the popular narrative in Taiwan is that it was forced upon us by China, that is not strictly true. In fact, if anyone is to blame for the term, it is Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the KMT. 

Catherine K. Lin, who is an associate research fellow at the Division of International Affairs of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, has carried out detailed research into the origins of the term. 

She has found that between 1972 and 1981 after the Republic of China (RoC) lost its seat at the United Nations, there were numerous occasions when the international sporting community offered the chance for the RoC to compete under the name Taiwan. 

Unfortunately, the hard-line KMT military dictatorship led by Chiang, and posthumously by Yen Chia-kan (嚴家淦) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), stubbornly refused to accept the term. They were still laboring under the delusion that the KMT would one day wrest control of China back from the Communists. It was they who insisted that any name needed to have a kind of “Chineseness” to it.   

It was actually the KMT regime that coined the term Chinese Taipei, which they deemed to be sufficiently ambiguous as to place Taiwan on equal footing with Communist China and not imply subordination in any way. The name was approved by the IOC at a 1979 meeting in Nagoya, Japan, becoming known as the Nagoya Resolution. 

Interestingly, an agreement was not signed until March 1981 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The only official signatories to that were Shen Chia-ming, the President of Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the President of the IOC. There was no formal agreement from Communist China to the use of the name (although they did consent privately), as the IOC clearly deemed there was no need for any Chinese approval. 

The practicalities of switching to Team Taiwan

While that may open up a line of argument that Chinese approval shouldn't be needed now, the global geopolitical reality has changed significantly since those days. China was then an inward-looking and undeveloped Communist dictatorship. These days it is very much an outward-looking, global superpower Communist dictatorship flirting with totalitarianism. Its influence in the world is much greater, while the influence of the ROC/Taiwan has noticeably waned. 

The main problem is that the CCP will look upon this referendum as a de-facto independence referendum. If Taiwan votes in favor of the name change, they will see that as a popular endorsement of Taiwanese independence from China/PRC. 

The consequences of that could be profound, with implications way beyond the confines of the sporting arena. Within a sporting perspective, it is likely to see the CCP use its considerable influence to block any international sporting body from recognizing the will of the Taiwanese people, with the threat of withdrawing Chinese investment, sponsors, media coverage, and athletes.

We have already seen this influence at work with the disgraceful cancellation of the East Asia Youth Games in Taichung at the behest of the CCP. This incident is evidence enough to show that, ‘when China says jump, the IOC answers, ‘How high’?’ There is no reason to think that any other international sporting body will act differently. 

In these circumstances, the only possible recourse for Taiwan would be to try to force a name-change through legal channels. 

The research of Lin has revealed plenty of historical evidence regarding the IOC supporting the use of the name Taiwan in the past. For example, at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, the then-IOC Chairman, Lord Killanin, achieved an agreement with the Canadian Government for the ROC to compete using their own flag and national anthem, but under the name of Taiwan. It was flatly rejected by then-President Chiang Ching-kuo, but the precedent could be used again. 

If Taiwan decides to dig its heels in and refuses to compete under the name Chinese Taipei, then, as things stand, the most likely outcome is that Taiwanese athletes will not get to compete at all. Or, perhaps worse, they would be forced to compete as ‘stateless’ athletes under the Olympic flag. 

This would be a significant backward step for Taiwanese sport and one that would be difficult to undo. It is no doubt why the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee has publicly opposed the referendum. 

At a time when democracy is being challenged around the world, Taiwan’s adoption of a more open and direct form of democracy is to be welcomed. The changes to the Referendum Act brought into play by the Government of Tsai-Ing-wen (蔡英文) are a positive step. However, they will also, and inevitably, lead to challenging situations like this. 

Is it desirable to scrap the name Chinese Taipei and replace it with Taiwan? Apparently so, at this point. Is it a good idea to do it through the means of a public referendum, and then making demands of the IOC and other international sporting bodies, rather than traditional diplomatic means? That point is more debatable. 

If the people of Taiwan support this referendum question in November, the Taiwanese authorities are going to be faced with a very precarious situation. On the one hand, they are duty-bound to represent the will of the Taiwanese people. On the other, they also have to think about what is in the best interests of Taiwan, its people, and its athletes. It is an unenviable balance to have to strike.