Tue, Oct 05, 2010 - Page 8 News List

The story of Taiwan’s calling code

By Dan Bloom

This is a story that has little to do with current events and focuses on a rather arcane subject — geocodes for long--distance dialing — that will surely be of little interest to anyone either inside or outside Taiwan.

However, I was drawn to this story by my curiosity about why Taiwan has a country code number — 886 — that is so close to China’s code of 86. How did this come to be?

Is it just a coincidence, or is this another example of how China tries to control Taiwan’s position in the international community? What I found out might even be worth calling home about.

Long story short, I recently did some online research and made some long-distance overseas calls and found out that this numbers game was not a mere coincidence, but another way that China has tried to corral Taiwan into its own web. It does not have a happy ending, as you will see, but the middle part is intriguing, to say the least.

It appears that whoever did the assigning of numbers considers Taiwan a part of China, since no other country in Asia has a code that is similar to the dialing code of another country. For example, Vietnam is 84, the Philippines is 63, Thailand is 66 and Japan is 81. Indonesia has its own country code, 62, and Malaysia uses 60.

I began to wonder: Who assigned 886 to Taiwan, with its closeness to China’s 86? Did the the Republic of China (ROC) ask for this number? Or did the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ask the UN to give Taiwan this number and to then list it as “Taiwan, China” on the UN Web site that carries country code telephone information?

There are 192 countries listed on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Web site and Taiwan is not one of them. Taiwan is listed as part of China. The ITU, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is administered by the UN and staffed by nationals from UN-member nations.

I did some online legwork and found out that code 886 was “assigned’’ to “Taiwan, China,’’ just four years ago. Before that, for about 15 years, Taiwan was “given’’ the 886 number by the ITU as a “reserved” number, meaning that the number was not actually assigned or official, but was being reserved.

Only two countries or regions have ever had a reserved status, the other one being the Palestinian National Authority.

Having a reserved telephone code number also meant that Taiwan was not listed as being part of any other country or region.

It was in a kind of no-man’s land, like the Palestinian Authority, just reserved until a future decision could be made.

While Taiwan, which has not been a member of the UN for several decades, had a reserved number for several of years, China was not happy with the situation. Therefore, it complained vociferously to the ITU and finally made sure that 886 was assigned to Taiwan, as a part of China, which was done in 2006.

However, it wasn’t always like this, country codes for long distance calls are actually a fairly new thing.

In the old days, long distance calls were made by calling an operator first, who then connected you to the number you wanted overseas. The US had a country code as far back as the 1920s, but most countries did not get assigned codes until the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the process continues, and new problems arise, as in the case of Kosovo and Montenegro in Europe.

Taiwan in the 1960s had a calling code of 866. Read that number again: 866. Not 886, but 866. The ROC, then a member of the UN, chose that number for itself and the ITU allowed it to keep it.

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