One can sense that elections are coming when President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) camp resumes its use of the word “Taiwan,” a term that has become close to verboten in both official declarations and abroad in the three years since he took office.
The recent controversy over a leaked WHO memo instructing staff at the global health body to refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan, province of China” has Beijing’s fingers all over it — there is confirmation that the designation was the result of a memorandum of understanding signed by China and the WHO in 2005.
However, one need not look across the Taiwan Strait for signs that the designation Taiwan is under assault. Under Ma, an unwritten rule has emerged whereby government agencies now refer to the country as the Republic of China (ROC) rather than Taiwan, a policy that has been appropriated by the state-owned Central News Agency in both its Chinese and English--language coverage.
The planned celebrations for the ROC’s centennial, which fete an event that has very little to do with Taiwan, given that the latter was part of the Japanese empire when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) and his followers in 1911, is another example of this attempt to undermine Taiwan’s essence — the only reason the ROC’s 100th anniversary will be marked in Taiwan is that Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) troops colonized Taiwan after their defeat to the communists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Gradually, governments on both sides of the Strait have chipped away at the Taiwan brand, as if omission of the word would somehow paper over the ideological divide between China and Taiwan.
Those fundamental differences notwithstanding, there is no doubt that to keep the “Taiwan problem” alive in the global consciousness (and therefore an internationalized matter rather than the domestic problem Beijing wants it to be treated as), the word “Taiwan” cannot be allowed to disappear. Otherwise, with the exception of Taiwanese and Chinese, along with the academics and policymakers who make the Taiwan Strait their specialty, we could forgive the great majority of people who fail to tell the difference between the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, Chinese Taipei and “the other side.”
There is more to a name than just a name; in this specific case, it pertains to the very essence of sovereignty.
Ma, of course, wants us to believe that his efforts at rapprochement with Beijing have not come at the cost of Taiwan’s sovereignty, and his administration has countered its detractors by asking them to prove the enfeeblement of Taiwan as a sovereign country.
If such proof ever was needed, it was provided in the aforementioned WHO name controversy. Under former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), for all their faults, there never was any doubt as to Taiwan’s proper name, and to those who looked from the outside, the line that separated China from Taiwan was a distinct one.
However, under Ma — who never misses an opportunity in interviews with foreign media to remind his audience that the majority of Taiwanese support warmer ties with China — that line has blurred, with Taiwan and the ROC and China and “Chinese Taipei” shifting in kaleidoscopic fashion. Only under Ma could a “strongly worded” letter of protest from the Department of Health to the WHO Secretariat indignantly refer to itself as the Department of Health of Chinese Taipei.
As a result, Beijing has had little compunction in using every opportunity to quarantine the word Taiwan on the international stage. We have now reached a point where, three years to the day into the Ma presidency, Taiwan finds itself stuck in Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen race in his novel Through the Looking Glass, forced to run just to stay in place. While not so long ago the battle was waged on the beaches of “Taiwan” versus “Chinese Taipei,” Taiwanese have now been forced to retreat to defensive battles of “Chinese Taipei” versus “Taiwan, province of China.” How this constitutes progress, or a sign that Ma’s strategy has succeeded in ensuring that Taiwan negotiates with Beijing from a position of strength, is beyond comprehension.
This journey of de--recognition demonstrates that sacrificing national identity and the language that buttresses it at the altar of better relations with China can have but one outcome: the ultimate disappearance of Taiwan as a recognizable brand.
For the sake of fairness, we can give the Ma administration the benefit of the doubt and assume that its policy of yielding territory in return for Beijing’s “goodwill” was well intentioned. However, now that this gambit has proven itself an undeniable failure (the WHO incident is but the latest in a long list of setbacks in the past three years), it is incumbent upon Ma to propose a new course of action for engaging Beijing, lest he become a modern Asian iteration of Marshal Philippe Petain and turn Taiwan into Vichy France.
Absent policy alternatives on his part, Taiwanese could very well turn to his main opponent, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who while amenable to engaging China, can also be counted on to ensure that in the process, Taiwan, both as word and nation, remains alive and well.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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