In anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the Regent Street Association hoisted the flags of all the countries scheduled to attend the Games, including that of the Republic of China (ROC), along Regent Street, one of the busiest and most famous shopping streets in the British capital.
However, this simple welcoming gesture triggered strong objections from China. Finally, bowing to political pressure, the association took the ROC flag down.
On the face of it, China seems to have won the day.
However, this rather crude behavior has gained Taiwan more international sympathy, as well as free publicity for the nation’s cause.
When the incident was reported in British and European newspapers and online, people from different nations were largely supportive of Taiwan’s case.
The BBC initially displayed the ROC flag for Taiwan on the Olympic section of its news Web site, although it did eventually replace it with the flag for “Chinese Taipei.”
Without a doubt, China has avoided losing face in this particular case, but at what cost?
For the sake of its pride, China has sacrificed a large amount of the goodwill that exists between Taiwan and China, breeding more resentment among Taiwanese. At the same time, Beijing has shown the international community what lies behind its facade.
Taiwan is just a small country and the odds are good that the majority of people living outside of Taiwan would not have been able to pick out the ROC flag from the other lesser-known national flags flown in Regent Street. If it had been left flying undisturbed above London’s bustling Regent Street, hardly anyone would have noticed it.
However, thanks to China’s protestations, the ROC flag was displayed in a multitude of foreign media outlets and now a larger number of people are aware of what it looks like.
The important point is that the more China pressures Taiwan regarding its international status, the more people in other countries will feel that it is not appropriate for Beijing to do so.
I once had a conversation on this topic with a cab driver from Cambridge when I was on a trip to the UK. He was a refined-looking English gent who told me that he did not believe many educated British people actually believe Taiwan is a part of China. I have heard similar sentiments many times before from foreigners I have spoken to.
While it is true that China’s approach on this issue will, for the time being at least, make the governments of different countries around the world, purely out of a concern for political repercussions, play ball with China, it is quite clear that it will not win the argument on the streets and in the bars of these countries.
A recent opinion poll showed that as much as 80 percent of Taiwanese do not believe that unification with China is necessary. This suggests that Taiwanese do not strongly identify with China, or even have a favorable impression of it.
It is unfortunate that the Chinese authorities, so sure of their own intelligence, do not seem to be aware of this rather gaping hole in their plan. Instead they just continue to use these rather unwelcome methods in their treatment of people they refer to as “Taiwanese compatriots.”
Should the Chinese authorities continue along this path, the antipathy Taiwanese feel toward China is only going to get stronger.