There are charades and then there are charades. So too there are pretentions and then there are pretentions.
While political, economic and even social necessities often dictate that nations and their people are periodically involved in some form of political charade and pretention, there also comes a time when those nations say: “Enough is enough; this is becoming ridiculous.”
That is what recently happened at the Olympics in London in what could be called the Regent Street Affair.
The businesses on Regent Street decided to decorate their area with the flags of the many nations involved in the Olympics. Why not? Regent Street is a non-Olympic venue, and is not governed by Olympic Committee laws; it is their choice.
Further, flags are decorative and festive; what better way to attract tourists and customers to the area?
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how one views it, one of those flags belonged to Taiwan, a newly democratic nation whose 23 million people for the first time elected their president in 1996.
However, Taiwan as a nation is not without the baggage of a complex past. Part of that baggage is its outdated Constitution, its inappropriate official name and a questionable flag that was brought here by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
The KMT, driven out of China after a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), established itself forcefully on Taiwan and set up a one-party state, the Republic of China (ROC), replete with martial law.
Thus began the post-World War II charades and pretentions of which there are so many it would take volumes to point them all out.
However, to sum up, even though the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1952) never stated to whom Taiwan belonged after World War II, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the KMT claimed it while simultaneously maintaining the charade that they were and have always been the legitimate rulers of China.
Some members of the KMT, including Taiwan’s current president, still insist on this pretention despite being kicked out of China in 1949 and the ROC’s UN exit in 1971. The US has played its own part in preserving the ambiguity by maintaining to this day, 67 years after World War II, that the true position of Taiwan is “undecided.”
On the other hand, though the number of nations officially recognizing Taiwan has dwindled to 23, a different form of charade exists. Almost all nations still trade with Taiwan, and maintain normal relations with it as a nation. Yet to preserve their preferential trade with China, they do not challenge China’s claim to Taiwan. They just ignore that claim in certain practices. So where do the Olympics come in?
In 1981, the charade began when the KMT’s one-party state wanted to enter the Olympics. The Olympic Committee was not adverse to that, but it would not let the KMT use the name ROC, because in the eyes of the UN and an insistent China, the ROC did not exist.
However, KMT rulers did not want to use the offered names Taiwan or Formosa, because that would undermine the status of their one-party state, which pretended to support democracy.
To preserve the charade of their rule without allowing a democratic Taiwan, they compromised. The name they settled upon was “Chinese Taipei”, an ambiguous name that, while detested in Taiwanese circles, would allow both the KMT and the CCP to pretend they had legitimate claim to Taiwan. Thus began the practice of Taiwan using the name “Chinese Taipei” and flag at official Olympic functions.
Fast-forward to the present. If shop owners on Regent Street, when putting up the flags of all the Olympic nations, had originally put up the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, most would have probably accepted it and there would have been few protests. However, they did not.
With the ROC flag waving in the wind, officials of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) then commenced their part in the charade. They insisted that Regent Street follow the laws of the Olympic Committee, laws to which Regent Street was not bound. The PRC pressured the British government to get in on the act.
Here comes the crucial part: When the Taiwanese flag was taken down, its space was not immediately filled; the space was left empty. If it were immediately filled with the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, there would have been some protests, but not what followed.
Leaving the space empty was a slap in the face to the citizens of Taiwan as well as to all who went along with the Chinese Taipei charade. It amounted to saying “you, Taiwan, don’t exist, not even as Chinese Taipei.” That was a stretch too far; it was an absurd pretention that Taiwanese and even British citizens could not accept.
Here was China extending its remit beyond the Olympic rules, and pressuring the British government to support it. For Taiwanese, it was time to tell the Chinese emperors that they had no clothes. They, the Taiwanese, were not only tired of the old pretense, but they also were not going to let China extend it beyond the Olympics.
The Olympics are supposed to be about a common humanity, the competitive spirit, fair play and the fellowship of nations. They have been politicized in the past, but over much more serious matters than Regent Street displaying a flag that China was not happy with.
Here is the irony; by insisting on removing the flag, the PRC not only exposed its role in the whole debacle, but also China’s true face. Meanwhile, by offering only a meek protest, Taiwan’s government ended up seeming weak and powerless.
The people of Regent Street who put up the “wrong flag” must be quietly chuckling with their notoriety.
As a result of all this, instead of disappearing, more and more Taiwan flags have appeared throughout London and Taiwanese athletes are making a point of saying “I am Taiwanese.”
True Taiwanese, as well as other citizens of the world, are saying: “Enough is enough, this is becoming ridiculous.”
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.
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