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.
However, after the PRC was admitted to the UN in 1971, along with the ROC quitting world body and with US recognition of China in 1979, the issue of country codes became more important to China.
Therefore, it asked the UN to assign the 866 number to one of its own rural provinces, taking the number away from the ROC. As a result, for a number of years, Taiwan had no overseas calling number and all incoming calls from overseas had to be controlled by telephone operators in their respective countries, interacting with operators in Taipei.
Naturally, Taiwan didn’t like this situation. Being deprived of a country code for overseas calls was not fair. Therefore, some savvy Taiwanese diplomats asked the ITU in Geneva for a calling code and it was decided by the ITU, in consultation with the PRC, to give Taiwan the number 886.
However, the number was handed out as a reserved number, which meant that Taiwan did not have to be officially listed as part of China on the ITU’s expanding country list.
This did not sit well with China, which wanted more than anything to keep Taiwan in its orbit. Taiwan’s reserved status had been engineered by some staffers friendly to Taiwan at the ITU, but when they retired, a new ITU country code chief came on board, around 1992 or so, and he was — are you ready? — a Chinese employee of the UN.
He immediately set to work trying to overturn Taiwan’s reserved status and change it into an assigned status at the ITU. For six years, this man worked to achieve the goal his minders in Beijing had asked him to carry out and finally, he did it.
In 2006, without so much as a peep from the international media or the UN’s public relations office, Taiwan was assigned the 886 country code and listed on the ITU Web site as “Taiwan, China.”
Since the ITU is a UN body and since Taiwan is not a UN member, geographic country codes are assigned only to countries recognized by the UN or the ITU. Therefore, in October of 2006, code 886 was assigned pursuant to a request from China.
Do old-timers here remember the days when the country code was 866 — or the days when there was no country code at all? Are Taiwanese aware that their country’s code for incoming calls was chosen for them by China and that the ITU lists Taiwan as part of China on its Web site?
All this, of course, is a minor chapter in the history of cross-strait relations and hardly an important one. Who cares about country codes?
It’s just a number for making calls. It could be 123 or 789, but in this case it just happens to be 886, very similar to the PRC’s 86.
Will this situation ever change and will Taiwan ever gets its own independent and sovereign country code? Not until China agrees to let the ROC become a member of the UN and thus the ITU too.
Now you know the semi-secret hush-hush story of how Taiwan has spent 40 to 50 years in an international long-distance dialing no-man’s land, from which there appears to be no escape.
So the next time someone overseas calls you on your 886 number, whether for business or pleasure, to finalize a deal or continue a romance, remember that the number that allowed you to receive that call has a long and convoluted history.
“China’s drive to annex Taiwan is a comprehensive and robust assault on all aspects of Taiwan’s international identity,” US expatriate Michael Turton recently wrote on his popular blog, in introducing this 886 backstory to the blogosphere.
Who knew that this would also involve a surreal country code caper?
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.
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