Brinkmanship and gamesmanship

Taiwan, China, and an Olympic-sized problem

Shangpo Hsieh

International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

12 September 2018

If suppressing Taiwanese nationalism was a sport, China just scored an own goal, Shangpo Hsieh writes.

In a meeting on 24 July, the East Asian Olympic Committee decided to revoke Taiwan’s right to host the first East Asian Youth Games in 2019 in Taichung City.

The decision is controversial because it was guided by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It sends a warning to Taiwanese activist groups who want to challenge the Olympic Model – an agreement established in 1981 that Taiwan’s participation in the Olympic Games would occur only under the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, instead of ‘Taiwan’ or ‘Republic of China’ (ROC).

While the Olympic Model has been the subject of criticism in Taiwan for years, long-held grievances are finally starting to inspire action. Following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, an alliance of civic groups is pushing to hold a referendum on whether the ROC should participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games under the name ‘Taiwan’.

For many critics, such initiatives reflect the rise of Taiwanese nationalism that challenges the so-called ‘One China’ ideology.

More on this: A good price for the ‘One China’ policy?

A survey by the Election Study Centre at Taiwan’s National Cheng-chi University shows a steady increase in the percentage of citizens who are inclined to self-identify as Taiwanese in the period 1992-2018. This rising nationalist trend changed little in the period 2008-2016, even as the Ma Ying-jeou government endeavoured to strengthen Chinese identity among Taiwanese people and to enhance its relationship with the PRC government.

In June 2018, 55.8 per cent of the respondents identified themselves as ‘Taiwanese’, 37.2 per cent as ‘Both Chinese and Taiwanese’, and only 3.2 per cent as ‘Chinese’.

Youth is also a key factor, with most respondents who prefer Taiwanese identity between 18 and 39 years old, as another survey reveals.

The groups demanding a change to the Olympic Model see the term ‘Chinese Taipei’ as humiliating, and accordingly expect to witness the participation of the ROC delegation in the 2020 Olympic Games under the name Taiwan. Their strategy is to take advantage of the opportunity created by the 2017 Referendum Act, which overturned several unpopular provisions in previous referendum legislation of 2003.

One such provision was Article 30, which stipulated that a proposal would be vetoed if less than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. This strict threshold was determined because Taiwan does not have compulsory voting and turnout rates are usually low.

Accordingly, many critics derided the original 2003 legislation as a ‘Bird-cage Referendum Act’, for its strict threshold restraining citizens from proposing, holding and passing a referendum. Between 2004 and 2017, six proposals for national referendums were vetoed because the turnout rate did not reach the 50 per cent threshold.

Demands for a new Referendum Act were satisfied after President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party assumed office in 2016.

More on this: Should Taiwan fear China’s new Rocket Force?

After 18 months of deliberation, the new Referendum Act was passed, with Article 29 stipulating that a referendum shall pass if the yes votes both outnumber the no votes and reach 25 per cent of eligible voters.

While it is easy to see why Taiwanese nationalists in favour of a change to the status quo would be pleased with the lower threshold under the new Referendum Act, there is still no guarantee of success.

The referendum proposal for the ROC to enter the Olympics under the name Taiwan is currently at the joint signature collection stage. By the end of July, proponents had obtained around 90,000 joint signatures, far below the 350,000 required for the referendum to go ahead. In addition, no legislator from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has added their signature, out of concern that the referendum might become politicised.

For months, the referendum drive had no strong backing – that is, not until the East Asian Olympic Committee made its controversial decision. In response, the number of joint signers has increased remarkably over the last month.

Direct presidential elections and referendums both signify Taiwan’s milestones of democratisation and are features in which many Taiwanese people take pride.

If the PRC sincerely wants to improve cross-strait relations and avoid provoking further expressions of Taiwanese nationalism, it would do well not to overlook this pride. The East Asian Youth Games incident should serve as a cautionary tale.

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