Strange Politics: The Curious Case of Chinese Taipei

Time once again for the Summer Olympics to dominate our attention as we discuss medals, records, and big-name athletes from across our nation and around the world. I admit, I am a huge Olympics fan, and indeed a fan of international sports in general. Watching athletes compete to bring glory to their countries is definitely a thrill. Spectacular sports performances matched by the spectacle of the opening ceremonies makes this event an EVENT any time it is held. Plus, the games act as a way for countries to show off how awesome they are without, you know, shooting at each other.

But while most of the teams represent nations and a few represent colonies like Aruba or the British Virgin Islands, there is one rather odd team that parades with the others during the Parade of Nations. The announcer calls them “Chinese Taipei”. They use an anthem that clearly has Chinese lyrics, but the flag they use is all kinds of weird:

What is this? Are they some kind of Chinese team? If so, why don’t they just compete as China? If not, why are they called “Chinese”? And what is Taipei? What’s going on here?

Strange Politics. That’s what.

Let’s take a journey back in time to 1949. China was in the middle of a major civil war between Communists led by Mao Zedong and Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek. And the Communists were winning. Chiang’s army was collapsing, as soldiers defected to the Communist side in droves. City after city was falling. In a desperate bid to save himself, Chiang decided to evacuate what was left of his army, government, and gold to the island of Taiwan, which he hoped to turn into an island fortress from which he could be safe while he prepared an epic counter-attack.

In the meantime, Mao and the Communists gathered in Beijing on October 1, 1949 and proclaimed the creation of a new People’s Republic of China. By then, they already controlled the northern half of the country, and they were advancing south at a breakneck pace, so they needed a formalized government to control the land, and they probably figured Chiang Kai-Shek was doomed anyway, so who cares if they hadn’t captured him yet?

Then something happened to throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing: the Korean War.

Suddenly, the war in China no longer looked like just a civil war to United States policymakers, it looked like part of a larger Communist plot to take over Asia. In response, President Harry S. Truman ordered the U.S. 7th fleet into the Taiwan Strait, forcing the two sides to stop fighting. And with that, one of the most long-standing political disputes in history began, which continues to this day and has created all manner of political strangeness, including that “Chinese Taipei” Olympic team, among many, many other things.

In essence, what Truman did was create two “Chinas”. The People’s Republic of China, ruled by Mao and the Communists, on the mainland and controlling nearly all of China’s territory and population, and the Republic of China, ruled by Chiang, on Taiwan. Both claimed to be the legitimate government of all China. Since this was the Cold War, it was only natural that the Soviet Union and its allies recognized the People’s Republic while the United States and our allies supported Chiang.

The problem wasn’t nearly so academic for the United Nations, because China is one of the five nations with a permanent seat on the Security Council, a position that comes with the power to veto almost anything the UN does. After some debate, the UN decided to support Chiang and his Taiwan-based government. The Soviet Union decided to protest the decision by boycotting the UN for a few months. Which meant they weren’t present to use their veto power when the UN decided to allow an American-led mission to protect South Korea from the North Korean invasion.

The International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, didn’t have their hands tied by political considerations, they just allowed both “Chinas” to send teams to the Olympics. But wait! It turned out Mao was offended by the idea that anyone would consider having two “China” teams at the Olympic Games, and refused to send his country’s athletes. For decades, the only team called “China” at the Olympics actually came from Taiwan.

Then, in the 1970s, this happened:

The United States decided to open up to the People’s Republic of China and make amends, largely to weaken the Soviet Union’s position on the world stage. Little by little, the United States shifted its recognition from Chiang to Mao. Many of America’s allies soon followed suit. In 1971, the UN voted to give China’s seat to the People’s Republic.

All of these trends meant there was mounting pressure on the Olympics to find a compromise that would allow the People’s Republic of China to send a team to the games. The difficulty, ultimately, stemmed from two facts:

  1. Both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China agreed that there is only one China.
  2. Both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China said that they were the legitimate government of that one China. In other words, each said “I am the one China. I don’t know who this poser is.”

Both the People’s Republic and the Republic rejected the proposal of having the mainland team named “China” and the Taiwanese team named “Taiwan”, because that would make it sound like Taiwan was a country. There was a suggestion to have the Taiwanese team named “Taiwan, China”, but the Republic of China rejected this name because it made them sound subordinate to the mainland.

Eventually, the International Olympic Committee settled on the name “Chinese Taipei”. “Chinese” because that was the one thing both sides could agree on, that the people of the island were Chinese of some sort. Taipei is a Taiwanese city serving as the “temporary” capital of the Republic of China. The reason they went with that city instead of the whole island (i.e., “Chinese Taiwan”) was that by doing so they were leaving the political boundaries of this, um, entity, as wide-open as possible, in case someday the Republic of China decided to make good on its promise to invade the mainland. No, really, that’s why.

But apparently, it wasn’t enough for the Communists that the team from Taiwan had a funky-weird name. They also demanded that the team couldn’t use the Republic of China’s official flag or anthem.

Sorry, you’re not welcome here.

They had to invent the flag at the beginning of this article to satisfy the mainland. And if that weren’t enough, the two sides couldn’t agree on the Chinese characters to represent the name. Should the team be 中国台北, implying that the “Chinese” in the name is a political designation equating the team with the Chinese state, or should it be 中華台北, implying the “Chinese” was just a cultural designation? (They eventually settled on the latter.)

Obviously, times have changed a whole lot since then. Mao and Chiang are both long-since dead. The People’s Republic of China has become a major economic powerhouse, largely thanks to reforms by the late Deng Xiaoping. They are now the biggest emerging world power. Meanwhile, the Republic of China has effectively given up on unrealistic fantasies of reconquering the mainland, instead focusing on becoming a thriving and successful democracy.

And yet the political mess remains.

The People’s Republic claims Taiwan is a “renegade province”, and demands that it reunify with the mainland. Preferably peacefully, but the People’s Republic has made it clear that they won’t rule out a military invasion of the island.

Meanwhile, the Republic may not be actively seeking to take over the mainland, but on paper they still technically claim all of China and even Mongolia. The real issue with Taiwan, though, is not what it claims, but what its people want. While Chiang Kai-Shek ruled the island as dictator, nobody was allowed to question the Republic’s official position that it was China’s legitimate government. Since becoming a democracy, people are free to discuss where Taiwan goes from here, and a very large and vocal segment of the population wants to formally change the country’s name to something like “The Republic of Taiwan” and declare the island’s independence from China. Naturally, this angers the mainland, and so many Taiwanese prefer to maintain the status quo and give lip service to eventual reunification in order to avoid a war.

Today, only 23 countries recognize the Republic of China, though interestingly one of those is the Vatican, which does so out of protest to the Communist government of the People’s Republic propping up a state-run “Catholic Church” whose bishops are appointed by the government and banning the actual, Pope-run Roman Catholic Church. Taiwan is only able to participate in international organizations like the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization with the mainland’s permission, and it generally has to use that same “Chinese Taipei” designation to do so. Taiwan has applied for membership in the United Nations year after year, and is always rejected.

Though, to be fair, the World Organization of the Scout Movement, a federation of all the Boy Scout organizations around the world, calls its Taiwanese wing the “Scouts of China” because the Boy Scouts are banned on the mainland.

So, in summary, “China” has two governments, one that controls almost all of the country and one that just controls Taiwan. Both claim to be the legal government of all China, though in Taiwan’s case it’s only on paper. Yet that one island can’t actually do anything on the world stage, even so much as participate in the Olympics, without bending over backwards to appease the mainland, or else they might spark a war. What’s more, they can’t officially declare their independence, even though they have been independent in practice for decades, for the same reason. And it’s all Harry Truman’s fault.


Information from Wikipedia and various books I’ve read.

3 Responses to Strange Politics: The Curious Case of Chinese Taipei

  1. Pingback: Behind the Headline: New Leaders Take Over China « Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Surprising Facts You Might Not Know About Japan’s Surrender | Cat Flag

  3. I am reading your piece with interest. You have covered most aspects of the politics over “One China”. What about Taiwan?

    The sovereignty of Taiwan is also a strange case, and it needs knowledge of reading and interpreting treaties to figure out. Status of Taiwan is bound by Treaty of San Francisco, and its conclusion has much to do with the Korean War. And there’s Treaty of Taipei (now abolished) that says about the citizenship status of Taiwan. The art of actually interpreting peace treaties is covered in my book, “Island Formosa” now available in the Kindle Store.

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