By Elaine Dunn | April 2022
For those who watched the Winter Olympics, you may remember the tiny four-athlete contingent from Taiwan entered the stadium at the Opening Ceremony minus the Taiwanese flag. They were announced as the team from “Chinese Taipei,” a place with a name that’s not on any map! Why?
It’s a long, contentious story involving the competing Chinas.
Taiwan had been competing under “Chinese Taipei” after communist China first made its Olympics debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Until then, Taiwan had been competing under the name the Republic of China. But Beijing petitioned in 1980 to disallow the use of that name by Taiwan and Taiwan athletes arriving at Lake Placid, New York, were not allowed to compete.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war against the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. The latter fled across the strait to the island of Taiwan, which, at that time, was transitioning from decades of Japanese colonization.
For two decades, the exiled Chinese, known as the Republic of China and known internationally as “Free China,” received international support and was recognized as “China.’ On the other hand, communist China, was shunned by the United States and many members of the United Nations as well as the International Olympic Committee. The mainland was known at that point as the People’s Republic of China and was not allowed to participate at the Olympics, unlike the Taiwanese team.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, both Taiwan and communist China maintained there was only “one China,” Taiwan or mainland. No country or entity was allowed to recognize both as “China.”
However, the winds began to shift during the 1960s when the U.S. began to see “normalizing” U.S.-Beijing relations was beneficial, if not essential. Growing Sino-Soviet rivalry provided the opportunity.
In July 1971, a secret diplomatic mission was set up by Dr. Henry Kissinger, then U.S. National Security Advisor, to solidify the U.S.-Beijing relation. The U.S. had a heavy price to pay: drop its longtime ally Taiwan and, drop its veto of the People’s Republic of China’s admission to the U.N. However, the U.S. still argued that Taiwan should remain a member of the UN. But Beijing would not hear of it, insisting on “One China.”
So Taiwan’s political fortune all changed on Oct. 25, 1971, when the UN General Assembly passed resolution No. 2758 with a two-thirds majority to admit the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan, which had been a member and held a seat as a permanent member of the Security Council since 1945 was expelled, just like that!
President Richard Nixon’s trip in 1972 to Beijing further warmed ties between the U.S. and communist China, leading to diplomatic recognition of the mainland in 1979. Also in 1979, the International Olympic Committee passed a resolution by which both Taiwan and Beijing agreed to abide – that Taiwan would compete as “Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee” and mainland China, “Chinese Olympic Committee (IOC).” (Hong Kong athletes compete under “Hong Kong, China.”) And, medal counts would be separate. In addition, during medal ceremonies, a “flag-raising anthem will be played instead of Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s official national anthems.
Taiwan’s international recognition as an independent government has continued to dwindle, thanks to China’s political bullying.
Perhaps in defiance or perhaps it was an honest mistake, at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese announcer referred to the Taiwanese team as “the team from Taiwan” instead of the “Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee.” Mainland Chinese officials were not happy!
To head off further “mistakes,” Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office modified the Chinese name for the team from Taiwan. Instead of “zhonghua,” it used “zhongguo.” “Zhonghua” refers to anything Chinese whereas the latter, “zhongguo” specifically applies to China, the country, thereby implying to Mandarin-speakers that the team from Taiwan is part of the Chinese team! Of course the Taiwan government protested its altered name!
In 2018, a former Taiwanese Olympian launched a campaign to change the team’s name back to “Taiwan.” But many opposed him, fearing that name change could result from Taiwan athletes being barred from competing, a high probability knowing how Beijing works.
Finally, the IOC does not include Taiwan and Hong Kong athletes’ medals in China’s medal tallies, but guess who does?