There is a place in Asia that will soon host the Summer Universiade, a sporting competition attracting university student athletes from around the world. According to the event’s official media guide (pdf), the place is a “long and narrow” island that lies near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and the Philippines, has a population of 23 million and an area of 36,000 sq km (13,900 sq miles), and is called “Chinese Taipei.”
You might know it as Taiwan. The guide doesn’t call it that, however, because for international sporting events the island nation is forced to compete under a name used by exactly no one in Taiwan. The added humiliation this time is that for Taiwan—which has long been diplomatically isolated because of pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory—hosting a large sporting event is supposed to be somewhat of a coming-out party.
Between Aug. 19-30, more than 7,000 athletes will compete at the Universiade, which is held every other year and is second only to the Olympics in terms of size. The previous summer event was held in Gwangju in South Korea in 2015.
“The Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade set for Taipei will be the biggest and most prominent international sports event ever in Chinese Taipei,” writes Ko Wen-je (pdf, p. 5), the mayor of Taiwan’s capital, in the guide.
Last summer at the Rio Olympics, a Taiwanese athlete who won gold in taekwando watched a flag and listened to an anthem that most people would not normally recognize as Taiwanese. Competing under the name Chinese Taipei is the only way that Taiwan can participate in the Olympics under the rules of the International Olympic Committee. The same rule applies for Taiwan in the Universiade, which is organized by the International University Sports Federation, or FISU. At the recent Under-12 Baseball World Cup, in which the US beat Taiwan in the final, Taiwan also competed as Chinese Taipei.
But many Taiwanese were angry at the Universiade organizers, and more specifically at Taipei mayor Ko, for extending the use of “Chinese Taipei” even when referring to Taiwan as a physical place.
“I didn’t study geography properly, can someone teach me where on this planet there’s an island called Chinese Taipei?” wrote one Facebook user below a post (link in Chinese) by lawmaker Freddy Lim mocking the use of the moniker.
The public anger over the use of the Chinese Taipei name is another reminder of how hard Beijing continues to squeeze what’s left of Taiwan’s diplomatic space—an effort that has intensified since president Tsai Ing-wen, whose party espouses pro-independence views, took power last year. Two of Taiwan’s traditional allies—Panama and the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe—recently broke ties with Taipei to switch allegiance to Beijing. Beijing has also tried to block Taiwan from participating in international bodies such as Interpol and the World Health Organization, prompting Tsai to take to social media (paywall) in a more active way of late to promote Taiwan as a democratic nation.
For one lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, the Universiade is a diplomatic opportunity squandered. He posted on Facebook (link in Chinese): “How can such an absurd English phrase be published in the Universiade media guide?… This should have been a great chance for Taiwan to promote itself to the world, but we have to use such a belittling way to do so instead.”