Christopher Hughes, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and the author of the book Taiwan and Chinese Nationalism: National Identity and Status in International Society, explains that each iteration reflects a balancing act between a yearning among Taiwanese to be recognized as a self-governing state and their concern over challenging the Chinese Communist Party without the backing of the US. Given the anti-China sentiment of the Trump administration, Hughes says, “Taiwan is now in this position where it has, for the first time, much stronger support from Washington.”

“This is something some people [in Taiwan] have wanted for a long time and you can understand why,” he explains, noting that over 70% of the population are in favor of eliminating “China” from its passports. “It’s very confusing and can create real problems for individuals and companies when they get confused with China.”

Stickers to put on Taiwan passports are pictured at Taiuan-e-tian shop in Taipei
Passports stickers bearing the words “Republic of Taiwan.”
Image: Reuters/Ann Wang

Beijing’s efforts to crack down on protests in Hong Kong, which helped turn a close race into a landslide election win for president Tsai Ing-wen in January, have also fueled Taiwan’s sense that there can be no rapprochement with authoritarian China.

The issue of how to refer to Taiwan is likely to only become more confusing for global companies, however. Brands like Muji, Marriott, and Zara among many others, have seen a nationalistic backlash in China for listing Taiwan separately in country rosters.

Why passports look so serious

If Taiwan adopts a quirky motif on its next passport, it will signal a break in the long tradition of using crests, coats of arms, cartouches, and other stodgy symbols in the history of travel documents. When passports were first used, projecting an air of formality in the graphic design was essential, in large part to convince border guards that your travel papers were legitimate and issued by an official body. But with the dawning of biometrics and ePassports in the late 1990s, a traveler’s data are now stored in a microchip embedded in the booklet. Today, computers ascertain the veracity of documents, thus technically eliminating the need to design documents so austerely.

The International Civil Aviation Organization in fact, only has recommendations, not rules, for what passports should look like. Despite this, most countries tend to stick to traditional colors to “look official” and uphold a “sense of propriety,” as explained in a 2018 Travel and Leisure article (though countries have begun to be a bit more creative on the inside). Similarly, South Sudan, the world’s newest country, chose a dark blue cover decorated with an eagle, ostensibly following the look of the US passport.

But seriousness is far from Taiwan’s favored policy. At this year’s TED conference, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang explained that government ministries routinely hire professional comedians as “engagement officers” to help scheme information campaigns. The Taiwanese government recently used memes featuring dogs to quash hoaxes about Covid-19 circulating on the internet. Even its top leaders are willing to be, quite literally, the butt of the joke.

That goofiness, which is reflected in many of the contest’s entries, is a genius foil to China’s dour authoritarianism, Hugh observes, where the government regularly tries to bar jokes about the Chinese president’s likeness to Winnie the Pooh.

“It’s the one thing that dictators really can’t deal with it,” said Hughes.”They can deal with criticism or dissidents by locking them up or shooting them but being laughed at is the opposite of fear.”

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.