Taiwan’s new passport design shouts “Taiwan” in a bigger font

Image: Reuters/Ann Wang
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In the end, there was no bubble tea, no bird, and no bear. Instead, in its search for a new passport design that would better convey its national identity, Taiwan went with the safest option possible.

The Taiwan government today unveiled the winning design for its new passport, after lawmakers in July voted to revamp the country’s passport design and national carrier, China Airlines, in order to better differentiate Taiwan from China in the eyes of the international community.

Taiwan’s passport features the words “Republic of China” on the cover, which is the country’s official name, as it was the name of the government that once controlled China before it fled to modern-day Taiwan in the 1940s after being defeated in the civil war. The use of the word “China” in Taiwan has long been contentious—Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory though the Communist Party has never ruled there—but the debate was rekindled during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government feared, for example, that people were confusing medical goods delivered abroad on the national carrier for goods coming from China, just as Taiwan was gaining unprecedented international recognition for its success in fighting the pandemic. The inclusion of Taiwanese carriers in some countries’ travel bans against Chinese nationals earlier in the year further galvanized support for a name change.

The government’s official search for a new passport cover was conducted alongside an online competition launched by a political party, which drew hundreds of submissions. Though the competition’s winning design wasn’t necessarily going to be used in an official capacity, the exercise was nonetheless an important avenue for younger Taiwanese in particular to explore and reimagine their national identity, particularly as levels of support for a distinctive Taiwanese identity independent of China steadily grows. Many of the submissions featured famous Taiwanese foods, such as bubble tea and braised pork rice, or fauna native to the island.

In a news conference, Taiwanese officials (link in Chinese), including foreign minister Joseph Wu, explained why they went with a new passport design that ultimately doesn’t look too different from the old one. The new design centers the word “Taiwan” in English with a bigger font, which the foreign ministry said would lead to “less confusion.” The term “Republic of China” in English circles Taiwan’s sun emblem in smaller writing, though in Chinese the name still sits squarely at the top of the cover. The officials explained that they wanted to go for a redesign that would amplify Taiwan’s recognition with the least drastic changes. The color also remains the same.

The government is aiming to issue the new passport in January next year, after a bureaucratic process that includes notifying customs bodies around the world and the International Air Transport Association of the change.

Some Taiwanese ridiculed the new design for its minimalist tweaks, while others said that it simply didn’t go far enough to emphasize the country’s Taiwan-ness. Catherine Chou, an assistant professor at Grinnell College in the US who writes extensively on Taiwan issues, said the redesign can help Taiwanese travelers avoid confusion when they go abroad, but that the changes also “leave domestic desires for name recognition and rectification unsatisfied” while risking a backlash both from Beijing and Taiwanese who align more closely with a Chinese identity.

The Taiwanese passport has undergone several tweaks over the years, including a 2003 update that added the word “Taiwan” to the cover. In 2015, some Taiwanese took the initiative to put stickers with the words “Republic of Taiwan” on their travel documents, resulting in some of them being denied entry into China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The new passport design comes in a week of heightened international attention for Taiwan, after Beijing threatened Prague for allowing a Czech delegation to visit the island. That threat did not go down well in Europe, where Chinese diplomats are currently on a damage-control tour. The US this week also stepped up its military and economic commitment to Taiwan, amid an increasingly tense environment in the Taiwan Strait.

With or without bubble tea on its passport, Taiwan’s international visibility is only set to grow.