China’s micro-aggressions against Taiwan have reached the world of birding

China’s micro-aggressions against Taiwan have reached the world of birding
Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Taiwan’s long struggle for international recognition in the face of Chinese resistance gained unprecedented attention during the coronavirus pandemic, due to the exclusion of the island nation from the World Health Organization. Taiwan’s bird lovers are now joining in that fight.

The Chinese Wild Bird Federation (CWBF), Taiwan’s biggest bird conservation group, said in a statement today that it no longer has ties to Birdlife International, a Cambridge, UK-based non-governmental organization. CWBF said that BirdLife decided on Sept. 7 to remove it as a partner after the Taiwanese group refused to meet requests including that it sign a document committing to not promoting Taiwanese independence, and to change its name in Chinese, which translates as “Republic of China Wild Bird Federation.”

According to CWBF, BirdLife also said the Taiwanese group posed a risk to the organization, and that it would no longer participate in Taiwan government-funded events as “it would be ‘odd’ for BirdLife to distance itself from the ‘independence agenda’ of the Republic of China” while continuing to benefit from funding.  It wasn’t clear from the statement the precise reasons that led to BirdLife’s decision.

The “Republic of China” was the name of the government that once controlled China before it fled to Taiwan after being defeated in the civil war in 1949, and it remains Taiwan’s official name. The moniker, which has long been the subject of debate in Taiwan, became especially problematic in recent months as it sought to distance itself from China amid growing international recognition of its success in fighting the coronavirus. Lawmakers earlier voted, for example, to revamp the country’s national carrier, China Airlines, in order to highlight Taiwan’s identity as separate to that of China. An upcoming passport redesign seeks to do the same.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory though the Communist Party has never ruled there, and has sought to squeeze Taiwan from participation in international organizations and events of all kinds. At the highest level, this means that Taiwan is unable to take part in United Nations bodies while it must compete in the Olympics under the name Chinese Taipei. But much more mundane examples of China’s pressure campaign also abound.

In 2018, the local council in Rockhampton, a small city in Australia, covered up small Taiwanese flags that had been painted by kids on a sculpture of a bull ahead of a major international beef industry event. Myriad global companies have had to apologize for inadvertently suggesting that Taiwan is a separate country on their websites or products.

According to Richard Foster, a long-time Taiwan resident and birding guide, pressure has been building in recent years to squeeze out Taiwanese participation in birding and conservation activities, including the exclusion of Taiwanese speakers and papers at events. He highlighted the example of Taiwan’s contributions to protecting the habitats of the Black-faced spoonbill, a species native to east Asia that winters in Taiwan. “Taiwan’s been doing virtually all the work, but just had to turn a blind eye to the fact that some international organizations have been forced into denying its contributions,” he said.

Taiwan’s forestry bureau has also been donating money annually to BirdLife’s conservation projects in Madagascar, Cambodia, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

The CWBF has, in fact, undergone three name changes in English in order to comply with pressure from BirdLife since becoming a partner of BirdLife in 1996. At one point, the group was named Wild Bird Federation Taiwan (link in Chinese). On BirdLife International’s website, the CWBF’s page—which once represented “Chinese Taiwan”—has been removed. The only partner from China listed by BirdLife is the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.

BirdLife International did not respond to a request for comment on the expulsion of CWBF, or questions on the status of the conservation projects funded by Taiwan. In a comment to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, BirdLife said it was “inappropriate for us to comment publicly on matters relating to, and interactions with, partner organizations.”

While the pressure on Taiwanese conservation “fits in with a pattern of China…bullying Taiwan in every aspect of its international space,” Foster said what happened to CWBF is a “particular tragedy” for its politicization of environmental protections. “So much of birding and bird life involves migration and travel between different areas. Birds do not care about borders.”

The image at the top of this article was taken by Changhua Coast Conservation Action and shared under the Creative Commons license under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.