By HUIZHONG WU
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – For Taiwan, every appearance on the global stage is political – and even more so when that stage is China.
The four Taiwanese athletes competing in the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday, will not be allowed to use Taiwan’s flag. They have long competed under a name – Chinese Taipei – that is rarely used and forced on the team by a pre-Cold War geopolitical division.
Maggie Lee, a 19-year-old slalom skier, caught herself spontaneously teaching people a lesson on that behalf while traveling across Europe training and competing ahead of the Olympics.
“When I meet people, I tell them I’m from Taiwan, because if you tell people you’re from Chinese Taipei, nobody knows where you’re from, you can’t find it on Google,” she said.
Taiwan is an island of 24 million people off the east coast of China. It functions as a country with its own government and military. But China claims Taiwan as its territory, and only 14 countries recognize Taiwan as a nation. Most of the world, including the United States, has official ties with China instead.
The split arose out of a civil war in the late 1940s in which the communists overthrew the ROC government and established the People’s Republic of China, which governs to this day. China’s former nationalist leaders fled to Taiwan and set up a rival government in the city of Taipei.
Both claimed to represent China, and the US, among others, sided with the government in Taipei. But a growing number of countries shifted to Beijing over the next two decades. The UN switched in 1971, forcing Taipei out of the organization. US President Richard Nixon visited China the next year, and the United States established relations with Beijing in 1979.
The naming problem surfaced at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Taiwanese athletes competed as the Republic of China at the previous two Winter Games, flying their red flag with a white sun on a blue rectangle in one corner.
It was Communist China’s first time participating in the Olympics, and the government successfully protested the island’s participation under the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name. Athletes got the bad news after arriving in Lake Placid, said Thomas Liang, a cross-country skier who competed in the 1972 and 1976 games.
“We all went to the United States, but they didn’t let us on the field,” he said. “I was sad because I couldn’t compete. It was such a shame to miss this opportunity.”
When Liang next went to the Olympics, he was a coach and his team was known as Chinese Taipei.
A 1981 agreement with the International Olympic Committee created the name and allowed athletes to compete under a redesigned white flag with a floral outline around a sun and the Olympic rings in the centre. A flag-raising song is played in place of the anthem at medal ceremonies.
In the decades since, a Taiwanese identity distinct from China has grown stronger, even as the island has developed close economic ties with the mainland. According to an annual survey by National Chengchi University in Taipei, the proportion of the population identifying as Taiwanese has increased to 62%, up from 48% in 2008. 32% of islanders identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese, while 3 % claim to be Chinese.
Under President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in 2016, Taiwan has sought to solidify its de facto position but has balked at declaring formal independence, a move that could trigger a Chinese military invasion.
China has responded by sending fighter jets to Taiwan on training missions and persuading other countries to cut ties with the island. It has also pressured airlines, hotels, luxury brands and others doing business in China to label Taiwan as a Chinese province online and on maps.
But not everyone was happy with the status quo. In 2018, former Olympian Cheng Chi launched a national referendum to change the team’s name to Taiwan for last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“Is the name of our country Chinese Taipei? Of course not,” Cheng said in a 2018 interview with the Liberty Times newspaper. “In the past we have accepted this one moment of injustice to ensure the fulfillment of a lifelong aspiration.”
The vote failed after many athletes opposed it, fearing the change could result in them being disqualified from competing. Many say they just want to focus on competition and not politics.
The name doesn’t bother Lee the skier. “As long as we’re clear about who we are, that’s enough,” she said.
At this week’s Winter Olympics, the two skiers representing Taiwan say their focus is on doing their best, and that would serve their homeland more than political statements.
“As an athlete, I don’t have the right to address this issue,” said Ray Ho, the other skier representing Taiwan. “I can only do what I can, which is train and compete.”