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Taiwan: When Sports Is Politics

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China Power

Taiwan: When Sports Is Politics

On the cancellation of the East Asian Youth Games and cross-strait relations.

Taiwan: When Sports Is Politics

Taiwanese athletes march under the Olympic flag, and the name Chinese Taipei, during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea (Feb. 9, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

The East Asian Olympic Committee (EAOC) on Tuesday rescinded the right of Taichung City, located in the central part of Taiwan, to host next year’s East Asian Youth Games, triggering escalating tensions between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. According to the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), the East Asian Youth Games replaced the previous the East Asian Games in 2016 “due to a crowded sports calendar for the top athletes and also to promote sports among the youth of the region.” Taichung would have hosted the first iteration of the East Asian Youth Games.

Taiwanese media reported that the decision was made at an East Asian Olympic Committees (EAOC) Extraordinary Council Meeting in Beijing, where only members from the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee (CTOC) cast a vote against the measure. Japan’s representative abstained during the vote. Voting in favor were the representatives from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, and South Korea.

According to An Fengshan, a spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the cancellation was due to “Taiwan’s flagrant challenge of the ‘Olympic model,’” which stems from “Taiwan independence” elements on the island and is “allowed by” the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

To be more precise, what the Chinese mainland refers to as a “flagrant challenge” is a bid in Taiwan to hold a referendum on whether to participate the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under the name “Taiwan,” instead of “Chinese Taipei.” The “Olympic model” was a compromise between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait after the Chinese mainland joined the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Lausanne Agreement (1981) between the IOC and the CTOC confirmed that Taiwan is “entitled to participate in the future Olympic Games as well as other activities sponsored by the IOC” but must do so as “Chinese Taipei.”

But according to Chi Cheng, who is a Taiwanese Olympic medalist and the primary initiator of the proposed referendum, “Chinese Taipei is a humiliating term.” Chi’s goal – and the goal of her referendum – is for Taiwanese athletes to compete under the name “Taiwan” at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.

In December 2017, Taiwan’s legislative body passed new amendments to the Referendum Act, lowering the threshold for referendums to pass. Under the newly revised act, it has now become significantly easier to initiate and pass referendums. For example, none of the six previous referendums have been successful since the Referendum Act was passed in 2003. According to the new provisions, however, four out of six would have been passed.

The Chi Cheng-led referendum is now facing two conundrums. First, the IOC decided that Chinese Taipei cannot change its name during an Executive Committee meeting on May 3 and notified Taiwan’s executive body on May 4. That means even if the proposed referendum were to be passed in the future, Taiwan could not change the name “Chinese Taipei” when participating the Olympics.

Second, although Chi has argued that she opposes political meddling in sports, almost all of the other co-initiators of the proposed referendum are clear-cut Taiwan independent activists. Furthermore, whether from the perspective of Taiwan, the Chinese mainland, or the international community, referendums are decidedly political events. There is also a question – hotly debated in Taiwan — of whether Chi Cheng is an appropriate primary initiator of the proposed referendum. After all, she herself is the general counsel of 2019 East Asian Youth Games.

Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan, issued a statement after hearing the news. In the statement, she says, “Taiwan condemns China’s behavior in the strongest possible terms” and calls on the international society to “recognize the severe harm it [China] poses to the stability, security, and well-being of international society.”

Beijing, on the other hand, praised the EAOC’s decision as the right one and said that the DPP administration should bear all the responsibility and consequences of the cancellation of the East Asian Youth Games.

The recent escalating tensions between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan still reflect the cognitive gap over the 1992 consensus, which argues that both parties across the Taiwan Strait concur there is only one China, while both sides have different interpretations of the definition. In a recent meeting with Lien Chan, former chairman of the Kuomingtang (KMT), China’s leader Xi Jinping stated that the “1992 consensus should be upheld” and “Taiwan independence” should be resolutely opposed and deterred. Tsai, on the other hand, has never endorsed the 1992 consensus, despite adopting a conciliatory tone toward the mainland since she assumed office.

Reactions from the United States also need to be scrupulously examined. Instead of criticizing Beijing, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. “has a deep and abiding interest in cross-strait stability and believes the dialogue between the two sides that has enabled peace, stability, and development in recent years should resume.” She also stressed that the United States supports Taiwan’s membership in international organizations that do not require statehood.

This tone contrasts with the tone when State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert was asked for U.S. comment on China’s demand for U.S. airlines to change how they refer to Taiwan. In her response, Nauert reiterated that the U.S. government is opposed to demands by governments upon private enterprises, clearly adopting a harsher stance on the issue.

Japan’s reaction is also worth considering. Chi Cheng and other co-initiators of the proposed referendum had contended that Taiwan’s friendship with Japan is long-lasting and thus Japan might understand and tolerate the name change for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan, indeed, did not consent to the cancellation of 2019 East Asian Youth Games – however, Tokyo chose to abstain rather than vote against the measure. This was likely in recognition of the fact that tensions between China and Japan are in the middle of a détente that began when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan in May.

The outlook of cross-strait relations is gloomy in the sense that both sides cannot achieve a consensus on the political foundation for their relationship. The Chinese mainland will insist on the 1992 consensus but the Tsai administration will not agree. This is the root cause of all the current frictions, tensions, or even clashes.

Han Ze is a double-degree student at Peking University and University of Tokyo. He graduated from University of Tokyo with highest honors and is now pursuing his second Master degree at Peking University. He previously worked as an intern at the Tsinghua-Brookings Center and Development Research Center of the Chinese State Council.