Taiwan’s baseball team took the field Tuesday sporting caps and jerseys not with “T” for Taiwan, but “CT,” for Chinese Taipei.
China claims the democratic self-governing island as its own, and a decades-old agreement between Taipei and Beijing means that Taiwanese teams can only compete internationally if they don’t use the name – or flag – of Taiwan.
Opposing them on the new field in Shaoxing was Hong Kong, representing what Beijing hopes is Taiwan’s future – a team playing under its own regional flag, with its own athletes, but still very much a part of China.
At the Asian Games, China has been going out of its way to be welcoming to the Taiwanese athletes, as it pursues a two-pronged strategy with the goal of taking over the island, which involves both wooing its people while threatening it militarily.
Unlike the Beijing Winter Olympics last year where Taiwan only sent four athletes, there are more than 500 here for the Asian Games, providing China a golden opportunity to put on a welcoming face not only for the competitors, but for their fans watching from home in Taiwan.
At the opening ceremony in Hangzhou, the Taiwanese delegation got one of the largest cheers from the crowd, with the local broadcaster making sure to cut to show Chinese President Xi Jinping clapping for the team as it was introduced.
In events where Taiwan wins, the broadcasts regular pan to Chinese fans in the stands cheering for them, while waving Chinese flags.
After Tuesday’s win against Hong Kong, many fans stayed behind to get Taiwanese players to sign baseballs and caps, and the players say they don’t worry too much about the wider political situation.
“I came to join the games, and did not think too much” about it, said Lin Tzu-Wei, a Taiwanese left fielder who played with the Boston Red Sox and briefly with the Minnesota Twins before returning home.
“I come here for the games, that’s it,” he said.
The fact that they have to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei” is nothing new for the Taiwanese. Taiwanese athletes have used that name, and a unique Olympic flag, at every Olympic event since 1980. Its team used the same name at the World Baseball Classic earlier this year, which it hosted along with Japan and the United States.
The name has occasionally been a source of controversy in Taiwan, with some arguing it is insulting to the island’s athletes. In 2018, Taiwanese voted to reject a referendum that their athletes compete under the name “Taiwan,” including at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with 54.8 percent voting against the motion.
The issue of the name hasn’t featured in local reporting on the games, and Taiwanese officials with the delegation in Hangzhou refused to comment on it, saying their focus was on the performance of their athletes.
Still, it can’t be far from the minds of many Taiwanese, as China continues its aggressive external approach toward the island, which is only about 600 kilometers (375 miles) from Hangzhou, the primary host city for the Asian Games.
Taiwan and China split in a civil war that brought the Communist Party to power in China in 1949, with the rival Nationalists setting up their own government in Taipei. Chinese President Xi has repeatedly said he would not rule out the use of force to take the island of 24 million people.
Beijing has been conducting increasingly large military drills in the air and waters around Taiwan, as tensions have been rising between the rivals and Taiwan’s most important backer, the United States.
A few days before the two-week Asian Games began, China sent 103 warplanes flying toward Taiwan, which Taiwanese officials said was a new high for recent times.
On the more subtle side, China has strayed in recent years from the agreement to call Taiwan “Chinese Taipei” at international sporting events. Official Chinese media now call it “China Taipei” – suggesting it is part of China – instead of “Chinese Taipei,” which implies more of an ethnic or cultural similarity.
The issue came up last year, when Olympics officials in Taiwan announced they would skip the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Games. They cited travel issues and pandemic concerns, but their announcement came shortly after a Chinese official had called the Taiwanese team “China Taipei.”
Taiwan reversed the decision at the last minute, saying they were pressured to attend the ceremony by the International Olympic Committee.
Despite not ruling out force, China prefers to have Taiwan come under its control voluntarily, and has offered a “one country, two systems” framework similar to Hong Kong in which the former British colony became part of China in 1997 but was promised a degree of autonomy. The ruling Communist Party, however, has cracked down on dissent in Hong Kong and critics say the Western-style freedoms are disappearing.
Taiwan has firmly rejected that idea of a Hong Kong-style approach.
At the Asian Games, Hong Kong sends its own athletes who compete separately from China. Similarly, the former Portuguese colony of Macao, which is now also a part of China, sends its own athletes and competes under its regional flag.
Taiwan’s Tuesday afternoon game against Hong Kong followed a Monday night game against tough opponent South Korea, which Taiwan won 4-0, but the players showed little fatigue.
They put up two quick runs in the first and never looked back, eventually beating Hong Kong 15-0 while giving up only one hit.
For manager Wu Shih-Hsih, a former infielder who was part of the Taiwan team that won silver in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the trip to mainland China is just about baseball, and he’s setting his sights on a gold medal for his team.
“Sports is sports, politics is politics,” he said after Sunday’s 12-1 win against Thailand.
“We are here for the sports.”