Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Naming Taiwan

(also the title of a paper I'm working on for a conference in April...)

In Chen Shui-bian's 2004 inaugural address (English version), and in at least one interview before that address, Chen explicitly raised the national identity issue--in the former, by the statement "regardless of whether an individual identifies with Taiwan or with the Republic of China, per se, a common destiny has bequeathed upon all of us the same parity and dignity" (不管是認同台灣或者認同中華民國,其實都是相同的歸屬). In the interview, he said:

For the 23 million people of Taiwan, whether our country is called Taiwan or the Republic of China, it doesn't change the fact that we are an independent, sovereign country. We are not a local government of another country.

In both of these statements, Chen raises the national identity issue (R.O.C. or Taiwan?) as a point of equivocation--while it is an issue that has never before been so explicity raised by a sitting R.O.C. president, it is also quickly waved away by the act of equating the two possible names or identities. This is a new version of the balancing act that Taiwan (or is it the R.O.C.?) has performed ever since it lost international recognition as a sovereign state.

Now Chen is proposing to change (or "rectify") the names of state corporations and government agencies so that they use the name "Taiwan" rather than "China." Chen claims that this would be done in order to reduce the confusion that results from the word "China" in the names of those organizations. He also implies that this is not the same thing as a formal name change.

To some extent he's probably right--people in other countries are probably not always aware that "China Airlines" is from Taiwan, or that "China Petroleum" is also a Taiwan(ese) firm. The word "China" or "Chinese" often gets applied to Taiwanese organizations and people more in ignorance of the geographic origins of those organizations or people than in recognition that the "China" or "Chinese" refers to the Republic of China (rather than the People's Republic). (Ask any Taiwanese student in the U.S. who gets labelled a Chinese student whether or not s/he wants that label.)

When it comes to the names of some of Taiwan's de-facto consulates, which usually include the name "Taipei" instead of "China," Chen could run into some trouble. If the main purpose of the change is to avoid confusion, rather than to press for a de facto "Republic of Taiwan," then it's not clear how calling the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (Taiwan's de facto embassy in the U.S.) the "Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office" will make any difference, since the word "China" isn't in the name right now. (I suppose if you want to go along with Vice-President Lu Hsiu-lien's argument that people might think TECRO doesn't represent Taichung or Kaohsiung, you could say a name change would reduce confusion. But I wonder if the confusion is as great as she implies, or if it's just her impression of the situation--as it was with the "UNFAIR" ad campaign.) At this point the name change comes close to an official name change.

When Chen Shui-bian was reelected in March (let's leave aside the controversies regarding the election), he won by a margin of about 30,000 votes, or less than half a percentage point. That's not much of a mandate. (Even Bush got more of a "mandate"--ugh.) Do these proposed name changes reflect the will of the people (the 23 million people of Taiwan that Chen often invokes in his speeches)? Since Chen's proposal is closely tied to the legislative elections that will be held on Saturday perhaps Saturday's results will tell us the answer.

[Update: May 15, 2005: The English quote from Chen that's at the top, about "parity and dignity" is obviously different from the Chinese version. In my paper, "Naming Taiwan," for the conference, I translated the Chinese version as "no matter whether one identifies with Taiwan or with the Republic of China, actually it's the same thing". It's a rough translation, but it's closer to the Chinese than the official translation.]

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