Under the moniker “Chinese Taipei,” Taiwanese athletes won twelve medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—including two gold medals. This is Taiwan’s biggest medal haul in Olympic history, surpassing its personal best of five medals, which the nation achieved at the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Unlike other participants, when these athletes approached the podium to receive their medals, there was no official national flag or anthem to greet them. Since 1979, Taiwanese Olympic athletes have competed under the Plum Blossom Banner, a white flag sporting the Olympic rings depicting Taiwan’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT). As these athletes ascended the podium, a modified version of the national flag anthem, with references to the actual flag cut out, was played in the background.
Taiwan’s Changing National Identity
Despite being a self-ruled democracy of over 22 million people with its own currency and government, Taiwan is seen by China as a province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), widely known as China. The Chinese government states that one day, Taiwan will be reunified with the rest of the country—by force, if need be.
Regardless of the ongoing debates as to whether Taiwan should reunify, declare itself independent from China, or maintain the status quo, many citizens in Taiwan have come to view themselves as having a distinct Taiwanese identity. For example, in a survey conducted in 1991, only 13.6 percent of individuals self-identified as Taiwanese. Fast forward to 2016, another survey showed over 80 percent of individuals self-identified as Taiwanese.
In contrast, Chinese-identifying individuals in Taiwan have shrunk from 43.9 to 8.1 percent. Moreover, double identities — people who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese — have decreased from a steady 40-50 percent in the late 1900s and early 2000s down to a mere 7.6 percent in 2016.
What’s in a Name?
Over the years, Taiwan has competed at the Olympics under several names due to its disputed status.
Competing under the name “China,” the Republic of China (ROC) was considered to be the legitimate government of China until the 1970s. The ROC sent its first Olympic athlete, Liu Changchun, to the 1932 Los Angeles Games. After 1949, the ROC’s delegation was largely composed of Taiwan-based athletes. This was due to the Communist Party’s triumph under Mao Zedong in the 1949 Chinese Civil War, which forced the ROC to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Thus, officially, the ROC competed in only three Summer Games.
In 1952, Taiwan and China were invited to the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Although both nations claimed to represent China, Taiwan later dropped out. Four years later, Taiwan rejoined as “Formosa-China” at the Melbourne Olympics. The name “Formosa,” meaning beautiful, was given to the island by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century. Beijing boycotted those Games and quit the International Olympic Committee (IOC) two years later.
In 1960, the IOC ordered Taiwan to compete as “Taiwan.” However, the island’s then-authoritarian government objected because they wanted to be the only and official China. As a result, Taiwan competed in two more Olympics under Formosa-China in the 1960s, including the previous Tokyo Games in 1964.
As relations between the West, namely the United States, and China (PRC), warmed in the 1970s, many countries ceased to recognize the ROC as the representative government of China. Instead, countries and international committees shifted their allegiances to the PRC.
In the 1972 Olympics, Taiwan competed as the ROC for the last time. Three years before the 1976 Olympics, China applied to participate in the games and insisted that the “ROC” be decertified in the process. Furthermore, Taiwan boycotted the 1976 Games after host country Canada barred them from competing as the ROC.
In 1979, the IOC passed the Nagoya Resolution, which forced Taiwan to adopt the name “Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics. Additionally, Taiwan’s Olympic committee was banned from using the ROC flag or national anthem, effectively recognizing the PRC as the representative body for “China.” Only with this compromise would the IOC allow the island to compete in the Olympics without presenting Taiwan as a sovereign nation as this would be a violation of the One China Policy.
Taiwan did not immediately accept the compromise. In response, the IOC suspended the island from the 1979 Games, only allowing them back two years later upon agreeing to the IOC’s terms.
Since 1981, Taiwan has complied with the resolution’s terms. Some critics describe the conditions as “humiliating” given that other disputed or unrecognized territories, such as Palestine, can use their own names and flag at the Olympics.
Revising the Name
Ironically, more Taiwanese residents have seen themselves as having a distinct national identity in recent years. Citizens have voiced their concerns and pushed the island’s government to proclaim itself independent from China rather than maintain the status quo.
In 2018, Taiwan even held a referendum to discuss a name change from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” in international sporting events, starting with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Yet, voters rejected the proposal due to warnings from both the IOC and PRC that such a move could bar Taiwan from international competition.
As a show of what could come, the East Asian Olympic Committee rescinded the right of Taichung City, located in central Taiwan, to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games. The decision was spearheaded by China, which blamed “independence activists” for incorporating “Taiwan independence” elements into the games.
Reaching an “Acceptable Solution”
A lot has changed since the ROC retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949. Under various names, Taiwan has competed at the Olympics, boycotted or been excluded from several games, and even held a referendum to change its name from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan”—a show of its changing identity and desire to distance itself from the mainland.
For now, pressure from China and the IOC have stifled Taiwan’s attempts to proclaim itself a sovereign nation, albeit only in name, at the Olympics. Taiwanese sports executive Jiao Jiahong is doubtful whether any future attempts to rebrand will succeed because he says, “the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ has become a non-destructive, unsatisfying, but acceptable solution to every party.”
As long as China does not reclaim the island within the next four years, however, this issue will likely re-emerge. Taiwanese people have increasingly come to view themselves as distinct from the mainland and the PRC. Moreover, as Taiwan’s champions fight to retain their Olympic titles, once again bringing this year’s victories out into the spotlight, exclamations of Taiwanese pride on social media may grow and energize disputes over “Chinese Taipei.”