Written by Saša Istenič.
Last month the Ljubljana City Library organized a Week of Chinese Culture, consisting of a rich programme of events prepared in cooperation with various institutes, including the Embassy of the PRC and the University of Ljubljana’s Department of Asian Studies – my working institution. I also agreed to contribute a free public lecture and proposed to speak on “Chinese culture through the prism of Taiwan”. To my surprise, it became the cause of a heated controversy. I was stunned when the Library informed me that the Chinese Embassy requested that naming of “Taiwan”, both within the title and the abstract, be replaced with “the Taiwan Region”. In particular, I was baffled as one of the requests was to remove the part of my profile that stated my position as Director of the University’s Taiwan Study Center.
As an experienced scholar of cross-Taiwan Strait relations, I’m well aware of the political sensitivity that terminology and nomenclature of Taiwan in the international arena entails. Genuinely trying to find a middle way and evade dispute, I suggested a new title “Chinese culture from another angle” and rewrote the abstract. However, the programme brochure that initially came out was severely curtailed – to the point that it completely lost sense. What’s more, the “Taiwan Region” denominator was there. I instantly expressed my deepest regret and disappointment, both to the Chinese Embassy and the Library. Although the Library subsequently removed the contentious “Region” from its follow-up reprints and website announcements and encouraged me to hold the lecture as planned, I opted to boycott the lecture which consequently attracted the Slovene media’s attention. I reasoned that delivering a lecture on another occasion, when interference in an author’s rights and essential democratic principles would not be tolerated in the first place, would be more righteous.
Taiwan can be compared to a goldfish, skilfully evading a giant shark in both domestic and foreign waters, where it confronts tightly knit fishing nets through which it is barely able to swim through. The sea community in this metaphor is not sure how to treat this Taiwanese fish – should it regard it as an autonomous sea organism, as an organism’s appendage, or as a sea fossil? Even though the goldfish entails all fins and a healthy, nimble tail, even though it stands as a role model in a free-style swimming. More and more, the 23 million goldfishes wish to swim across the tight frame, which limits and curtails their freedom. However, due to their fear of consequences, they dare not to agitate the sea and rather adapt to the temporary sea currents – despite knowing that the shark’s fins are getting stronger and faster. The balance of the sea level is inevitably going to change and the threads of the sea nets will only get entangled even tighter. Therefore, the future of the goldfish remains highly uncertain.
Beijing wants to have the threads, which weave Taiwan’s destiny, entirely in its own hands. With its increasing global influence it visibly strives to reduce Taiwan’s international space. In its attempt to marginalize Taiwan it imposes its self-defined “one China” principle and rejects any usage of the name “Taiwan” that could imply its separate identity, be it in political, economic or cultural field. Since this was the first time that the Chinese Embassy tried to impose the nomenclature of “Taiwan Region” at a public cultural event in Slovenia, I wonder if this signals a new, more assertive approach to “de-Taiwanize” Taiwan in the international community in general?
Regardless of adherence to the “1992 Consensus”, the framework of “one China” in the international community adheres to only one interpretation – the political entity of “the PRC”, the sole entity allowed to assume the name of “China”. On the other hand, the name “Taiwan” has become the most recognized name in the international arena to denote territories administered by the ROC, while Taiwanese’ public identification with Taiwan and Taiwanese has witnessed a steady increase. China has long strived to stop the trend. It has become a standard practice that Taiwan’s official designations in international organizations are downgraded to terms like “Chinese Taipei”, “Taipei, China”, “Taiwan, China”, “Taiwan Region” and “Taiwan, province of China”. However, imposing the “one China” principle on a local cultural-academic event is another matter. As the resonant incident in Portugal on the occasion of the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) conference in July 2014 has shown such interference backfires on China’s own image.
Saša Istenič is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Taiwan Study Center at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Ljubljana.