Taiwan: What’s in a Name?

New Taiwan Passport
Kyo Yi-ming, the first man to receive the new version of the Taiwan's passport, displays the document in Taipei, Sept. 1, 2003 (Photo: Patrick Lin/AFP-Getty Images).

The hotly contested, 50-year-old debate over Taiwan’s official name and its national identity is heating up between groups supporting and opposing unification with China. In 1949, after losing the civil war to the Chinese communists, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces fled to the island province of Taiwan and set up a Republic of China government-in-exile. Though the ROC government no longer claims to represent the mainland, the Republic of China remains the official name of Taiwan. Beijing, however, regards Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic of China.

On Sept. 1, the pro-independence camp seemed to have won an important victory when the island’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to issue new passports. On the passport’s cover, the word “Taiwan” now appears in Roman letters, in addition to the words “Republic of China.”

Beijing was predictably opposed to the move. On Sept. 1, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kong Quan said that adding “Taiwan” to the passport was damaging to cross-strait relations.

But the majority of Taiwanese, who tend to support the status quo rather than either independence or unification, saw the change as having practical, not political, effects. According to a poll conducted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they believed traveling would be made easier when their passports were no longer mistaken for those of the People’s Republic of China.  

Newspapers on either side of the unification/independence debate treated the stories very differently. On Sept. 2, Zihyou Shihbao/Liberty Times ran large front-page photos of people posing with their new passports. Taiwan Daily also gave the story top priority, as did Taipei Times, which hailed the new passport as “internationally correct” (Sept. 3). Pro-unification newspapers such as Jhongguo Shihbao/China Times, Lianhe Bao/United Daily News, and Central Daily News gave the story much less play.

But within weeks, a greater controversy involving the country’s name began to dominate the local media. It began after former President Lee Teng-hui, along with pro-independence party Taiwan Solidarity Union, insisted that the country’s name be changed from “Republic of China” to “Taiwan.”

Pro-unification newspapers either played down this name-change story or tried to sound neutral. “Is the Republic of China really not a country without any territory? Not necessarily....A country is also a product of general agreement. If people think it exists, then it does,” wrote Sun Ching-yu in Jhongguo Shihbao/China Times on Sept. 12.

Pro-independence newspapers argued from the prespective of national sovereignty. “Perhaps some are not aware that Taiwan can hardly function as a normal country in the international community under the ROC banner,” said a Zihyou Shihbao/Liberty Times editorial appearing on Sept. 13. “As long as the country’s name is not changed, Taiwan will not be able to get rid of the ‘one China’ discourse.”