TAIPEI, Taiwan — Can China use its enormous economic and diplomatic leverage to simply erase Taiwan’s international identity?
China seems to be trying. But its increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan is creating a backlash here that is undermining Beijing’s ultimate goal: bringing the island’s 23 million residents under its authority.
China continues to peel away the dwindling number of allies that recognize Taiwan as an independent country — most recently, on Thursday, Burkina Faso. This week, it blocked Taiwan’s representatives — even its journalists — from participating, with observer status, in the World Health Organization’s annual assembly in Geneva.
Although China has long sought to isolate Taiwan, people here said its latest efforts have been the most intense in decades. China’s economic and diplomatic moves have coincided with a series of military exercises that officials said were explicitly aimed at Taiwan and its president since 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally supported independence.
China recently warned 36 airlines to change their online booking systems to refer to Taiwan as part of China, even though the island is a self-governing democracy that has never been under the control of the communist government in Beijing. While the White House denounced the demand as “Orwellian nonsense,” many airlines have complied, though not the major American ones.
Companies in other industries have also capitulated in the face of Chinese tetchiness about Taiwan’s status. Last week, The Gap apologized for the design of a T-shirt that showed China without including Taiwan, after photographs of the offending apparel circulated on Chinese social media.
“The Chinese government always says it wants to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people, but their military threats against Taiwan and the diplomatic assault against Taiwan are not doing that,” the foreign minister, Joseph Wu, recently told reporters.
The pressure on Taiwan might not be a single, coordinated campaign, but rather the result of different branches of the Chinese government scrambling to appear supportive of President Xi Jinping’s increasingly nationalistic oratory. In a forceful speech in March, Xi warned against efforts to divide the “great motherland,” which in China’s view includes Taiwan.
Even the slightest misstep can provoke China’s vindictive pique.
The country’s Civil Aviation Administration issued the warning to the airlines in April, after Delta apologized for causing the Chinese people “emotional damage” by listing Taiwan on its booking site as a destination separate from China. In Shanghai, the Administration of Industry and Commerce recently fined a Japanese retailer, Muji, because items in some of its stores were labeled “Made in Taiwan.”
“China’s goal regarding Taiwan has never changed,” Lee Teng-hui, who in 1996 became Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, said in a rare interview.
“That goal is to swallow up Taiwan’s sovereignty, exterminate Taiwanese democracy and achieve ultimate unification,” Lee said. At 96, the former leader is calling for a referendum that could pave a path toward sovereignty by explicitly declaring the island Taiwan, not the Republic of China, as it is formally known.
Tsai’s government has tried to push back against China’s campaign — “on a daily basis,” as Wu, the foreign minister, put it. He and others here acknowledge, however, that China’s economic clout has cowed corporations — and countries — fearful of losing access to the world’s largest consumer market. Fire EX, an indie punk band here in Taiwan, knows what it is like to endure China’s disapproval.
Because of the members’ outspoken support for independence, the band’s music has disappeared from Chinese music-streaming services. In 2015, the live broadcast of a Taiwanese music awards ceremony was censored in China when the band won the prize for song of the year. The song, “Island’s Sunrise,” had become an anthem for a protest movement opposing closer economic ties with China.
Fire EX once played in China, but it has not done so since the protests, depriving it of revenue and greater exposure among millions of potential Mandarin-speaking fans.
“Those who want to make money will never touch on these topics,” said the band’s lead singer, who prefers to be known by a single name, Sam. “Not talking about these things makes many people believe they are not important. So actually, China’s tactic has succeeded.”
The cost for China, though, is high.
The cultural and political divides between China and Taiwan are only deepening. Although many in Taiwan are descendants of Chinese who, along with the Republic of China government, fled the civil war that ended with the communist takeover in 1949, the potential appeal of unification has waned here, at least in part because of China’s aggressive attitude.
“It’s totally two different countries,” Sam said.
Others, too, are resisting.
Wu Ming-yi, whose novel “The Stolen Bicycle” made the long list of finalists for the Man Booker International Prize this year, objected publicly when his nationality was changed from “Taiwan” to “Taiwan, China,” on the prize’s website.
The prize committee, which made the change after the Chinese Embassy in London complained, agreed to change it back. But it still bowed to China’s sensitivities, altering the category to say “country/territory” instead of nationality.
Wu declined an interview on the subject, but in a Facebook post he said that to erase the name Taiwan would diminish his writing.
“My works have been inspired by cultures all over the world but rely entirely on the germination, growth and evolution of the land ‘Taiwan,'” he wrote. “Like the Taiwan clouded leopards in my next work, the Taiwan hemlock, the ocean around it and the more than 200 mountains of 3,000 meters — to abandon this land, this name, my work would have no basis.”
While many here still look to China for economic opportunities, Tsai’s government is moving to strengthen economic — and diplomatic — ties with friendlier countries, including the United States, the European Union and Japan.
Tsai reacted angrily when Burkina Faso severed official relations and recognized China. Its move came only weeks after the Dominican Republic did the same. Now only 17 countries and the Vatican have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
“The atrocious actions by China aimed at denigrating our sovereignty are testing our bottom line,” Tsai told reporters Thursday night, according to the state-owned Central News Agency. “We will tolerate no more. It serves only to strengthen our resolve to be part of the wider world.”
As the world’s 22nd-largest economy, Taiwan has its own leverage, and many here argue that the government could use it to become less dependent on economic ties with China, which are deep despite the political frictions.
“The economy is over-reliant on China,” said Lee, the former president. “China’s economic incentives for Taiwan are part of a policy to create addictive subsidies that serve a political agenda.” Still others cling to a quixotic hope that Taiwan can reverse the tide and emerge with independent, internationally recognized status.
In Hsinchu, a technology hub on the western coast, 200 students participating in an annual Model United Nations conference last weekend practiced the ways of an organization in which Taiwan, because of China, is not now allowed to participate.
“It’s hard to change the situation right now,” one of them, Grace Kung, 15, acknowledged. But she and her peers brim with hope that that could change.
Kung criticized the World Health Organization for not inviting Taiwan to the annual assembly on global health. “The government and people of Taiwan want to help,” she said. “We shouldn’t be blocked by any government, including China’s, because of a political stance.”
By chance, she was assigned to represent China in the students’ model conference, which gave her an appreciation of what Taiwan is up against.
“Being the delegate for China,” she said, “is a powerful feeling.”
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