Taiwan Vote on Changing Olympic Team Name Risks Angering China

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwanese voters will decide this weekend whether to change the name of the island’s Olympic team, a move that could bolster independence advocates and roil already fraught ties with China.

One of 10 questions on the ballot during local elections on Saturday is a vote on whether athletes should compete in international sporting events under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.” Topics relating to Taiwan’s name, national symbols and constitution are barred under the current law.

The elections for hundreds of city mayors, county magistrates and councilors will be a key test for President Tsai Ing-wen, who has seen relations with Beijing deteriorate since her pro-independence party took power in 2016. China has cut off formal communication with Taiwan, increased military exercises and stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.

Taiwan Vote on Changing Olympic Team Name Risks Angering China

If the referendum passes, Tsai’s government would have to seek International Olympic Committee approval to change its team’s name. The group’s executive board has already said it wouldn’t approve any changes to a 1981 agreement that said Taiwan could participate in the Olympic Games under the name “Chinese Taipei,” Taipei Times reported. Tsai’s government has said it will respect the poll result and also follow the committee’s rules.

Creating Momentum

Even so, a vote in favor of the name change could trigger calls for further referendums on Taiwan’s independence or formal statehood when the island holds presidential elections in 2020, according to Andrew Yang, secretary general of Taipei’s Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

The current referendum “has created a momentum that Taiwan is Taiwan, not China,” Yang said. “Any referendum on Taiwan’s formal statehood would be perceived as a major setback for Beijing, which may consider other options -- with military actions being not ruled out.”

Tsai has refused to accept the “one-China” policy, which Beijing upholds as vital to cross-strait interactions. Still, she’s stopped short of pushing for independence, angering allies who have demanded the public be allowed to vote on Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Thousands of people protested near her Democratic Progressive Party’s headquarters in Taipei last month demanding laws be changed to allow for a referendum on independence.

Tsai’s administration has avoided weighing in on the referendums in the run up to the vote to avoid controversial issues -- such as Taiwan’s international status and marriage equality -- affecting the concurrent mayoral elections.

Any move toward independence could also weigh on relations between China and the U.S., which provides weapons to Taiwan. A top Chinese envoy this month warned National Security Adviser John Bolton that Taiwan was Beijing’s “most important and sensitive” issue.

“If it fails this time, we will try again,” said Yoshi Liu, spokesman for the Team Taiwan campaign. “Taiwan is Taiwan, not Chinese Taipei in any sense.”

Clawing Back

Besides the Olympic referendum, Tsai’s party will look to do well enough in the local elections to regain some political momentum. It will be the first chance for the China-friendly opposition, the Kuomintang, to claw back influence after being swept from power.

Tsai, like predecessors Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian, has seen her popularity decline in her first two years in office. She will be up for reelection in 2020.

Gay rights will also be a major part of the referendum, accounting for half of the proposed issues. These have generated the most heated debates, especially among the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese under age 20 who are voting for the first time.

In May 2017, Taiwan’s constitutional court set a two-year deadline for the island’s legislature to legalize marriage equality -- the first such ruling in the region. But rights activists have since criticized Tsai’s administration for the lack of progress in passing gay marriage. An annual pride parade held in Taipei drew 137,000 revelers last month, according to an organizer.

  • Should marriage be limited to unions between a man and a woman as defined by Taiwan’s Civil Code, should same-sex couples have the right to forms of permanent union other than marriage, and should elementary and junior high schools teach gay rights?
  • Do you agree that athletes should compete in the 2020 Olympics and all international sporting events under the team name of Taiwan?
  • Do you agree to reduce electricity generated in thermal power plants by at least 1% per year, and to halting the construction or expansion of coal-generated power units? Should the administration end its goal of a nuclear-free Taiwan by 2025?
  • Should Taiwan’s government continue to ban imports of agricultural products from areas affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster?

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