Taiwan Government and International – September 2021

Taiwanese athletes at this year's games in Tokyo brought home a record 12 Olympic medals, including two golds, four silvers, and six bronzes. Photo: Martti Chen

Olympics Showcase Taiwan’s Strengths and Challenges

Taiwan gave a historic performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which had been postponed until late July this year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 67 Taiwanese athletes competed in 18 sports at the games and returned to Taiwan with a record haul of 12 medals, including two golds, four silvers, and six bronzes.

This year’s games were unique as more international media ran stories and opinion pieces on Taiwan’s struggle for recognition, and countries typically not very vocal on the issue of Taiwan or cross-Strait relations came out in support of the island during the event. The newly acquired attention is a demonstration of Taiwan’s increasing visibility on the world stage, as countries in the region and globally become more concerned about China’s ambitions and the consequences of becoming more economically engaged with it.

Much of the discussion also revolved around the requirement that Taiwan only be allowed to attend the Olympics and other international sporting events under the name “Chinese Taipei,” which many argue diminishes the island’s sovereignty and causes confusion about how Taiwan is governed. Predictably, China expressed displeasure with media reports explaining the history of the name, which the International Olympic Committee and the Taiwan government agreed to as a compromise in 1981.

Taiwan, Lithuania Ties Draw Beijing’s Ire

After Lithuania moved last month to allow Taiwan to set up a representative office there under the name “Taiwan” and later pledged to establish its own office in Taiwan by the end of the year, China began taking steps to punish the small Baltic nation diplomatically and economically.

On August 10, China withdrew its envoy to Lithuania, Ambassador Shen Zhifei, and demanded that Lithuania recall its top diplomat from Beijing. China’s foreign ministry cited Lithuania’s decision to establish closer ties with Taiwan as the reason for its actions, stating that permitting Taiwan’s establishment of a de facto embassy in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius “severely undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In addition, over the past several weeks, Beijing has moved to stymy its trade relations with Lithuania, quietly halting audit and certification processes for export permits for a range of agricultural and food products. Such economic pressure tactics are being used with more frequency in recent years as China seeks to discourage countries from crossing its red lines on issues it considers sensitive, including relations with Taiwan, support for Hong Kong democracy activists, and criticism of its repressive policies in Xinjiang.

For its determination to expand ties with Taiwan even in the face of pressure from China, Lithuania has received messages of gratitude and support from Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, as well as from other political figures in Taiwan and the U.S. 

Celebrities Targeted During Olympics

The discussion regarding the name “Chinese Taipei” that Taiwan must compete under in international sporting events was not the only controversy surrounding this year’s summer Olympics in Tokyo. Public figures, namely television personality Dee Hsu – also known by her nickname, “Little S” – and singer Jolin Tsai, were targeted by Chinese internet users, angry over comments and posts on social media they perceived as pro-independence.

Hsu, who had previously expressed support for former President Ma Ying-jeou and had criticized Taiwan’s decision to ban exports of masks in the early months of 2020, saying that they were more urgently needed in China, was criticized over a comment she made about Taiwan’s “national players,” referring to the island’s Olympic athletes.

As attention to the comment mounted, several Chinese companies that sponsor Hsu announced that they would not be extending their contracts with her. The loss of income from these dropped endorsements is estimated to be NT$32 million (US$1.14 million). Hsu’s 15-year-old daughter was also dropped from a Chinese clothing brand due to her mother’s remarks.

Tsai had posted a photo on Instagram of Olympic badminton doubles gold medalists Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin accompanied by several heart emojis, and had also made a Facebook post congratulating badminton player Tsai Tzu-ying, who won silver at this year’s games in Tokyo. Her posts were slammed for not showing sufficient support for Chinese athletes.

Hsu and Tsai’s experience reflects the extent to which Taiwanese celebrities often rely on the Chinese market and the very fine line they must walk to avoid angering their fans in China.

Following Hsu’s ordeal, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MOC) and members of its opposition and ruling parties came out in support of the star. In a Facebook post, the MOC said that “in Taiwan, no athlete needs to apologize for losing a game or not winning a gold medal, and no entertainer needs to apologize for supporting the athletes of his or her country.”