Reality Check: Is Taiwan a Province of China?

Taiwan is reportedly trying to persuade China to drop a demand that all Taiwanese goods exported to China had to be marked “Made in Taiwan Province of China”, writes dpa. The Liberty Times quoted vice economics minister Lin Sheng-chung as saying that “we will not accept China’s demand, and will hold talks with China to find a solution”. In recent months, several regions in China have reportedly begun to screen the source of origin of Taiwanese goods, and rejected those marked “Made in Taiwan”. Labels to China’s liking would be “Taiwan, China” or “Taipei, China”.

One would probably need to be a lawyer, and one with a good grasp of international law at that, to understand the possible legal ramifications of such labels – just as of the flags under which Taiwan is taking part in international conferences, or international sports events. And I’d really be able to assess if  minister Lin rejects the Chinese demand because of possible legal effects, or rather because he fears a public outcry if Taipei gives in to such a demand. Or if Taiwan’s government is worried about the political effect that giving in to the Chinese demand would have on China’s aggressiveness itself. One concession begets another concession – especially when blackmail is the name of the game.

The mere fact that China is a member of the United Nations, or that most governments of the world firmly adhere to a One-China policy doesn’t offer much orientation about what it takes to be a country. When the Economist tried to define the makings of a country in April, it found that the answer to that question was surprisingly difficult:

Any attempt to find a clear definition of a country soon runs into a thicket of exceptions and anomalies. Diplomatic recognition is clearly not much guide to real life. In the early years of the cold war most countries recognised the Chinese regime in Taiwan (“Free China”) while the mainland communists (“Red China”) were isolated. Now the absurdity is the other way round. The number of countries with formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan has shrivelled to just 23—mostly small, cash-strapped islands. Yet Taiwan is not just a country, but a rather important one. Under mainland-pleasing names such as “Chinese Taipei” it is a member of the Asian Development Bank and the World Trade Organisation, and an observer at some OECD panels. It has nearly 100 “trade offices” around the world.

So there they are, the Beijing-pleasing names. God knows if “Taiwan, China” or “Taipei, China” would mean just as little (or much), and if they’d do so by legal, or rather by political standards. Even if the implications should be political rather than legal, every time Taipei gives in to Chinese pressure – directly applied as in the current country-of-origin issue controversy, or indirectly applied through international political, economic or cultural organizations and associations -, it sends a signal of helplessness, and fuels what may, in reality, be little more than Chinese illusions.

After all, some day in the rather near future, with or without the ECFA signed, Taiwan will wake up to the reality that the number of Chinese missiles aimed at their island has continued to grow. The Chinese will wake up to the reality that saying that Taiwan is their province still hasn’t made it so. That will be a surprising and very uncomfortable moment for everyone involved – and that’s really everyone on this globe. The Cold war may be over – the nuclear age definitely isn’t. If there is a genuine determination to defend Taiwan, Beijing’s criminal energy shouldn’t be encouraged by yet more signals that would suggest the contrary.

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Update/Related
The Stupid Little Mermaid, March 12, 2009

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7 Responses to “Reality Check: Is Taiwan a Province of China?”

  1. Someone on Michael Turton’s blog mentioned something that is probably just as important at this stage. Made in Taiwan has become a brand in the way that Made in Japan is. Marking products with China at a time when consumers worldwide have a negative impression of the quality of Chinese made goods is a terrible idea from a business perspective. I would imagine that many of the same businesspeople who support closer relations with China would find such a change in practice to be troubling because it could affect the competitiveness of their products. Labeling your products with China is not the same thing as labeling your sports team Chinese Taipei. Therefore, I can imagine the fallout from acceding to such a demand would be serious for the Ma administration in a way that their other concessions have not been.

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  2. When I read the article I had the same thoughts as Taihanasie. Why abandon a comparably good name?

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  3. Actually, here is another idea. The Chinese have to know that such a concession is impossible at this time. There are simply too many Taiwanese manufacturers who get too much mileage out of distinguishing the origin of their products from those in China. And even if this only applied to goods exported to China, once those goods were reexported, the recipients in the destination country would still see the Taiwan, China labels when they opened the covers of the products and looked inside, say, at the motherboard.

    I am thinking that the Chinese are not serious this time. Instead, they are laying the foundation for a future assault on labels. In 10 or 20 years, when Taiwan is much more dependent on the Chinese market, they can possibly make the Taiwanese government concede. Meanwhile, the Ma administration gets to look tough. If it makes any other trade concessions (and there will be concessions to push the ECFA through) the administration can say to the Taiwanese public, “Now see what they wanted us to concede? And we wouldn’t do it. We really do care about local manufacturers.”

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  4. I’d certainly agree with the more commercial theory if Beijing’s demand went beyond Taiwanese products exported to China itself. But as for Chinese consumers, they’ll probably be able to tell, even from a Taiwan, China label, that the product in question hails from their renegade province. 😉

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  5. once those goods were reexported, the recipients in the destination country would still see the Taiwan, China labels when they opened the covers of the products and looked inside, say, at the motherboard
    I can see that point to a degree, but I can’t imagine it’s the real issue. After all, motherboards, if exported to China, will serve as components there. And when a user in a third country opens the computer, he or she may be rather confused – that wouldn’t work in China’s favor in commercial terms.

    Hang on, there’s a new post on your blog, Junjie. Let me take a look…

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  6. So far as you are referring to minister Lin’s motivation to reject the demand, rather than to Beijing’s motivation to make it, I can probably see your point…

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