China’s Republican flag — the French-inspired tricolore representing nationalism, democracy, and peoples’ livelihood in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People — was the national flag of all of China from 1928 until the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. After 1949, Cold War politics kept both flags flying internationally. Since the Republic of China (ROC) was a founding member of the United Nations, its flag adorned UN buildings until 1971, when the PRC assumed Chinese representation to the UN. The ROC flag replaced the Japanese flag over Taiwan in 1945, when Allied forces placed Japanese Formosa under ROC administration without consulting the local population. It remains as China’s national flag over Taiwan, and in ROC diplomatic missions in 20 countries that still recognize it as the government of China. Public display of this flag is strictly prohibited in the PRC. The PRC even tries to censor this flag outside of China, to the consternation of Canadians who organize events with Taiwanese partners.
Taiwan is important to Canada. Taiwan is Canada’s fifth-largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific and its eleventh largest in the world. There are over 200,000 Taiwanese people in Canada and some 60,000 Canadians living in Taiwan. Taiwan is Canada’s tenth-largest market for education, including over 3000 university students. Taiwan also sends 1000 youth to Canada on the International Experience Canada program. Chinese diplomats rarely intervene in substantive relationships between people, but they do object to the use of certain nationalist symbols.
An example of attempted censorship happened two years ago at the University of Ottawa. Professor Andrew Yang (National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan) gave a talk entitled “Recalling ROC’s Role in WWII.” Since the subject was China before 1949, it was appropriate to discuss the “Republic of China” and to display the flag that flew with Chinese troops during the war. The topic had little to do with Taiwan — Taiwan was part of Japan throughout the war and Taiwanese people fought for Japan. Nonetheless, First Secretary Gao Zhuoxian of the PRC Embassy Education Office sent an email to university officials stating
What is unacceptable is not the discussion itself, but the icon of Taiwan flag and the description of “Republic of Taiwan” (sic) on the official university website, which violates the principle of “one China.” “Chinese Taipei” is the right description when Taiwan appears in international events such as Olympic games. This shows the common understanding of the international community when dealing with the appearances of Taiwan. Canada would only accept Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada. To be politically correct, we do require the icon of Taiwan flag and the description of “Republic of Taiwan” (sic) be removed from your website.
The flag remained and the talk happened, showing that no foreign embassy has the right to restrict free speech on Canadian campuses.
Ottawa City Hall learned a similar lesson about the ROC flag while preparing for its Canada-150 celebration “Ottawa welcomes the world.” Since a dynamic Taiwanese community is part of Ottawa’s multicultural tapestry, Taiwan should be included in this event highlighting different national cultures each week. Nonetheless, Mayor Jim Watson ended up in difficult negotiations with the PRC Embassy and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO). China asked Ottawa to use the term “Chinese Taipei,” but eventually accepted “Taiwan” as a neutral geographic term. Ottawa agreed to omit Taiwan from the list of countries, instead including TECO among “partner events.” Ottawa initially left Taiwan out of the event passport visitors use for collecting souvenir stamps. Only when Madagascar pulled out did organizers finally agree to dedicate a page to Taiwan. Yet, unlike the other countries, Taiwan conspicuously lacked a flag and had to use cute heart-shaped stickers instead. This was a concession to the Chinese Embassy.
By all accounts, the event was a success. Attendance on the 9 July Taiwan Day broke records for the event, attracting nearly 6000 visitors. Mayor Watson’s diplomatic finesse proved that Canadians can negotiate win-win solutions to deal with the realities of both China and Taiwan. The event was supported by volunteers from Taiwanese-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian community organizations. The omission of the ROC flag seems like a small price to pay for the City of Ottawa to successfully nurture relations with both China and Taiwan.
It seems ironic that the PRC protests one of the few symbols that unites Taiwan with China. A repudiation by Taiwanese authorities of the “Republic of China” and its flag would constitute a declaration of Taiwanese independence, foreclosing forever the possibility of “unification.” Supporters of Taiwan independence, who see the ROC as a foreign imposition, have long looked for new national symbols. In fact, one green-and-white flag they use for their imagined nation was designed by Taiwanese activists around a kitchen table in Ottawa. Yet, the government on Taiwan has never tried to change the name and symbolism of their state. No matter which party wins presidential or legislative elections in Taiwan, its leaders wish to maintain peace, avoid provoking China, and maintain substantive relations with the rest of the world.
PRC sensitivity about the ROC tricolore only makes sense if we think beyond Taiwan. Benedict Anderson taught us to think about the nation as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The ROC flag remains a Chinese symbol. It represents a Chinese political community still inspired by democracy and Sun Yat-sen’s Republicanism. This is why the ROC flag flies in Chinatowns around the world, where it is treasured by people who have never even visited Taiwan. The ROC flag represents an alternative democratic China that exists in the hearts of many overseas Chinese, among a strong minority in Taiwan, and among unknown numbers of people in China. It challenges the PRC claim to have replaced the ROC in 1949. The international censorship of this symbol is unlikely to be only about Taiwan. Perhaps more importantly, the ROC flag also touches at the Communist Party’s claim to be the sole regime that can govern China.