Beijing Is Going Around Telling People Not To Call Taiwan a Country

The Chinese government has demanded small non-profit groups, including a bicycle association and a Jewish religious group, to clarify their stances on Taiwan.
September 13, 2021, 10:20am
UN China Taiwan
Beijing is asking non-profit groups that applied for UN credentials to refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites. Photo: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

The Chinese government has been using its clout with the United Nations to get international non-profit organizations to refer to Taiwan as a “province of China.”

Non-governmental groups need to apply for credentials with the UN’s Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations in order to participate in UN-led events. In recent months, the Chinese government has been stalling some applications, citing the groups’ failure to make clear on their websites that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China. 

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China is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the others being France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is the second-largest single-member contributor to the UN budget, and the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops.

Among the NGO applicants that ran into problems due to the way they referred to Taiwan were a Jewish religious group in New Jersey, a Switzerland-based bicycle association, and an environmental education group in southern France. 

The ruling Communist Party of China claims Taiwan, a democratically-ruled island and U.S. ally, as Chinese territory, and has been pressuring other governments and international businesses to acknowledge this claim as part of its attempt to isolate Taiwan from the global community. 

Beijing has in the past few years asked global firms, such as airlines and hotel chains, to clearly mark Taiwan as well as the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau as parts of China on their websites. Those that fail to comply risk getting boycotted in the vast Chinese market. 

Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions controlled by Beijing, but many businesses and international groups list them separately for convenience, since the cities have their own currencies and immigration rules. 

Beijing’s efforts to scruitize obscure webpages of non-profit groups, many of them small organizations with little to do with geopolitics, show the lengths it is willing to go to in enforcing its sovereignty claims. 

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According to UN meeting records, several NGO applications for consultative status were deferred after the representative from China asked them about their stances on Taiwan. 

One of the groups, the World Bicycle Industry Association, received the query because its members include the Taiwan Bicycle Association, according to a U.N. meeting report from August. Other organizations, such as the New Jersey-based Jewish group Congregation Pirchei Shoshanim, were accused of using incorrect ways to refer to Taiwan on their webpages, even though they did not appear to be making any political statement. 

Yu-Jie Chen, an expert on international law and relations with Academia Sinica in Taipei, said the Chinese government is aware that major democracies such as the U.S. and Japan do not agree with its claims over Taiwan, and has found it easier to pressure businesses and smaller organizations instead.

The Trump administration in 2018 criticized Beijing’s attempt to make airlines change their references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as “Orwellian nonsense.” 

“But such practice can be used by Beijing to further isolate Taiwan from the international sphere,” Chen said. “Beijing wants to pressure, wherever it can, Taiwan’s Tsai government to recognize that Taiwan is part of China, which [Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen] has steadily and consistently refused to do, with the backing of the majority of Taiwanese voters.” 

Beijing’s tack with non-profit organizations has been successful, with many groups changing their Taiwan references as requested to avoid further trouble. 

A high school in Colorado, Regis Jesuit, added “Province of China” after the word “Taiwan” in a year-old article so its application for a UN credential could be approved, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal

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For All Moonkind, a U.S.-based group calling for legislation to protect moon landing sites, deleted a donation webpage, where Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau were listed in a dropdown menu of countries, the report said. 

A group devoted to environmental education, the Association of 3 Hedgehogs, said in its 2020 report that it hosted “international students from mainland China, Taiwan and Autralia,” according to a Google cached webpage, which includes the misspelling of “Australia.” This month, the sentence was amended to “international students from China and Australia.” 

In January 2020, a U.S. representative complained to the UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations that NGOs should not be required to call Taiwan a province of China. 

In response, a Chinese representative said the organizations that were applying for a UN credential should abide by the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states. “Using correct terminology has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” the representative was reported as saying in a UN report

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.