Written by Chun-yi Lee.
The 2017 Summer Universiade finished on 30 August in Taipei. Taiwan successfully bid on the right to host the 2017 Universiade six years ago, in November 2011. It was the highest profile international sports competition ever held in Taipei.
International sports offer one of the best opportunities for a country to demonstrate itself in a global society. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing, for example, dazzled the world and transformed the image of China from that of a poor and undeveloped factory of the world to one of a strong rising power characterized by the beauty and mystery of the East. What kind of image did Taiwan create after the 2017 Univesiade?
Taipei is a bustling city with a total area of 272 square kilometres and a population of 2.63 million people. Transportation in Taipei is convenient and economic — the Taipei Metro (MRT), opened just over 20 years ago, already has five lines, including connections to the Taoyuan and Sungshan airports. People in Taiwan as a whole are seen as warm with great hospitality to foreigners. Its dynamic culture and metropolitan atmosphere increased the appeal of Taipei in the competition for selection as the host city of 2017 Universiade. However, is this the image that Taiwan presented to the global society after 2017 Universiade?
Two main things I think will leave a strong image of Taiwan for both the athletic competitors and the global society at large.
The first was the protest during the opening ceremony. Several groups, including opponents of pension reform and groups supporting Taiwan’s independence, gathered at the stadium and blocked international athletes from entering. Taipei police feared that the protestors would take extreme action against the athletes and delayed the athletes’ entrance to the stadium, and most of 7,700 participating athletes didn’t attend the opening ceremony at all. Read more about the protest here.
The other news, which wasn’t reported widely in the international media due to the opposition of Mainland China, was that even with Taipei as the host city, the national flag of Republic of China could not be displayed in the stadium. National teams of Taiwan could only be referred to as Chinese Taipei at all games. Taipei residents living around the athletes’ village responded by displaying ROC national flags all around the neighbourhood, and audiences who came for the opening and closure ceremony also carried lots of national flags, while many foreign athletes wore hats printed with ROC national flags.
What has the world learned about Taiwan after the 2017 Universiade? I think they have seen the diversity of Taiwan, and also its thriving civil society. During the Beijing Olympics, the government even controlled the degree of air pollution. The Beijing government would never allow protesters to “disturb” the international games, because it would be seen as a discredit to the government’s authority, causing a loss of face. However, look at the citizens in Taiwan. They protested at the right moment not to harm international athletes as terrorists groups but to shame the current president, Tsai. Their behaviour might be seen as childish, but the implication of this successful protest is that the Taipei government in fact has less control of its citizens than Beijing, which can be seen as a fruit of the democracy if compared with Beijing’s authoritarian restraint. In a sense the protest at the beginning of 2017 Universiade opening ceremony has similar implication as the protest at Hamburg during G20 summit in early July. The difference is that protests in Taipei were much softer. The Universiade protesters didn’t throw petrol bombs but colour-smoke bombs, they didn’t rally against global capitalism but united in solidarity over dissatisfaction with the current government.
The news about national flag in fact validated the sentiment of Taiwanese citizens’ longing to be recognized in the eyes of international community. In a televisions news interview, when a reporter asked one citizen why they wanted to display the national flag, the citizen’s answer was, “Our national flag is very beautiful; we want it to be seen by the world.” In my view, this urge to display Taiwan’s national flag didn’t come from the pursuit of independence, it came from people’s desire to be known, remembered and recognized by the international community. It is also related to long-term suppression from the Beijing government: the strong push for Taiwanese people to accept the Chinese identity has spurred resistance, and the flying of Republic of China’s national flags around the athletes’ village is an example.
What can the world see about Taiwan through the 2007 Universiade? In my eye, I see a society which has its own strong will, a society which doesn’t compromise with the government, no matter whether it is controlled by the Kuomintang or Democratic Progress Party. I also see a strong desire from the people to be recognised in international society and to be represented by their own national flag, no matter whether this flag is controversial or not within the island. The events of the 2017 Universiade genuinely reflected the truth of Taiwanese society, perhaps chaotic or disturbing, but sending out a strong message from people to the world — rather than an advertising message from the government to the world. However, I shall end with a note that my eyes might not be fresh or external. After all, I cannot objectively judge the emotions or sentiment of Taiwanese people, being Taiwanese myself.
Chun-yi Lee is the director of Taiwan Studies Program and assistant professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. Image Credit: CC by Chun Yi Chiang/Flickr.