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Taiwan's renaming drive hits sore spot

Beijing denounces the island's removal of `China' references.

February 15, 2007|Mark Magnier and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

BEIJING — What's in a name? Quite a bit if you're talking about China-Taiwan relations. China on Wednesday blasted Taiwan's president for a recent name-change campaign that deletes references to "China" and "Taiwan province" at state-run organizations in favor of "Taiwan."

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and is deeply suspicious of any move that downplays the island's cultural and historical ties to China or suggests the island is an independent entity. The two sides split in 1949 when the Nationalists were forced to flee China after a protracted civil war.

Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party headed by beleaguered President Chen Shui-bian, however, favors a stronger Taiwanese identity. On Monday, Chunghwa Post, the island's postal service, became Taiwan Post Co., a move the government said was necessary to distinguish it from the mainland's China Post. Chunghwa is another term for China.

"Taiwan" is also expected to appear on the island's stamps, many of which will land in Chinese mailboxes, given the strong commercial and familial ties between the political adversaries.

Other candidates that have gotten, or are posed to receive, a moniker makeover include Taiwan's state-run airlines, shipbuilding, petroleum, telecommunications and steel companies.

The registration fees, cost and confusion have prompted grumbling from some executives and labor unions. Changing signs on 1,000 post offices island-wide, repainting post office vehicles and reissuing bank books and financial forms could cost more than $30 million, by some estimates.

In Kaohsiung, an executive of China Shipbuilding Corp. told local media it would be a "painstaking task" to erase the China reference on the company's giant bridge cranes, costing as much as $300,000.

As a handful of post offices erected signs Monday touting the new name, hundreds of postal employees in green uniforms waved banners that read "Anger," "Sadness" and "Explain It to Us Clearly!" as they clashed with police, unhappy at the short notice and the fact that they weren't consulted.

Nationalists employed "China" in many official names after their 1949 flight from the mainland, including Taiwan's official "Republic of China" designation, at a time when they harbored illusions of regaining control over the mainland.

As those hopes dimmed, Beijing embraced the use of China as a sign the two sides would eventually reunify. By the 1990s, the rise of the democracy movement in Taiwan was fueling a stronger Taiwanese identity that Chen has tried to exploit.

Behind the name game are some down-home politics. The president, battered by a financial scandal and low approval ratings, hopes to use the issue to rally party support among pro-independence voters in advance of the 2008 presidential election, analysts said.

Washington has taken notice, wary of added cross-strait tensions at a time when the U.S. military is already stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The primary interest of the United States remains maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week . "The United States does not, for instance, support changes in terminology for entities administered by the Taiwan authorities."

While Beijing and Washington are both concerned that Chen could stir up trouble, an overreaction by Beijing would only work to Chen's advantage, said Yang Kai-huang, a professor at Ming Chuan University in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital. "This is domestic Taiwanese politics," he said.

A U.S. congressional staffer on a recent visit to Taiwan agreed that the issue was a bit overblown but said that, from a personal standpoint, she would welcome a name change at Taiwan's China Airlines, which closely resembles the mainland's Air China.

"It is really confusing," she said. "It doesn't need to be 'Taiwan Airlines,' it could be 'Mickey Mouse Airlines.' But it needs to be clarified."

The name-change initiative is only the latest in a series of moves by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party that has irked China.

Taiwan's National Palace Museum changed its charter last month to say its mission was to collect and study "domestic and foreign" art. Beijing claimed this was aimed at downplaying where the art treasures came from, a charge museum officials deny. When the Nationalists left China, they fled with 654,500 pieces of mainland art.

Taiwan also recently moved to rewrite its textbooks, always a sensitive issue in Asia, dropping references to "our country" in favor of "China."

A volume previously known as "History of Our Country" will now be called "History of China."

For many ordinary Taiwanese, it's a big to-do over nothing.

"This whole naming issue is meaningless, a nonissue," said Tseng Shu-fang, 27, product developer at a cosmetics company. "It's all a big waste. I really don't know why they have to go around renaming everything."

Times staff writer Magnier reported from Beijing and special correspondent Tsai from Taipei.

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