China Annoyed, US Unconcerned About New-Look Taiwanese Passport

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Beijing has criticized Taiwan's decision to change the wording on its passports to make a clearer distinction between its citizens and those of mainland China.

Taiwan says the move is aimed at making life easier for its nationals when traveling abroad, as they are frequently confused for citizens of the communist mainland.

In China, however, the passport change is seen as another step by Taiwan to flaunt its independence.

Presently, the cover of a Taiwanese passport, in English and Chinese, declares the holder to be a citizen of the "Republic of China" (ROC).

The ROC is Taiwan's official name, originating from the time before the nationalist government on the mainland fell to Mao Zedong's communists and the People's Republic of China was established.

From Sept.1, the word "Taiwan" will appear on the passport cover for the first time.

The official name, and national emblem will remain unchanged.

Explaining the decision, Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said it would help foreign officials distinguish between citizens of Taiwan and those of China.

"A sizable number of Taiwanese travelers have been mistaken for citizens from the People's Republic of China by foreign immigration officials and airline companies," he said, citing the results of a recent survey of Taiwanese who had traveled abroad.

A spokesman for the Government Information Office could not provide any further information on Monday, but confirmed Chien's comments about the inconvenience experienced by Taiwanese when traveling.

Since Chinese nationalists fled the mainland for the island of Formosa half a century ago, Taiwan has become a thriving democracy of 23 million people.

But its efforts to be a part of the international community have been consistently stymied by Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province and foresees its eventual re-unification, under what it calls the "one China" principle.

In 1971 Taiwan lost its United Nations seat to mainland China. The U.S. had supported China's admission while opposing Taiwan's expulsion.

Washington remains Taiwan's key ally and weapons supplier, even as successive U.S. administrations have continued to observe the "one China" policy.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday that the decision by Taipei to change the cover of its passport was a matter for Taiwan.

It would not affect the U.S. "one China" policy nor the way American officials handled Taiwanese visitors or their passports, he said.

But Beijing denounced the decision, saying it was part of Taiwan's strategy to pursue "gradual" independence.

"This kind of motherland-splitting, base conduct is unpopular and doomed to failure," China's foreign ministry said in a statement.

State-run mainland media also quoted Chinese political experts as calling the move "unwise" and predicting that it would worsen already tense cross-Strait relations.

One analyst said the change on the passport was a blatant demonstration of the separatist ideology of President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party, which in March 2000 ended 50 years of nationalist rule on Taiwan.

Chen faces a strong electoral challenge next year from two opposition parties that have formed an alliance aimed at ousting him from office.

'Blows from China'

In regular public opinion polls conducted by the country's National Chengchi University over the years, most Taiwanese continue to express their support for a retention of the status quo, while a smaller number support either unification with the mainland or permanent independence.

In the most recent such poll, conducted last December, 54.8 percent of respondents voted for the status quo, 15.9 percent for independence, and 14.5 for unification. Almost 15 percent said they did not know.

In recent months, Taiwan's pro-independence forces say their cause has been strengthened by China's controversial handling of the outbreak of the pneumonia-like SARS virus.

From its birthplace in southern China, SARS spread to Taiwan, which was then forced for two months to grapple with the disease alone.

Other SARS-hit countries were helped by the World Health Organization, but this was denied Taiwan because the mainland continues to block the island's bid for WHO membership.

And last week, when Taiwan asked to be removed from a list of destinations the WHO had advised visitors to avoid, China again intervened to prevent this, despite Taiwan's protestations that it had met the requirements for removal from the list.

In a weekend editorial, Taiwan's Liberty Times welcomed the passport decision as a move which it said "helps protect the integrity of the country and the national image" at a time when Taiwan faced both the fight against SARS and simultaneous "blows from China."

"Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese," it said. "It does not belong to China."

"Taiwan has all the elements of a country, including people, territory, government, sovereignty, as well as autonomous national defense and foreign ties ... the reality of Taiwan's status as a sovereign nation cannot and will not be changed as a result of all the low blows by China."

See also:
China Blocks Taiwan's Bid to Join Global Health Community (May 21, 2003)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow