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In China’s Endless Campaign To Erase Taiwan, No Target Is Too Small
On the menu at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards: Another kowtow to the Beijing bully
By Ron Gluckman
Taiwan savored a delicious moment of triumph on the world’s culinary stage in March. The annual list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants—announced simultaneously at galas in Tokyo, Bangkok and Macau—included two Taiwan restaurants. Three others made the honor roll of the next 50 best venues, boosting Taiwan’s standing as one of Asia’s best dining destinations.
But the joy was short-lived: The next day, 50 Best took Taiwan’s name off the list. “Rumblings in the foodie restaurant scene where the ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant’ list has just been announced,” noted a tweet by Tricky Taipei. “Taiwan has 5 spots on this year’s list and they’re listed as being in ‘Greater China.’ ”
This was another reminder of Beijing’s relentless campaign to minimize the existence of what it regards as just a disgruntled part of the People’s Republic of China. For Taiwan, run independently by a democratically elected government, the struggle for recognition in the shadow of the larger, intimidating mainland has lasted for decades. China has pressured Disney and other big movie studios, retailers such as Gap and Zara, and the world’s airlines and hotel chains to eliminate all references to Taiwan. It bullies countries into not recognizing Taiwan; last summer it cut off most trade with Lithuania after Taiwan opened a representative office there. And it prevents Taiwan from joining international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
In the case of 50 Best, which had long listed Taiwan on Asian culinary maps, the rationale for the change remains hazy. The glitzy red-carpet ceremonies hailed Taiwan’s unique culinary culture and highlighted its top-ranked restaurant, Logy. As the winners and their countries, including Taiwan, were announced, they were posted online.
Making a Country Disappear
Yet within a day, 50 Best scrubbed the list of any mention of Taiwan; its restaurants were now part of Greater China. Then the list was altered once more. William Reed Business Media, the U.K. company behind the awards (along with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), declined to answer phone calls to explain the decision. But responding by email, the company’s director of content, William Drew, said: “Since the first edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013, we have constantly refined and updated our protocols to best reflect Asia’s changing dining landscape. With Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (and Asia’s 50 Best Bars)… we will not be using the term ‘Greater China’ going forward.”
So instead of listing Taiwan or Greater China, the company dropped all the countries and now lists only cities. Few in Taiwan were able to digest this. “Removing Greater China and not reinstating Taiwan was the path of least resistance,” says Kathy Cheng, the Taiwanese writer known as Tricky Taipei. “Taiwan is not Greater China, but it can’t simply be Taiwan either. So they removed all mention of countries to appease ‘whoever.’ This was not a win for Taiwan, [it was] a loss for everyone else.”
In a follow-up email, Drew wrote: “50 Best seeks to be as apolitical as possible and avoid provoking any sensitivities. The initial list drew some criticism and we responded by categorizing Taiwan under “Greater China,” a phrase commonly used in cultural and business circles to describe the geographical area that covers Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. However, following a detailed consultation with various parties—including independent consultants, stakeholders and our Academy network (the chefs, journalists and foodies who vote on the restaurants)—we concluded that not using the term ‘Greater China’ is the best decision.”
Bending to Beijing
Many observers question whether 50 Best’s partnerships with sponsors that do business in China and with Macau, which hosts one of the awards galas, have made the company susceptible to China’s demands. “It’s pretty obvious there was pressure from China,” says one of Taiwan’s top chefs, who requested anonymity. “This went viral in Taiwan, and all the chefs and foodies were talking about it.” He said many complained directly to 50 Best.
This tug-of-war over what to call Taiwan can seem trivial, like something from a political farce. But companies doing business on the mainland must toe Beijing’s line. And if they operate in both China and Taiwan, they’re forced to walk a tightrope between offending China and offending their Taiwanese partners. So sidesteps such as 50 Best’s are widespread. Airlines and hotels, for example, mollify Beijing by marking Taipei on maps as a city on a nameless island.
It all stems from the One China policy. Kuomintang, or KMT, leaders and generals ruled China until they lost a long civil war with the Communist Party and fled the mainland to the offshore island of Taiwan in 1949. They formed the Republic of China, claiming to be the rightful rulers of all China. At first, the U.S. and much of the world supported the republic and blocked recognition of what they termed Red China. Yet China’s size eventually tilted the pendulum to Beijing. In 1971 Beijing took the China seat from the republic at the United Nations, a painful loss for a U.N. founding member, and the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
Racing for Recognition
China won’t allow countries to recognize both it and Taiwan, so the two heaped economic aid on poor nations and wooed rich countries to win more embassies. But it was a losing battle for Taiwan, and now only 14 nations recognize it diplomatically.
Nonetheless, Beijing maintains its pressure to keep Taiwan marginalized. Taiwanese describe their indignation at being forced to compete in the Olympics as Chinese Taipei and at being banned from less prominent events and groups such as the World Firefighters Games, the International Organization for Standardization and the South Pacific Tourism Organisation.
For a time, this Cold War rivalry seemed to be softening, with China experts predicting that greater economic ties would bring Beijing and Taipei closer. “I remember writing cover stories about how economics would bind them, and eventually the differences might start to be ironed out,” says Dexter Roberts, longtime Beijing bureau chief for BusinessWeek magazine and author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.” He noted the huge Taiwanese investment in China and the start of flights between the countries as signs that the adversaries were on a path to re-integration.
Instead, the two sides drifted apart, he says, citing studies that show younger generations in Taiwan are increasingly independence minded. “I think the realization in Beijing is that the old plan, of the economy leading to political integration, has failed.” He adds that China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, shows no tolerance for compromise, taking hard-line positions on everything from combating Western influences to clamping down on Hong Kong, the ex-British colony returned to China in 1997 under an agreement that was supposed to guarantee its freedoms for 50 years.
Hong Kong No Longer a Model
Ironically, observers for years predicted that Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong would guide discussions about Taiwan’s integration with China. “Hong Kong’s fate only clarified for the Taiwanese something they already knew: the inability to preserve a liberal democratic way of life under [Chinese Communist Party] rule,” says J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
He says few Taiwanese would trade their freedoms and values for economic gain, and surveys bear this out. In 2020, the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei noted that two-thirds of the population regarded themselves as “solely Taiwanese,” compared with less than a fifth in 1992.
Now the speculation in Taiwan focuses on the impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have on the island. Russia seeking to restore its empire mirrors Beijing’s obsession with Greater China, and polls show a heightened concern among Taiwan’s population. “Ukraine has awakened many Taiwanese—who had been complacent about the external threat to their country—to the reality of how unpredictable and irrational highly personalistic authoritarian regimes like those in Moscow and Beijing can be,” says Cole. (In a break with U.S. policy this week, President Joe Biden promised that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily.)
While most believe an invasion is unlikely, the constant badgering by Beijing wears on Taiwan. In December, China fined retail chain 7-Eleven for referring to Taiwan as an independent nation on its website. In 2018 Beijing forced Gap to apologize for a T-shirt with a map of China—without Taiwan. Japanese retailer Muji was fined for selling items in some stores in China sporting “Made in Taiwan” labels.
As for 50 Best, after Russia’s invasion, it announced that it would move its World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony this year from Moscow to London. It also banned restaurants in Russia from its lists.
But when it comes to China, all rules are rewritten as companies kowtow to the world’s biggest bully. The Taiwanese long ago learned to move on. “Honestly, most people in Taiwan don’t even care anymore,” says Cheng. “ ‘Chinese Taipei’ at the Olympics is maddening every two years (winter and summer games), but people in Taiwan shrug it off at this point. It doesn’t define us.”