Sunday, October 14, 2018

IELTS and "Taiwan, China" -- screenshot taken on October 14, 2018

Last weekend, the UK-based English examinations service IELTS changed its designation for Taiwan to “Taiwan, China”. This has caused a huge amount of outrage in the IELTS community over the past week.

IELTS is an English proficiency exam, taken predominantly by people who wish to study in English in foreign countries. As of one week ago, a young Taiwanese person using the website to register for IELTS needs to declare they are from “Taiwan, China”. That is, frankly speaking, insulting.

It's fine to not be an expert in East Asian geopolitics. No one is an expert in everything. So here is a brief explanation of why we are so angry about this.

Q: Isn’t “Taiwan, China” technically correct?

A: You’re thinking of the “Republic of China”, the official name of Taiwan’s government. (Why is it the Republic of China? Long interesting story, well worth reading up on, but I won’t insert a history lecture here.) If Taiwan were designated “Taiwan (Republic of China)” or “Taiwan (ROC)”, there would be no anger and outrage. At worst, there would be a lot of eye-rolling, as the Republic of China is a contentious issue here in Taiwan and I can assure you many Taiwanese people have strong opinions on this matter. But that’s not what happened here.

Q: So why is “Taiwan, China” so offensive?

A: First, ask yourself this. When someone hears the word “China”, do they think of the Republic of China, de facto capital Taipei, population 23 million? Or do they think of the People’s Republic of China, capital Beijing, population 1.4 billion? Most people outside of East Asia aren’t even aware that there’s an entity called the “Republic of China” that’s separate from China. The Chinese government is well aware of this and uses it to its advantage.

I’m not going to mince words here. The government of the PRC would like nothing more than to take over Taiwan and incorporate it into their territory (and it’s easy to see why -- geopolitically it would be a wonderful strategic prize). This is not the ranting of a conspiracy monger -- China isn’t even trying to hide its intentions. Publicly at least, they won’t rule out the use of military force to conquer Taiwan. But as that would be extremely risky, they would much rather wear Taiwan down, demoralizing it so that its people see annexation as the inevitable choice.

Whether China takes Taiwan by force or by “peaceful” coercion, it doesn’t want the rest of the world to see it as a larger country taking over a smaller, less powerful country. That would look very bad. Instead, China wants the rest of the world to see Taiwan as a recalcitrant part of China that needs to be brought to heel. That’s why (among many things) it’s got people pushing to change “Taiwan” on those drop-down menus to things like “Taiwan, China” or “Taiwan, Province of China”. It’s all about changing the world’s perception of Taiwan so that if Invasion Day comes, the rest of the world doesn’t see Xi Jinping as another Hitler invading Poland.

And every airline that lists Taiwan as China and every educational institution that forces students to declare their country as “Taiwan, China” is complicit in this. With Beijing -- not politically neutral.

Imagine how you would feel if, every time you had to fill out an online form, you had to cross your fingers because you knew your country’s name might be twisted in a deliberately insulting way. And the hopelessness you would feel if you knew that it wasn’t an aberration, but rather fast becoming the norm.

(It's worth noting that, as of October 14, IELTS still lists Hong Kong as Hong Kong and Macau as Macau. No need to change them to "Hong Kong, China" and "Macau, China" -- because they're actually ruled by China.)

Q: Hey, wait. Didn’t I hear somewhere that the Taiwanese government sees itself as the rightful government of all of China?

A: You’re just not letting me get away without giving a history lecture, are you? Look, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the rulers of Taiwan were the same guys who ruled China before Mao took over in 1949, and they absolutely saw themselves as the rightful rulers of China and produced loads of official propaganda to that effect. They also headed a terribly unpleasant military dictatorship and Taiwan is much better off not being ruled by them any more. There are still a few “retake the Mainland!” guys around, but today few people under the age of 80 seriously think the Republic of China ought to retake its old territory.

The Taiwanese government’s claims on China are a relic of an earlier age. They still maintain them because the Chinese government has threatened war if Taiwan makes a break with its past -- that would, in China’s eyes, mean Taiwan was officially taking steps away from eventual unification. It’s possible that China is bluffing. But it’s awfully easy to say Taiwan should call China’s bluff when you’re not the one with missiles pointed at you.

Yes, there are some Taiwanese (a very small minority) who genuinely want Taiwan to be a part of China. That is because human beings are capable of holding a variety of political positions, and Taiwan is a free country where people can be open about their political beliefs. It’s not the opinion of most Taiwanese.

Q: But aren’t Taiwanese people (culturally/ethnically/linguistically) Chinese anway?

A: OK, there is a lot that can be said here, from the fact that this is an extremely reductionist and ridiculous way to decide if a country should legitimately exist or not, to the fact that not all Taiwanese have Chinese ancestors. But I’m just going to make an observation.

According to Wikipedia, nearly three quarters of the population of Singapore is of Chinese heritage. But no Singaporean is afraid that they’ll have to start telling foreigners that they’re from “Singapore, China”.

Singaporeans, and the millions of people in Thailand, Malaysia, etc. who also self-identify as Chinese, have a luxury that Taiwanese people lack. They can call themselves Chinese all they want and no one will think that de-legitimizes their actual native country. Beijing’s not putting out disinformation that Singapore is a wayward Chinese province. As far as I know, Beijing doesn’t have missiles pointed at Singapore to keep them from acting too independent.

Q: Who are you? You’re not even Taiwanese, are you?

A: I’ve lived in Taiwan since 2007. Currently, in my day job, I work with Taiwanese students who want to study abroad in English-speaking countries. A significant part of this job involves teaching IELTS preparation classes, which gives me a look at how Taiwanese young people view this and other exams.

Q: So why don’t we hear from Taiwanese people, rather than a Westerner like you?

A: Taiwanese people have definitely noticed and I can anecdotally say that people are very concerned and angry. But look, let me point something out.

In August, the TOEFL exam did the same thing -- they changed Taiwan’s designation to “Taiwan, China”. The protest from Taiwan was impressive, with “an open letter that claimed to have the backing of more than 5,000 students”.

As of today, TOEFL hasn’t changed anything. Honestly, can you blame Taiwanese people if they are becoming fatigued at fighting the same battle, again and again, and nothing happens?

This is a battle that I have watched over the past few years, and I felt I just had to say something.

It boils down to this: challenges to Taiwan's international nomenclature happen as a result of China's push to make people think Taiwan (or the Republic of China, if you prefer that name) is not a legitimate country. That way, if it gets forcibly taken over, there won’t be so much outrage. When I put it that way, it sounds like the mad ravings of an unhinged person. But not a single part of it is disputable.


This went viral more than I thought it would! Thanks to everyone who helped spread it around.

I hope this post actually does some good.

Thank you to all who commented. I published all comments that made sense. I did not publish the “comment” from the person who copied-and-pasted a paragraph about the U.S.’s One China policy. I know what the One China policy is, I do not think it’s relevant to IELTS, and if you think it’s relevant, you need to make that case, but you’re not doing so if you just copy-and-paste a paragraph and you submit it with no added commentary of your own.

Finally, for people who wish to send an email of complaint, the address is globalielts AT ielts DOT org.


Ruby said...

The best piece of article addressing the issue accurately and meaningfully. This should be read by as many people as possible.

Taiwan's voice said...

Dear Brendan,

I/we appreciated deeply for your post. It's so clear and easy to understand, and certainly answered many people's questions.

I used to be so proud about IELTS as well, not now.

I too wrote a protest email to IELTS exam team ( and I will keep sending out more protest emails to British council outside Taiwan (the best is to prepare a template for more ppl to apply). I am very sure their staff in Taiwan has fought for this but not successful. I am thinking about initiating a petition, but I need to think through.

Anyway, I just want to thank you for speak up.
Taiwan welcomes different voices, promote freedome of speech, NOT censorship.

Anonymous said...

I’m Taiwanese and endorse everything in this post. Thanks for amplifying our voices of disgust for this pro PRC oppression.

StrawberryBananaSmoothie said...

Interesting piece. Mostly good but some are questionable. I wouldn't compare Nazi Germany invading Poland to China trying to take over Taiwan because the US already made it clear to the UN and China. To be fair, US has been flexing by sending the Pacific fleet and Nazi Germany was helped by Russia to invade Poland.

At the end of the day, I would still pick "Taiwan, China" option and move on. If I feel extra patriotic, I just might choose "other" and type out Taiwan.

Brendan said...

Oh, Hitler's absolutely not meant to be an exact analogy. He's just the go-to comparison in Westerners' minds when they think of a stronger country militarily taking over a weaker country. He's also still got (almost) universally negative connotations, so to me it's quite natural that Xi Jinping and the rest of the PRC leadership don't want Westerners to think of China/Taiwan in terms of a stronger country threatening a weaker country. (But I think that's absolutely a fair description of what's happening!)

Choosing "other" and typing out Taiwan would be a good solution (and an excellent subtle protest if lots of people do it), but those drop-down menus often don't give you that option.

Incidentally, I hope it doesn't look like I was telling Taiwanese people how I think they should feel about "Taiwan, China" -- that would of course be inappropriate!

Unknown said...

Come on, we r Taiwanese not Chinese.
There r huge differences between us.
Do u think NZ is part of AUS as well?

dMoore said...

I'm really disheartened by organisations rolling over on this issue.
I suggest we poke them to explain their actions and shine some light on who's pulling the strings.
I wrote this brief letter (below). I suggest everyone write similar (or copypasta) and start putting some pressure on them:

I read recently, and see on your website, that this change has been made.
Can you please explain to me how this decision was made?
I suspect there was pressure from higher authorities of the UK, which is why I'm interested more in the 'how' than the 'why', but all info would be enlightening.

best regards"

Unknown said...

I was shock last time while I was taking the Ielts test. There’s only one option which is “Taiwan, China”. I am very disappoint to see that an education organization agree that Taiwan is a part of China. Which history book from UK said that we are a part of mainland of China? It is just ridiculous.

Jeri said...

As an adoptive mom, Id like to tell you it’s making the rounds between us. But me in particular, we’ve adopted from China and from Taiwan and they are most definitely not the same. While I love the people of China and have walked with them, I don’t believe that they feel the need to take over Taiwan. It’s the government. Taiwan is beautiful. The people of both countries are wonderful. But China needs to back off and drop it.