China’s campaign to have Taiwan renamed as a ‘province of China’ is not limited to foreign businesses. Foreign governments now face growing pressure on this matter, with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently changing the official translation of Taiwan’s name after what it describes as a ‘question from the public.’
On Feb. 28, a short and seemingly irrelevant notice appeared on the website of Skatteverket, Sweden’s central tax authority. From March 2018, the name form “The Republic of China (Taiwan),” it said, would be changed to “Taiwan, province of China.”
A fellow journalist in Sweden immediately contacted Skatteverket to ask how and why this change was being made. Per Skogh, one of the judicial experts at the tax authority, said the name form was altered after the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted it to suggest it follow the international standard of ISO 3166.
When my colleague proceeded to write about this in his newspaper, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused him of misquoting Skogh, even though Skogh had double checked the quotes before publication. I found all this interesting enough to contact both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Skatteverket myself with my own questions. And as I soon discovered, they both wanted to modify the story a little.
After a few days, I received a reply from the press office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It said it had received a “question from the public” in August last year, whereafter the ministry contacted “several Swedish authorities,” including Skatteverket.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs […] said it had received a “question from the public” in August last year, whereafter the ministry contacted “several Swedish authorities,” including Skatteverket.
The Ministry also said that, during its interactions with Skatteverket, it merely helped with “answering questions” the tax authority had had concerning the name form of Taiwan. Later, Skatteverket made its decision “on its own,” it said. The press office underscored how Swedish authorities are allowed to decide by themselves how Taiwan should be translated and titled.
In sum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it only answered questions from Skatteverket, rather than suggesting or recommending it to follow the ISO 3166 international standard of “Taiwan, province of China.”
But, as I explained in an earlier article on Taiwan Sentinel, many countries choose not to use a direct translation of the ISO 3166. Indeed, several English-speaking countries refrain from using the official title themselves. The reason is that many letters and parcels with “Taiwan, province of China” on them have gone missing after being sent to the People’s Republic of China, where the authorities simply refuse to forward them to Taiwan.
Later, Skatteverket got back to me with a different version of the story. This time, it was not the judicial expert, Per Skogh, who contacted me, but instead Maja Fröman, the press secretary of the tax authority. According to her, Skatteverket had — suddenly — received several “indications” from citizens that Taiwan’s name form “failed to comply” with international standards.
Fröman also said that Skatteverket would always contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before making such a change. This suggested that Skatteverket now wanted to alter the original timeline, stating that it first contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than the other way around. After asking specifically about this one more time, Fröman failed to provide a straight answer, instead replying: “We got indications that Swedish citizens had trouble and those indications came from different sources. Citizens contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other authorities and us directly.”
Referring to itself as the source
Fröman didn’t specify what “troubles” Swedish citizens had encountered because of the “Republic of China (Taiwan)” title. However, the issue was also raised in the Swedish parliament, with MPs tabling written questions regarding the name change to the Foreign Minister as well as the Finance Minister.
While the question to the Finance Minister was asked in a way that made it possible for her to avoid commenting on the actual name change, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson gave an interesting answer. Andersson said Skatteverket had changed Taiwan’s name form after “the translation of the ISO-standard had been revised.” She didn’t elaborate on who had made this revision, or why.
So I contacted the Swedish Standard Institute (SIS), which works with the Swedish translations of international ISO-standards. And this is when things got really interesting.
At first, in a short reply SIS referred me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After informing them that I had already contact the Ministry, and again showing the quote from Finance Minister Andersson, the SIS press secretary provided me with a longer explanation.
She stated that when it comes to ISO 3166, the only responsibility of the SIS is to compile a list of foreign country names as part of a newsletter. But where does SIS get the correct titles for its list, I inquired? Answer: From a book issued by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SIS also told me it had never received any notice regarding any name change of Taiwan, let alone changed Taiwan’s name form itself. SIS has, however, noticed the name change in the above mentioned book.
Alas, when the Finance Minister answered the question regarding Skatteverket’s name change in parliament by referring to a “revised translation of the ISO-standard,” she was in fact referring to a revision that had just been made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thus, Taiwan has been turned into a “province of China” by a process that most likely looks something like this:
► The Ministry of Foreign Affairs receives a “question from the public” concerning the name form of Taiwan. (This question is almost certainly springing from the Chinese authorities, which I will explain later.)
► The Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacts the central tax authority — and several other authorities — to suggest a change from “Republic of China (Taiwan)” to “Taiwan, province of China.” (It is also important to note how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in charge of the foreign policy. A clerk at the tax authority, therefore, will most likely adhere to its “recommendations” for the names on other countries.)
► When observed, the name change is explained as a “revised translation” that has just been carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
► The original story, that the name change occurred after a first contact and a suggestion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is altered.
All it took was an alleged “question from the public.” Anyone who wants answers on how and why this happened will be sucked into a never-ending bureaucratic limbo between different government departments in the supposedly open and transparent Swedish government system.
To use my above-mentioned Swedish journalist colleague’s formulation, this name change is a problem because it shows how Sweden is “willingly executing orders from the dictatorship in Beijing.” It’s a well documented fact that China, after Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, has been stepping up its campaign to isolate Taiwan internationally.
This has resulted in Taiwanese authorities and individuals getting barred from organizations and exhibitions in the UN. It has also resulted in several airline companies, hotel chains and others in recent months changing the title of Taiwan on booking sites.
Earlier this month, Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS) became the latest carrier to do so. On the SAS website, Taipei and Kaohsiung are not even said to be located in “Taiwan, province of China” but simply in “China.” If Chinese authorities are contacting and pressuring foreign businesses, it’s highly likely that the same kind of efforts are also being made with foreign governments and authorities.
While the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs can hide conveniently behind “a question from the public,” this could mean anything from a Chinese exchange student to a Chinese embassy official contacting the Swedish authorities as a private person. Indeed, those are familiar tactics applied by Chinese embassies and consulates around the world to put pressure on foreign universities, often via the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA).
While the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs can hide conveniently behind “a question from the public,” this could mean anything from a Chinese exchange student to a Chinese embassy official contacting the Swedish authorities as a private person.
Arguably this is nothing unique to Sweden, but something that is likely happening right now in many countries. We just don’t hear about it. But arguably the sting is even worse in Sweden’s case given the humiliation it has received from the Chinese government in relation to the Gui Minhai case.
The Swedish publisher is once again behind bars, after being snatched from a train by Chinese plainclothes police in January, right under the nose of two Swedish diplomats. And earlier this month, a Swedish doctor travelled to Ningbo, where Gui is being held, but despite earlier promises was denied access to him. On the few occasions that the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has complained officially, it has been meet with veiled threats from the Chinese side.
To follow up this humiliation by helping China to isolate Taiwan sends an utterly wrong signal, not least to the Chinese regime. Perhaps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thought this small change would slip by without attracting any attention. If so, it must have been disappointed.
Taiwan has made a high-level diplomatic protest, especially since it was not consulted nor notified before the change occurred. The affair has also been highlighted in several Swedish, Taiwanese and international media. Moreover, an online petition launched by the Swedish Taiwanese Friendship Association has collected some 15,000 signatures to date.
It is of outmost importance that democratic governments around the world are held accountable when they act behind the scenes to meet the ever more intrusive demands of China to isolate Taiwan. To merely follow Beijing’s orders will increase, rather than decrease, the number and nature of those demands in future.