One of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes has been dragged into a diplomatic spat between China and Taiwan after it caved in to pressure from Beijing to change the nationality of a Taiwanese nominee on its website.
The Man Booker International Prize said on Friday that it had changed the nationality of Professor Wu Ming-yi, 46, one of 13 authors on the 2018 longlist, from “Taiwan” to “Taiwan, China” after it had received a complaint from the Chinese embassy in London.
China claims the island democracy as its own territory, which will be eventually be reunited with the mainland – by force if necessary – and Beijing lobbies relentlessly to exclude Taiwan from global forums and undermine its legitimacy as its own nation.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s population of 23 million operate their own government, currency, military and foreign policy and the majority of its citizens identify as Taiwanese.
Professor Wu, who was nominated for this year’s prize for his novel The Stolen Bicycle, a book about the Taiwan’s 20th-century history, counts himself among their numbers.
On Thursday he publicly criticised the decision by the Man Booker Foundation to change his nationality.
“Since the publication of the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International award, my nationality on the webpage has been changed from Taiwan to Taiwan, China, which is not my personal position on this issue,” he wrote on his Facebook page, chalking up over 2,500 likes.
“I will therefore seek assistance in expressing my personal position to the award organisation,” he added.
Earlier this month, the author was hit with a barrage of criticism from China’s nationalist web users when he reportedly posted online that he was “honoured” that his nationality was initially listed as ‘Taiwan.’
“We should join together and ban his books from being sold on the mainland because his stance differs from that of 1.3 billion Chinese people,” said one commentator on China’s Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo.
Another comment added: “It looks like we will have to establish a blacklist of people seeking Taiwan independence to completely eliminate their connection with the mainland.”
Mr Wu’s editor, Lin Hsui-mei, backed his stance, charging that political factors should not be influencing literature behind the scenes, reported Focus Taiwan.
In Taipei, the change also raised the hackles of the Taiwanese government.
The foreign ministry issued its own complaint, declaring the issue a “serious concern” and instructing its representative office in London to demand a “correction.”
Caught in the middle of an international dispute, the Man Booker International Prize on Friday tried to explain its actions.
“We are currently seeking clarification from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the UK’s official position on Taiwan following earlier advice that ‘Taiwan, China’ was the correct, politically neutral form,” said spokesperson, Truda Spruyt.
“We are aware that Wu Ming-yi defines himself as Taiwanese and have kept him informed throughout the process.” Ms Spruyt clarified that the Man Group, which sponsors the prize, and also has business interests in China, was “not involved in the decision.”
On its own website, the Man Group designates Mr Wu’s nationality as “Taiwan.”
However, the controversy follows a recent flurry of complaints by China against internationally-operating companies that list Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries on their websites.
In mid-March, British Airways rebuffed Chinese outrage about listing Taiwan in its drop-down menus, arguing that the practice was in line with “our obligations under international law.”
The BA row followed similar incidents involving US hotel chain Marriott and German car-maker Mercedes Benz.
In January, China shut down Marriott’s local website and mobile phone app after the hotel chain listed Hong Kong and Tibet as countries in an online survey.
An hourly employee in Nebraska, working on the chain’s social media accounts, lost his job when he “liked” a tweet from a separatist group praising the company for listing Tibet as a country.
He said he did so unwittingly, without understanding the situation. Mercedes Benz was forced to apologise for “hurting the feelings” of Chinese people for quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram.
Organisations did not need to capitulate to China’s demands, said Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based lawyer and analyst.
“People from Taiwan have been awarded international prizes simply being identified as ‘Taiwan’ so arguably it’s an overreach when organisations feel compelled to add ‘province of China’,” he said.
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